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Understanding Bewildering US State Liquor Laws


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I was down at Joyal's today stocking up on a few things that I can't get up in Providence, and I happened to spy a bottle of 12 year old Montecristo dark rum -- the first Montecristo rum I've seen in RI. I got quickly excited, not for that rum but for another. When I had been in NYC and stopped at Astor a while back, a pal stuck a bottle of their Premium Blend white rum in my cart, and I found it was a great mixer when I got it back home.

So, given that one Montecristo rum was on the shelf, I figured that the other could be had. Makes sense, right? Alas, when asking the shopkeeper about it, he told me that only that 12 year Montecristo was available in RI; the other was not.

Today's experience prompts me to ask if anyone can understand, in broad strokes, the ways that state laws regulate access to liquor down to these astonishingly picayune and bewildering levels. I can certainly accept that there's a perverse logic behind these statutes -- and also that there is no logic at all -- but I'm having a hard time even comprehending the basics here.

Can any one enlighten? Why can't you just get any bottle of X in state Y?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Most times I don't think it is the state itself that is making those picayune decisions (except in monopoly states like PA and WA). IT is the state that says that only licensed importers/wholesalers can sell to licensed distributors who can sell to licensed shops who can sell to you. Then they make it difficult enough to get and keep those wholesaling and distributing licenses that only a few large businesses can do it. And in states with inconvenient labeling or bottle size or other regulations, those large businesses are not interested in quality of the product they sell. They're interested in the volume and profit margin and things that don't cost them extra. And something that is not deemed fast enough moving won't find itself clogging up shelf space.

So it is the guv'ment's fault that the sad state of the booze market is as it is. But not directly. It is oligopolistic capitalism supported by bureaucratic regulations that you can blame it on.

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Chris,

I feel your pain, for sure. About the only thing to do in our area (I'm just north of Boston) is cross state lines. At least you live in a small state, so the state lines are close. :-)

I'm always searching for good rums, and often make "rum runs" to check out liquor stores that advertise a decent rum selection. I have been trying to keep track of what stores have various notable brands, or at least if they have a good selection. This summer I plan on hitting many stores in Connecticut, since I can't find much agricole or cachaca in Massachusetts. 4 brands that I am looking for aren't distributed in Mass, but are available (somewhere) in CT.

I have to say that I have only seen the 12-year-old Montecristo in my runs, but if I ever spot it I'll let you know.

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In some ways that makes sense, but in others it still lacks. Why one kind of Montecristo and not another? Why allow a few hundred single malt scotches but only a handful of rums?

In the eyes of your state's oligopoly, Single Malts are hot. They have cachet. And they make the $$$ flash in the eyes of retailers, who pay the distributors for lots and lots of different varieties that may or may not sit on the shelves. Even when they do sit on the shelves, they are perceived to telegraph class to the incoming customers. Rums less so. They're not the purview of dead-white-folks who favor kilts and bagpipes and don't conjure up the same fancy thoughts in the minds of folks who spot them on the shelves.

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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cdh makes great points.

I would imagine it is an uphill battle to get any white rum onto the shelves, no matter how great the product is.

Where single malts Scotches and expensive Bourbons have a built in cache, convincing a retailer to carry white rums other than Bacardi, has got to be tough. Especially when they are probably going to cost about twice as much.

At least Rhum Agricole has some selling point to differentiate it, and Cachaca has a bit of buzz.

I know the Montecristo silver is available here, as some bars stock it. I've never seen it at retail, though.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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I've gained some small amount of insight into this through my participation in the efforts to get Laird's bonded into NYC. Chris sums it up pretty well: The wholesaler/importers and distributors are protected by state laws, and they do hat they want to do. They're interested in making lots of money, and if they could make the same profit by bringing in one brand each of vodka, gin, etc. instead of 20, that's what they would do. I have to believe that distributors are not in the business because they "have a mission in life to bring as broad a variety as possible of quality spirits to the public."

