As we continue to wait for the results of the presidential election, many of us are turning to those few, constant human needs: company, carbs, and a stiff drink. With election night turning into election week, Slate spoke to Kiki Litchfield, a veteran bartender who co-founded the Austin Shaker, a chain of liquor stores based in Austin, Texas. Litchfield described the current vibe in her stores, recalled how customers reacted to Trump’s victory four years ago, and revealed what alcohol Texans stocked up on for Election Day.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: Tell me about how this Tuesday compared with Election Day four years ago.
Kiki Litchfield: It’s funny because four years ago, [election night] was like a Friday or Saturday night. People were buying a lot on the Tuesday. Then Wednesday was depressing because there were a lot of people crying in line. It was this weird, dark day. The weather was crappy and it just felt like a ghost town, which was weird.
Yesterday, we were busy, but people bought a lot more champagne, thinking that they were going to celebrate, if not last night then today or whenever we found what was happening. I don’t talk politics in my store. I was brought up in the bartending world and there are things you just don’t talk about, as far as politics, religion, and money. I don’t ever get involved with talking to people about what their political views [are], so I don’t know if they were celebrating one side or the other. But people seemed like they were going to be celebrating.
Would you say it was busier than an average Tuesday?
Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. Yesterday was as busy as our stores at Halloween.
Were you expecting that?
We didn’t have extra staff, but I definitely made sure that everyone knew that we expected it to be busy. It’s a liquor store. People drink when they’re happy. They drink when they’re sad. We made sure that all of the employees were prepared for it to be busier than a Tuesday would normally be and that everyone was reading the crowd.
At one of our stores, we had a gentleman outside that was causing a scene about having to wear a mask. That was the only incident, but tensions run high on election nights, so we were just making sure that everybody was cool. Everybody’s kind of on edge—no matter which way you’re wanting things to go, it’s still uncertain. I think even at the grocery store, tensions run high on election night. We luckily aren’t typically dealing with people who have already [started drinking]. We’re dealing with people before they’re drinking, so we at least don’t have to deal with that. That can get dicey. Here you can just see it on peoples’ faces, they’re worried.
What would you say the general vibe was like today, as we’re waiting for the results, compared with yesterday when people were still voting?
Today’s been a lot slower. It’s interesting, yesterday there were people coming in all day long and we also offered 10 percent off purchases if you had an “I Voted” sticker. Today just hasn’t been as busy across the board. It’s not like four years ago. Four years ago, the day after the election was remarkably busy because we knew the results. It seems like people are just in limbo today and don’t know which way to think so it hasn’t been as busy as it was four years ago, for sure, the day after the election.
We saw a lot of people that were really distraught after the election four years ago. My husband said four years ago people were coming in all day with tear-stained faces and we haven’t seen that today, four years later. But today just seems like an anxious vibe, everybody feels very anxious.
Are people buying any particular types of alcohol?
I was real surprised yesterday when people were buying a lot of champagne. I thought that was interesting, but I would say it wasn’t like when the pandemic started and people started just buying cases of booze. It wasn’t panic-buying. It was probably more stress-buying.
Do you see a difference between stress-buying and happy-buying, other than champagne?
I guess yes and no. We have a different store setup anyway, so people who are shopping at our stores are buying really eclectic, really weirdo liquors. When people want comfort liquors, they’ll go back to whatever they drink on a normal basis. A lot of times when people are stress-buying, they’ll be like, “Yes, I’m just going to buy the handle of Bulleit and that’s fine and I don’t want to talk about what other kinds of bourbon I could be drinking.”
That was the same when the pandemic started, we saw a lot of people that normally would be like, “Oh I want to try something new” just forgoing that and going straight for what they know they like and they know is going to be what they expect.
What it was it like at the beginning of the pandemic?
Before the state of Texas let anybody know if liquor stores would be included in essential businesses, I feel like people were shopping at the liquor store like they were at Costco. Once the state of Texas did say that liquor stores were included in essential businesses, that went back down. For that week when we knew things were getting closed down and we didn’t know exactly what they were going to categorize liquor stores as, people were absolutely stocking up on liquor like they would toilet paper.
The two necessities for a pandemic.
I mean, I don’t know what else you’re going to do.
Do you expect things will get busier when the results are called?
I don’t know. Maybe? Aside from the Gore-Bush when Florida had to do a recount—I was young then, so as an adult I’ve never lived through an election that we didn’t find out the results. It’s kind of uncharted territory for me. I don’t know if this weekend is going to be nuts. I can tell you after the results come in—I’m 42 and so the elections I’ve been an adult for have never come down to this, so I have no idea. We opened five years ago, so we had only been open a year when the election happened.
Since that was your first election as the owner of a liquor store, were you surprised by the volume of people?
Yes and no. I was a bartender for 20 years before I opened a liquor store, so I’ve seen people in the bar drinking during an election and know that’s a comfort food for them, almost. I always think during big times like that, people who do enjoy drinking, that that’s what they’re going to do.