Rising spirits

Bartender Christine Cleary mixes liquor cocktails at Tomatoe’s in Margate. Most area bars report an increase in liquor sales.

Brittany Cleveland, of Pleasantville, likes to relax and unwind after a long week working as a supervisor at Qua Bath and Spa in Caesars Atlantic City.

Cleveland, 27, will head out with her girlfriends on a Friday night at least a couple of times per month to Chelsea Pub in Atlantic City where bartender Michael Powell will mix her an amaretto sour or a Jack Daniels and Coke. She has been working at the casino since 2008 and visiting Chelsea Pub since 2009.

A round of pool playing is part of Cleveland's ritual for the night, along with a few drinks.

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"I've been going out more. I will buy a drink, or two, or three," said Cleveland, who added she has been partying more outside of her home now compared to 2008 or 2009. "I love wine, but I switched from wine to liquor lately, in 2011."

As economic indicators go, alcohol sales might not be scientific, but those in the know say when people such as Cleveland feel more financially secure, they tend to order the good stuff.

And as the country emerges from the worst economic recession in recent history, distilled spirits makers are seeing people spending more money on their products nationwide. Suppliers saw year-over-year volume growth of 2.7 percent to 195.8 million 9-liter cases, and sales growth of approximately 4 percent to $19.9 billion from 2010 to 2011, reflecting a consumer return to premium products, the Distilled Spirits Council reported.

In this state, spirits consumed grew from 12.3 million gallons in 2001 to 15.7 million gallons last year, the Distilled Spirits Council said.

"While the economy is still fragile, consumers are beginning to feel a little more secure about their own economic situation, and they are returning to their favorite super premium spirits products," said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council. "Spirits are viewed as simple pleasures and affordable luxuries compared to other types of luxury products."

Cleveland said she's been drinking more liquor because she discovered a new favorite adult beverage this year.

Kinky Liqueur from the Crosby Lakes Spirits Company in Minnesota is a super premium vodka, which is distilled five times with mango, blood orange liqueur and passion fruit. Cleveland drinks it on the rocks. She used to drink tequila before she discovered Kinky Liqueur.

Blanca Diaz, 47, of Vineland, wasn't much of a drinker until this year. Diaz started seeing a new man about eight months ago. They spend time together about once a month. When the are out, she usually drinks Hennessy cognac and coke.

"I can drink it and I can get a little buzz going, but for some reason, I don't get sick when I drink it. I like how I feel when I drink it. I've never had a hangover the next day," Diaz said.

Eighty percent of alcoholic beverage sales are liquor with 90 percent of that being vodka at Red Square in The Quarter at the Tropicana Casino and Resort, said Joe Massari, Red Square's general manager.

Red Square's sale of liquor increased last year compared to 2010, Massari said.

"The variety of vodkas throughout the years has increased, so therefore, curiosity has and the salesmanship has also," said Massari, who added his premium bottle vodka sales have been steady, but his cocktails sales have risen.

Massari does believe his recent improved sales is a sign of a stronger economy.

"When there is more disposable income, (consumers) tend to lean towards something that they feel is worth it, and therefore, they want to experience as much bang for the money as they can," Massari said.

At Marie Nicole's in Wildwood Crest, more liquor was sold last year than compared to 2010, said owner Jim Barnabei.

"I just think that people are starting to adjust to the economy. They are adjusting to what's going on. They were not as scared as they were. People, who have jobs, are keeping their jobs," Barnabei said. "They might not be making as much money, but now, I think they cut back long enough. Now, they are feeling, 'OK, I've been working hard. Let me go out and enjoy myself."

At Marie Nicole's, people are into martinis, Manhattans and other cocktails, Barnabei said.

Liquor sales may be increasing, but just having spirits in an establishment is not enough to make people to buy them, said Justin Mogavero, general manager of The Virginia hotel in Cape May, which includes the Ebbitt Room restaurant.

Restaurants and bars wanting to capitalize on those increased sales need to adjust their focus and offerings.

The Ebbitt Room was renovated and reimagined. Its bar was built out and made bigger, Mogavero said.

"From last year to this year, we're seeing a big increase in our liquor sales," Mogavero said. "I think the places that are doing more of a liquor business are probably seeing a better turnout. However, I think the places that are actually doing something fun and inventive with their liquor, like we are, are probably seeing the best return out of it."

By bringing in newer brands of spirits her customers like, Karen Sherman-Rone, owner of Tomatoe's in Margate, has kept her restaurant as one of the places in southern New Jersey liquor drinkers have supported during the last dozen years.

Liquor sales remained strong at Tomatoe's even during the economic downturn, Sherman said. Liquor comprises 80 percent of Tomatoe's alcohol sales.

"If I have seen an effect of the recession, it's that people are more inclined to take advantage of specials and happy-hour specials," said Sherman, who added Tomatoe's functions as more of a bar compared to most of the restaurants in the surrounding area. "They don't want to deny themselves their cocktails."

The increase in liquor sales is not just impacting bars and restaurants. Some liquor stores also are seeing gains.

People are buying more premium brands than they were a few years ago, said Adam Stromfeld, one of the partners of two Joe Canal's liquor stores in Egg Harbor Township. As a percentage of sales, they have increased in his store, Stromfeld said.

"Could it be because of the improving economy? Sure. Could it be because people have more income? Yeah, of course. Could it be because people are not as fearful now as before? Sure," said Stromfeld, who added another factor also could be the rise in the number of premium liquor brands that exist.

Liquor sales have been better at Allstar Liquors in Atlantic City at the beginning of this year versus the start of last year or 2010, said co-owner Vishee Mandahar.

"We do sell a lot of high-end liquor, but that's on the weekends to out-of-towners ... people who stay in hotels," said Mandahar, who added the premium liquors he sells the most is Ciroc vodka and Hennessy cognac. "We sell out. We go out of stock. There are people who still buy Hennessy and Ciroc on a daily basis."

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