PAWTUCKET, R.I. — If you’re planning on cranberry mules, endless bottles of cabernet sauvignon, or scotch on the rocks this holiday season, you might want to start stocking up on your favorites.
There’s been a gridlock at the Port of Los Angeles, which handles 40 percent of container traffic into the United States, and where shipping containers holding alcoholic products and products that are used for alcohol production have been at a standstill.
At the end of October, President Joe Biden announced that the port would move to round-the-clock operations. But even so, some states are facing serious alcohol shortages, with lines forming outside of liquor stores and little inventory left on the shelves.
The shortage has reportedly hit states like Ohio, New Jersey, Vermont, and Texas. The Pennsylvania state board in charge of consumer liquor sales even limited consumers to two bottles of 42 different alcoholic products — like Hennessy cognac, Moët & Chandon champagne, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and Patrón tequila — per day.
And industry leaders say Rhode Island is next.
“We’re literally bottling on demand. We just don’t have any flexibility right now,” said Cathy Plourde, a co-owner for Rhode Island Spirits, which is the Pawtucket-based company that owns the “Rhodium” brands of Forager’s botanical gin, charcoal-filtered vodka made from 100 percent corn spirits, and bright Grapefruitcello with peels of fresh pink grapefruit. They marked their one -year anniversary last March by having to shut down because of the pandemic. “We’ve just had our own set of ‘oh my gods’ for the last year-and-a-half.”
It’s not as if they don’t have the ingredients to make spirits — it’s the bottles that they are running short on. They said they are constantly counting how many are left at their distillery after fulfilling an order.
The lack of glass bottles is an issue they’ve been facing for months. In October, they received just half of the order they placed in June.
When asked if they’ve received any updates, co-owner Kara Larson said, “I mean, how often are you allowed to call your bottle broker each day? We’ve been fighting the bottle war for a year now.”
When they initially closed their doors, they kept their staff busy and overproduced, so they could have a lot of inventory. It ended up working out in their favor, but when the glass shortage started to affect US distilleries, they said it was “game over.”
Large manufacturers overseas that produce the glass bottles started to feel the pressure months ago, when restaurants and bars reopened. That put pressure on the less-staffed, American production lines. And the problem is compounded by shipping delays due to staffing shortages, said Linda Pettine, a beverage operations and mixology professor at Johnson & Wales University.
“These craft distilleries are placing their orders often, but just aren’t getting the shipment,” said Pettine. As for the consumers, “You’re going to have to shop early, often, and visit a variety of stores. And be flexible.”
The Industrious Spirit Company, or ISCO, which is Providence’s first distillery since Prohibition, doesn’t buy any alcohol that other companies make for their spirits. So they’ve shortened their supply chain, and work with local farms from New England and New York.
But when it came to the materials to actually bottle the booze, co-owner and co-founder Manya Rubinstein said she was forced to look outside of Rhode Island for manufacturing companies that made the bottles and closures, which she now has to change or else they won’t be able to sell their liquor.
“Sometimes I wish we weren’t part of a global supply chain,” she said.
And this is all coming during one of the most important times of the year for companies: the winter holidays.
“We really want to take advantage of the holiday market. We want to at least get our bourbons and ryes on shelves,” said Alan Brinton, co-owner of South County Distillers, which is the sister company of Grey Sail Brewing in Westerly. “If you miss out on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, you’re now in Sober January.”
Federal regulations don’t allow these distilleries to just find another glass bottle to pour their booze into. Plus, even if regulations were to relax, every distillery would have to reorder and restock on each of their labels that have the proper measurements in fluid ounces or milliliters.
“And all the labels have a very long lead time. It’s reducing our options,” said Brinton, whose can distributor for the brewery told him, without warning, that they wouldn’t be taking orders for a while — and didn’t know when they will be able to start again.
At Rhode Island Spirits in Pawtucket, Larson and Plourde said some loyal customers have offered to return used glass bottles to help them continue with production.
“It’s a nice thought,” they said. “But between removing the labels and sanitizing the bottles, the cost just doesn’t make sense.”
“We’ll get through the holidays,” said Larson. “But if we don’t get some bottles in four months, that’s when I’m really going to start panicking.”