What does this mean? I have been given to understand that, in NY at least, it is against the law for a store to sell or a bar to serve any alcoholic beverage that is not on the "list" of one of the distributors licensed by New York State. So, that's one hurdle: just getting on someone's list. There's no going over to a New Jersey wholesaler and coming back with a dozen cases of an unavailable-in-NY spirit to sell in NY.

From what I have been able to gather, distributors will often reach agreements with large holding companies (e.g., Diageo) or producers whereby all or most of that company's portfolio will be added to the distributor's list for a given state or states. I can only imagine that it's a lot more work for smaller companies to get on a distributor's list. I don't know what kinds of hoops LeNell has to jump through in order to sell her private bottling Red Hook Rye.

The next hurdle is convincing the distributor to actually bring the product in to their warehouse. As others have mentioned, they have to be convinced that there is money to be made by stocking the product -- or that there are other enticements (e.g., maintaining a good relationship with a certain company. etc.). I am aware of certain bottlings that have ultimately found their way into NY because influential bar people and liquor stores kept on asking the company to make certain of their offerings available in NY, the company contacted the distributor to say "we have people in NY who want this offering, which is on your list, and we would like you to stock some of it in NY," and then there was a concerted effort among certain bars and liquor shops to make sure they kept on ordering and using the product to make sure it continued to be stocked. But it took a long time to make this happen.

Erik, with respect to Montecristo silver, you're looking at the third hurdle: getting stores to stock the liquor once it's made its way onto the list and into the warehouse. For example, bars in NYC have historically had little trouble getting in Marie Brizard orange curacao. But it was worth your life to find it in a retail store (it still is very hard to find at retail). For a white rum, it's unclear that a liquor store has a great deal of motivation to bring in Montecristo when Bacardi, the industry leader, can be had for very little.

--

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Chris,

good thing you don't live in Minnesota. State law states that liquor stores can not be open on Sunday at all. Also, beer and wine can not be purchased in a grocery store. I'm not much of a drinker, but it is frustrating when I'm making a recipe on Sunday and need a bottle of something and can't get it and end up buying that ubiqitous oversalted "cooking wine" that is sold in the grocery. Additionally, for Asian cooking, there is no way to get Shao Hsing rice wine of any quality as liquor stores don't carry it at all.

Another strange law here is that you can't buy a car on Sunday. Go figure...

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For example, bars in NYC have historically had little trouble getting in Marie Brizard orange curacao.  But it was worth your life to find it in a retail store (it still is very hard to find at retail).

So I take it then that bars can buy directly from distributors? Here in Texas we are able to somehow buy wine from distributors but spirits must come from a package store. Translation: if the liquor store won't carry it, neither can you. And it's hard to make them care about a sale of 2-3 bottles of Brizzard Curacao when they sell 3-4 cases a week of vodka alone to each of the huge dance halls and bars you find in a college town. Fortunately we've recently found a loophole of sorts that allows us to buy liquor from Spec's in Houston due to our catering permit (otherwise we are limited to buying from in-county). Liquor laws are indeed a study in absurdity.

-Andy

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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its essentially a legacy of Prohibition. the end of Prohibition essentially also ended federal regulation of alcohol. there has been some movement in this area thanks to a recent Supreme Court case dealing with wine distribution...but overall, every state has regulated alcohol independently of each other since Prohibition.

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  • 2 weeks later...

What I would really like would be a state-by-state breakdown of laws and such... Is there any state out there that is not bound by regulations and can get whatever you want? New York or California perhaps? Here in North Carolina you can only get liquor at the state-run ABC stores and only what is on their fairly meager state list.

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Chris,

good thing you don't live in Minnesota.  State law states that liquor stores can not be open on Sunday at all. Also, beer and wine can not be purchased in a grocery store. I'm not much of a drinker, but it is frustrating when I'm making a recipe on Sunday and need a bottle of something and can't get it and end up buying that ubiqitous oversalted "cooking wine" that is sold in the grocery.  Additionally, for Asian cooking, there is no way to get Shao Hsing rice wine of any quality as liquor stores don't carry it at all. 

Another strange law here is that you can't buy a car on Sunday. Go figure...

That's... odd. MN historically has had beer and wine in grocery stores. Seems strange that a state would go for stricter regulation. I do remember running into some serious weird with MN's liquor laws last time I was there, so it may be they've gone stricter in the name of protecting minors.

The no sales on Sunday rule is relatively common. I know PA and OH have it. And one of either DE or MD, but I can't remember which one.

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This issue is quite complex.

All states are responsible for regulating alcohol. There are 19 states where the state basically controls alcohol from distribution to retail sales. North Carolina is one. other states still regulate but have varying degrees of regulation short of actually operating local retail outlets..

I would suggest folks simply find their state laws on the net. (easy to do).

Distributors perform several functions. One is they navigate the often ridiculous and arcane laws state by state to get products into the market place. They see that fees and taxes are paid etc. (this is really all about money--basically tax money).

Simply put--the states want their share of the dollars.

Distributors also navigate the world of importing/importers for foreign brands.

At worst--distributors are a necessary evil.

Also simply put, retailers basically have to deal with the distributors their respective states have "approved" to do business in their state. That is those retailers who have paid all the taxes and fees the states require to set up a distribution business in that state.

Though a retailer is often hindered or restricted in what brands are available a retailer relies on a distributor to to stock items and to take care of a lot of paperwork--few retailers would be able to operate independently of distributors.

A motivated retailer can pretty much "get" anything for customers. They can work around the system. A retailer in a control state is further restricted--in essence these folks are the state. That is the retail operation is a state run operation and the people working in them are state employees.

Most retailers have little reason to be motivated. Let's face it there are hundreds of choices even in the most regulated states. Finding an obscure brand to add to the dozens they already have access to is usually not worth the effort. "What these fourteen different vodkas are not enough for you?"

Often some of the items in question are very limited in quantity. There simply is not much DRC Romanee Conti. Many liquors are also scarce. There are all sorts of deals and incentives that producers/importers/wholesale distributors and retailers get involved in that impact what ends up in a shop's inventory. For eg--want some of that DRC Romanee Conti--well you gotta buy a mixed case of the DRC offerings and you get a bottle or two of the Romanee Conti. Want a specific vintage of a wine--well you may have to pony up for some not so good vintages first. Want a rare limited production rum? well......

So even if there was a free and open marketplace for wine and liquor-- not every brand would be available everywhere. In fact, prices for some limited production/availability items would probably skyrocket! (an odd benefit of all this nonsense is that what rare items you may have at reasonable prices available to you now may disappear completely if there were no regulation).

Things ain't so simple!

especially when a lot of tax money is at stake!

The folks of Pennsylvania still pay an 18% Johnstown flood tax on all the alcohol they purchase. Enacted to help the good people of Johnstown through their misery (the Johnstown flood was 1938 I believe).

Here in NY we were told the tolls on the GW bridge would be removed soon as the bridge was paid for. Most everyone who built the darn bridge and all the politicians who voted for the toll are long dead --yet seems these tolls go up every year.

Edited by JohnL (log)
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The no sales on Sunday rule is relatively common. I know PA and OH have it. And one of either DE or MD, but I can't remember which one.

Correction- PA had it until about 2 years ago, but has modernized recently. Now we can buy booze from the state on Sundays, though in doing so we're still contributing to the Johnstown rebuilding effort.

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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There are 19 states where the state basically controls alcohol from distribution to retail sales.
According to this Wikipedia article, which I think is pretty accurate, there are 18 states plus Montgomery County MD that exercise a monopoly over the wholesaling and/or retailing of some or all categories of alcoholic beverages. Quite a few of the jurisdictions are not involved in retail sales at all. In peculiar Montgomery County MD, the state has a total monopoly over distilled spirits, selling them in its own stores, but limits itself to a wholesale monopoly on wine. One byproduct of the county wholesale wine monopoly is that there are essentially no fine-dining "destination" restaurants in the county, which contains some of the wealthiest suburbs of Washington DC.
The folks of Pennsylvania still pay an 18% Johnstown flood tax on all the alcohol they purchase. Enacted to help the good people of Johnstown through their misery (the Johnstown flood was 1938 I believe).

