Washington area liquor and beer connoisseurs are rushing to buy, so they can drink and be merry, before federal excise taxes and prices go up Jan. 1.

Congress voted to increase the federal excise taxes on beer, wine, liquor and cigarettes as part of this fall's budget package, and most suppliers have tacked on price increases as well, raising the prices of some brands of Scotch, for example, as much as $3 on a 1.75-liter bottle.

Retailers said their more affluent customers are stocking up on extra and bigger bottles of liquor and wine in an effort to beat the increases.

Vienna resident John Booze ("With a last name of Booze, someone has to live up to it," he says) said he drove into the District to buy Bailey's Irish Cream, amaretto and several other items at Pearson's Liquor & Wine on Wisconsin Avenue NW.

"I'm probably buying 50 percent more than I'd buy ordinarily" because of the tax, he said.

But many Washington area residents haven't jumped on the bandwagon, because they have neither the money nor the need for extra alcohol.

"I guess it depends where you are," said Leslie Lupo, owner of Lupo's Liquors in Laurel. The affluent "are the ones that are buying. The one thing you got to understand with the economy, the way it is today, you have to have money to buy that extra. You have to have money to lay out that dollar."

The actual federal tax increase is small, 16 cents on a six-pack of beer and 18 cents on a bottle of wine. Taxes on liquor vary by volume and proof, said Kris Meldrum, of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The increase on a 750-milliliter bottle of 80 proof liquor is 16 cents, for example, and 42 cents on a 1.75-liter bottle of 90 proof liquor.

But importers have increased prices to make up for the falling value of the dollar overseas, and wholesalers and retailers have added something extra to prices for themselves.

"When the tax goes in, everybody gets a shot," said George Kramer, vice chairman of the Milton S. Kronheim liquor wholesaling firm.

Area retailers said this week that consumers are likely to pay increases of at least twice the federal tax for wine, beer and spirits after Tuesday, once distributors establish their 1991 prices and retailers add their profit.

Owners of discount liquor stores in the District and Maryland, which profit through a high volume of lower-priced sales, have made special efforts to make their customers aware of the increases to boost their sales.

"Tax Evasion??" reads a newspaper advertisement for Calvert Woodley Discount Wines and Liquors in the District. The owners of Rivertowne Liquors in Oxon Hill have put "before" and "after" price tags on selected bottles. Some advertisements are promising savings of $6 and more on sale items.

In Virginia and Montgomery County, government-owned stores are the only purveyors of hard liquor, and they have not turned to newspaper ads about the price increase.

"Basically, I got signs all over the store advertising the price increase. I advise customers to buy now," said Eddie Ofori, manager of Shop Rite, in Takoma Park. "When they come into the store for the Christmas holiday and they see the price increase, and that sends them into another frenzy and they buy a whole lot."

Many store owners are counting on a pre-tax rush to supplement an otherwise slow season.

"Business is not as good as it was last year," said Steve Silver, owner of Pearson's, which is running ads threatening "huge" price increases. "We wanted to catch as many people's attention on the tax increase and make up some of our losses."

Liquor consumption has dropped steadily nationwide over the past decade, said Janet Flynn, spokeswoman for the Distilled Liquor Council. Americans purchased 1.5 gallons of distilled spirits per capita in 1989. Even the District, which ranked ahead of all states in 1988, dropped to third last year, with 3.64 gallons a person.

"People are giving away turkeys and ham-and-cheese platters instead of liquor" as holiday gifts, said Stuart Weinstein, co-owner of Sammy's Liquor on Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington.

The federal tax increase also has thrown many liquor store owners into a tizzy because they have to pay a tax on every bottle they have in stock on Tuesday.

Ordinarily, the manufacturer (or importer for foreign-made alcohol) pays all excise taxes when the liquor or beer is made. But retailers and wholesalers will have to make up the difference between the old and the new taxes when the increases go into effect. Federal officials estimate the floor tax will raise $300 million.

"If a wholesaler says, 'Hey, we've got 25 cases, here's a special deal,' I'm afraid to buy it," said Aaron Bernstein, co-owner of Calvert Woodley, which sells $10 million of liquor a year. "It's the kind of problem retailers should not have this time of year."

By contrast, Weinstein said he has stocked the basement of Sammy's to the brim. "If I buy it now and my competitor buys it January 1, I've already bought it $2 cheaper, so I can sell it for what he bought it for," he said.

"I think {retailers} are totally confused," said liquor wholesaler Kramer. "If you don't have the goods, you're not going to sell them. If you do have the goods, you're going to be stuck with them."

Most customers, meanwhile, are letting the debate sail over their heads.

"We're not buying the extra bottle because of the tax increase," said LaShon Betancourt, who was shopping for a party at B.K. Miller's Super Liquor in Clinton. "I thought about it, but we don't really drink except special occasions." Staff writer Robert F. Howe contributed to this report.

------- INCREASES EFFECTIVE JAN. 1 ---------

Beverage..........................Quantity..........Tax Increase

Beer (six-pack)................12-oz. bottles or cans...16 cents

Wine ..........................750-milliliter bottle....18 cents

40 proof distilled spirits.....750 milliliter........... 8 cents

80 proof distilled spirits.....750 milliliter...........16 cents

90 proof distilled spirits.....750 milliliter...........18 cents

40 proof distilled spirits.....1.75 liter...............19 cents

80 proof distilled spirits.....1.75 liter...............37 cents

90 proof distilled spirits.....1.75 liter...............42 cents

Champagne is exempt.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms