Spirits: How liquor wholesalers hobble consumer choice

Joe Riley Cocktail
Joe Riley Cocktail (Michael Temchine - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America announced that Sarah Palin would be the keynote speaker at its April convention, the drinks blogosphere reacted as you might expect: with partisan outrage, rehashed jokes ("Which wine goes with caribou?") and an overall sense of "what the hell?" But one relevant question was raised across the political spectrum: If Palin is such a staunch supporter of the free market, will she dare call out liquor wholesalers as obstructionists who, with the blessing of most state governments, stand directly in the path of consumer choice and free trade?

One commentator, Slate wine critic Michael Steinberger, claims he will eat the first chapter of Palin's "Going Rogue" if that happens.

Well, Palin might not call out the WSWA. But I will, typing here in my Che Guevara T-shirt and hemp socks.

The powerful liquor wholesaler lobby is the main reason you cannot find the booze you're looking for at your local liquor store. Seeking control in the aftermath of Prohibition, most states established a three-tier system of liquor distribution, with laws that placed a wholesaler -- the classic middleman -- between the producer or importer and your retailer. In most states, if a wholesaler doesn't carry a bottle, you cannot buy it in your local store.

That's an awful lot of influence for a few privileged companies to wield. Because most spirits brands are owned by a handful of large multinational corporations, you can see how exclusionary this system can be. Not to mention the fact that in some states, such as Virginia, even the retailers are a state-controlled monopoly. (And Montgomery County controls sales there.) So it doesn't take a former beauty queen to see why it's difficult for new spirits from small producers or importers to make their way into liquor stores. The system is a major reason why I get dozens of e-mails from frustrated readers who can't find certain bottles.

D.C. residents, meanwhile, might be surprised to learn they are not bound by this arcane system. In the District, if a product is not handled by a wholesaler, the retailer is free to order it directly from the producer or importer. That means if your local liquor store doesn't have a particular bottle on its shelves, you have options. At the very least, your store can order any product that a local wholesaler carries. And if the wholesaler doesn't carry it, a store can order it directly from the producer or importer. Unlike giant brands, most small producers or importers are usually thrilled to fulfill even a tiny one-time order, sometimes as little as a half-case.

So that means the drinkers of Washington are easily able to experience all sorts of new, interesting -- even rare and obscure -- spirits, right? Sadly, there is still a significant impediment: lazy, uninspired liquor retailers.

Luckily, a few retailers go the extra mile. One in particular is Joe Riley, fine-spirits manager at Ace Beverage in Foxhall Square. Riley has done much to improve drinking life in this city. "If someone asks me for something," he says, "I will hunt it down until I find it."

Sometimes the hunt is difficult. It has taken Riley more than a year to track down a reliable source of the Bitter Truth bitters, made in Germany. Other times, it's so straightforward you wonder why other retailers don't bother.

"The public has to demand these things," he says.

I recently had a drink with Riley at the Passenger in Northwest, where they have named a cocktail after him. When I arrived, someone was asking Riley whether he could get bottles of Suze, a French aperitif. "Suze is owned by Pernod Ricard, and they refuse to bring it into the United States," Riley says. "Maybe we need to get a Facebook campaign going."

Riley, 44, has been working at Ace since 1994. He began in wine, but over the years, his focus has shifted to spirits. "Spirits and cocktails are now where wine was 10 to 15 years ago," he says. "I think 2006 is right about when it all changed. Before that, every once in a while someone might come in and ask for Cynar. But I've sold more Cynar in the past two years than I had in the previous 15."

"Joe's definitely the go-to guy when it comes to spirits," says sommelier and bartender Kathryn Bangs of the soon-to-open Columbia Room, who was sitting at the bar with us that night.

Riley, however, plays down his significance: "You just have to take an interest. Any liquor store can do this, but most take a path of least resistance."

It remains to be seen whether Palin will take the same path during her much-anticipated speech to the WSWA in April.


Joe Riley Cocktail

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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