The Johnstown flood was in 1889. The flood that provoked the tax also affected Johnstown, but that 1936 disaster is known as the Pittsburgh Flood of 1936, according to this Wikipedia article.
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This flood of information gets confusing.

I stand corrected. Thanks.

The facts may change but, unfortunately, the situation remains the same.

"Control states" actually control liquor sales through the retail level.

This is IMOP a deviation from our free enterprise system.

(free never really means free anyway).

The selection at these places is far better than that found in the old

Soviet Union GUM stores but the principle (or lack of principles) is still the same!

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The selection at these places is far better than that found in the old

Soviet Union GUM stores but the principle (or lack of principles) is still the same!

Oh, I completely agree. The state (plus one county) monopolies totally suck. I was...er...stuck in North Carolina for a couple of years, and they have the whole ABC store thing, with infuriatingly narrow selections and sky-high prices. If I wanted a bottle of Johnny Walker red, it cost as much as Johnny Walker black does here in Washington DC. As mentioned upthread, you're limited to what's on the meager state list, but it's actually even worse than that. The stores are run by the counties, and different stocking decisions are made by different county bureaucrats. Campari, for example, is on the state list, but not carried in Wilson County, where I was stuck. I had to go to Raleigh, in Wake County, to get it. Luckily, I was able to make it up to my home in Washington fairly often, so I'd stock up on things and smuggle them into North Carolina.
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In peculiar Montgomery County MD, the state has a total monopoly over distilled spirits, selling them in its own stores, but limits itself to a wholesale monopoly on wine. One byproduct of the county wholesale wine monopoly is that there are essentially no fine-dining "destination" restaurants in the county, which contains some of the wealthiest suburbs of Washington DC.

This stuns me: Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and environs are in Montgomery Country. There are no quality wine lists in those towns as a result of these laws?!?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This stuns me: Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and environs are in Montgomery Country. There are no quality wine lists in those towns as a result of these laws?!?

Nope, not really. Michael Landrum has apparently made a gallant effort to put together a good and affordable wine program at his new Ray's the Classics restaurant in Silver Spring (I haven't been). But in general the ambitious restaurants are all in Washington and Virginia. I think it's not only Montgomery County's limited catalog and high prices, but also their business practices that scare restaurateurs away. There's a discussion here. For those who may not know, the contributor with a lot to say named Mark Slater is the renowned sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle, probably Washington's best restaurant (and best wine program).
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I am reading Calvin Trillin "American Fried" Written in 1974 and he mentions that there is a "Vermont statute that makes it illegal for a customer (in a bar/resturant) to carry a drink from one table to another." Any body know if this is true?

My italics

Toby

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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I am reading Calvin Trillin "American Fried" Written in 1974 and he mentions that there is a "Vermont statute that makes it illegal for a customer (in a bar/resturant) to carry a drink from one table to another."  Any body know if this is true?

No idea about Vermont, but back in 1974 in Washington DC there was certainly a similar law. I don't remember exactly when it was changed, but it was illegal to have a drink in your hand in a bar or restaurant if you were standing up. So you had to be seated at a table or on a bar stool, and you couldn't move from one to the other or from one table to another. If you did, the establishment could be shut down. I think this was changed by 1976, but I'm not sure. I imagine it had been in place since Prohibition repeal.
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I was vastly amused to see PA and WA immediately dismissed as "impossible to deal with" in this discussion. (not that I disagree)

On the other hand, I've found that I can access nearly anything here by putting in a special liquor order directly from the company. Sometimes this requires me to purchase 6 bottles, but who wouldn't go through 6 bottles of Lemon Hart Demerara 151? :)

Rick

Pennsylvania

Kaiser Penguin

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Luckily, I was able to make it up to my home in Washington fairly often, so I'd stock up on things and smuggle them into North Carolina.

Every time I go anywhere out of state I always check the liquor stores for good/interesting things and bring back a box or two full.

Edited by satanswhiskers (log)
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