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Barfly: Alcohol joins Honolulu’s to-go culture due to COVID-19

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  • At Square Barrels, takeout customers can pick up a burger, plus an opened, but resealed, bottle of wine or liquor to go with it.

    At Square Barrels, takeout customers can pick up a burger, plus an opened, but resealed, bottle of wine or liquor to go with it.

                                Waikiki Brewing Co. offers cases of beer for $24 each at its Queen St. location.


    Waikiki Brewing Co. offers cases of beer for $24 each at its Queen St. location.

It’s been said that one of the few bright spots during an economic downturn is the beverage industry. When things get bad, there’s always a friendly face waiting with a cold one.

But with the coronavirus pandemic preventing any type of sit-down dining or drinking, period, the only way we can enjoy that pau hana cocktail or glass of wine these days is to drink at home.

What I love about Honolulu’s bar scene is the resilience of some establishments that have clawed and scratched their way to stay open despite the threat of COVID-19. That also keeps people employed on the distribution side of things. And it’s all thanks to a handful of state laws that allow to-go sales of alcohol.

ACCORDING TO guidance posted on the Honolulu Liquor Commission’s website, businesses with certain types of liquor licenses are allowed to continue operating.

As long as a bar or restaurant is using its kitchen to prepare to-go meals for customers — considered an essential service — those businesses may also “permit the removal of any unconsumed portion of wine, liquor or beer that was ordered for consumption with a meal, provided the product is recorked or resealed in the original container.”

In other words, as long as you’re also picking up something to eat, your favorite watering hole should still be able to sell you an opened bottle to take home.

“We were able to turn this place into a pseudo-liquor store in a matter of days,” said Square Barrels co-owner Thomas Ray. “A lot of other bars … they don’t have the back stock like we do. Some bars can’t afford to have that much inventory, where we could do that, and it’s helped us shift gears.”

Downtown Honolulu, like so many other areas of Oahu, is seeing a mere fraction of its regular foot traffic on any given day. But Square Barrels is keeping its doors open at Bishop Square. After nearly all its staff had to be let go, three employees remain, continuing to serve a full menu of burgers, plus a variety of salads, pastas, sandwiches… and bottles of liquor and wine.

They’ve also set up take-home cocktail kits, complete with recipes provided by their now-out-of-work bartenders.

“I mean, this isn’t about me,” said Ray. “I don’t have a salary.”

Hours have been extended since the stay-at-home order was issued, he said, and as long as the operation is able to cover payroll, he may be able to rehire some of his staff.

Sure, buying booze this way will end up more expensive than going to a supermarket, but keep in mind some of these bars are in imminent danger of closing for good. It sounds counterintuitive, but unless we open our wallets and spend on our favorites in spite of the economic uncertainty, what is certain is that many of these businesses won’t reopen when this is all over.

>> RELATED STORY: Take happy hour home with this list of to-go drink offerings

SOME OAHU breweries have also been able to keep the doors open with to-go sales, including Tap and Barrel by Lanikai Brewing Co. in Kailua, Kona Brewing Co.’s Koko Marina Pub in Hawaii Kai and Waikiki Brewing Co.’s Queen Street location.

On the windward side, Lanikai Brewing continues to offer a 19% discount on all to-go bottles and new growler fills, with growlers priced at $10. Own a kegerator? Full kegs are for sale, too; email for details.

Kona Brewing offers a 15% kama­aina discount on all orders, plus happy hour pricing on growler fills every Tuesday if you wear a KBC-branded shirt or hat. What I also appreciate is they’ll sanitize and fill your growler, too. Call 396-5662.

And while Waikiki Brewing still has a full lineup of BBQ classics to take home, the kitchen in Kakaako is retooling to offer more plate lunches. Which is even more of a reason to come back, although I think most people are showing up to grab cases of WBC beer for $24 each. Manager Adam Golish says the Kakaako brewpub typically sells around 80 cases of beer a day, with a recent one-day high of 170 cases.

“One of the most uplifting things about this is the people that I see that I know. … The regulars. The ones that I know by name,” he said. “And they’re coming, not necessarily because it’s $1 a beer, and not because they need beer. They’re coming to support. They’re coming to add money to the tip pool (that goes to out-of-work employees), they’re coming because they miss the staff and they want to relay messages. I mean, it’s been really nice. It’s restored a lot of my faith in the general public.”

AND A number of local distilleries are doing their part to help boost production of hand sanitizer for use by first-responders and the medical community.

Unless you’re a police officer, firefighter, EMT or hospital worker, there’s a good chance you’ll never see a bottle of sanitizer produced by Kailua’s Ko’olau Distillery, Kalihi’s RHS Distillery, or Kunia’s Ko Hana Distillers. Still, kudos to them for helping out.

WITH UNEMPLOYMENT skyrocketing and no immediate end to the coronavirus crisis in sight, please don’t forget about the bar scene when deciding where to spend your dining, and in turn drinking, dollars.

And while the state’s recorking laws do allow for resealed containers to be taken home, open container laws don’t allow for those containers to be transported in the passenger compartment of a vehicle. So be sure to lock that hooch in your trunk before heading out!

Jason Genegabus has written about the local bar and drink scenes since 2001. Follow him on Instagram at @honolulupulse or email

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