Policy Studies Alcohol Policy

Alcohol delivery and underage drinking: Data-driven lessons from direct-to-consumer wine shipping


C. Jarrett Dieterle
Resident Senior Fellow, Competition Policy


When it comes to having alcoholic beverages delivered to our doors, America is in a very different place today than it was 24 months ago. As COVID-19 spread across the world, markets were forced to adapt to the delivery economy model that has dominated throughout the pandemic.

Although the sale of most goods could readily be converted from brick-and-mortar purchases to doorstep shipping, alcohol was a notable exception. Many states still prohibited liquor stores, grocery stores and alcohol producers from delivering alcohol locally to consumers’ homes, and nearly every state prohibited restaurants and bars from selling alcohol “to-go” or via delivery. And while wineries were able to ship their bottles to customers in most states, distilleries and breweries were largely barred from the direct-to-consumer (DtC) shipping market.

The COVID-19 effect on alcohol delivery and shipping has been both broad and deep. As of last fall, the vast majority of states had passed at least some type of alcohol delivery reform, if not multiple reforms. In fact, many states are still actively considering alcohol delivery legislation or planning to do so in the years ahead.

As alcohol delivery has taken off, pushback has emerged. Although much of the pushback can be attributed to protectionist impulses by industry stakeholders, some of the concern stems from health and safety concerns like underage drinking and driving under the influence. As more lawmakers across the country consider the future of alcohol delivery in their states, it is important to understand these concerns and engage in data-driven investigations of their legitimacy.

Despite some opponents of alcohol delivery portraying underage sales as an especially prevalent problem in the delivery context, the reality is that any point of sale is a potential opportunity for underage individuals to access alcohol. Many Americans wistfully recall tales of college beer runs to the local gas station where clerks never checked IDs—a phenomenon validated by noncompliance data. Consider recent data from undercover operations in New York, which found failure rates that mirrored the 1 in 5 failure rate in California’s study of restaurant employee alcohol deliveries. This underscores the fact that the application and consistent use of proper ID-checking protocols by those who sell alcohol to consumers matters more than the type of sale—for example, delivery versus brick-and-mortar.

Unfortunately, the debate of alcohol delivery and underage access has largely been relegated to the land of anecdote. As policymakers continue to grapple with alcohol delivery reforms in the years ahead, more empirical evidence is needed to evaluate underage alcohol access in the delivery context. One overlooked possibility for engaging in such an analysis is the longest-existing form of alcohol delivery in America: DtC wine shipping. The experience of the DtC wine market provides a historical data trail that can inform our country’s current debates of alcohol delivery and underage sales.

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