Not a surprise: Liquor sales were up in Iowa during 2020

By: - December 11, 2020 1:26 pm

With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds still faces a court challenge questioning her right to impose limits on business activity during a pandemic.(Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

In perhaps another indication of how 2020 has been a year most people want to forget, Iowans spent a record amount of money on liquor this past year.

The increase came during the 2020 state fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2019, through the end of June this year — a period that includes the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in stores, bars and taverns operating under tight restrictions.

Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, total liquor sales in Iowa during the 2020 fiscal year were $367.3 million, an increase of 8.2% over the previous year, according to the new annual report from the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

In addition to the increase in money spent on liquor, 2020 also saw a significant increase in the amount of liquor sold. Bottles sold in 2020 totaled 28.2 million — up from 25.9 million the previous year. Consumption also was up when measured by cases sold: 2.2 million in 2020, compared to 2.1 million in 2019.

Because the tax revenue from beer and wine sales were included in the governor’s proclamations that deferred the payment of certain taxes, the 2020 report shows a 30% decrease in beer and wine taxes collected. A complete, accurate accounting of beer and wine sales during the 2020 fiscal year isn’t likely to be available until next spring.

The top 10 categories of liquor sales in 2020, by volume, were, in order: American vodka, Canadian whiskies, spiced rum, straight bourbon whiskies, cocktails, whiskey liqueur, imported vodka, blended whiskies, American flavored vodka and white rum.

The report shows that Black Velvet, Tito’s and Captain Morgan remained the top-selling brands in their respective categories. Blue Ox Vodka was the top selling Iowa-made spirit, according to the report.

“This report demonstrates that ABD continues to provide a significant return on investment to the citizens of Iowa,” said ABD Administrator Stephen Larson. “Despite the challenging times during the pandemic, the citizen-owned distribution model generated over $133 million that will be used by the legislature for programs that benefit all Iowans, regardless of whether they choose to consume alcohol.”

During the pandemic, ABD was able to use its distribution system to deliver important supplies such as hand sanitizer and masks to state agencies and charitable organizations across the state.

During the 2020 fiscal year, ABD issued nearly 17,000 alcohol licenses, permits and certificates for a total of $17.6 million in revenue — a decrease from 2019, which ABD attributed to COVID-19 mitigation measures. Additionally, the deferment of taxes and fees resulted in decreases in license and tax revenue. However, the decrease in revenue was minimal compared to the increase in liquor sales, which significantly offset the lost fee revenue.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and protecting the health, safety, and welfare of Iowans has been, and will remain, the focus of the work we do,” said Josh Happe, bureau chief of ABD’s Regulatory Compliance Bureau.

The division said it collected more than $100,000 last year as a result of “compliance initiatives” — financial penalties — associated with licensees who were operating in violation of state alcohol laws.

This year marked the first full fiscal year of ABD’s partnership with Ruan Corp. “Partnering with Ruan for our distribution services allows the Business Operations Bureau to focus on one of its core objectives, providing a more diverse offering of products through category management,” said Herbert H. Sutton Jr., ABD’s chief operations officer.

The top 10 brands of liquor, ranked by the number of gallons sold in Iowa during 2020, were:

  1. Black Velvet Canadian Whiskey: 402,541 gallons
  2. Tito’s Handmade Vodka: 289,097 gallons
  3. Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum: 246,196 gallons
  4. Hawkeye Vodka: 236,985 gallons
  5. Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey: 231,631 gallons
  6. Five O’ Clock Vodka: 124,284 gallons
  7. McCormick Vodka: 121,027 gallons
  8. Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey: 96,797 gallons
  9. Smirnoff Vodka: 96,394 gallons
  10. Jack Daniels’ Old No. 7 Black Label Tennessee Whiskey: 94,555 gallons

The division’s full annual report can be accessed online at

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.