Handcuffed redux: Locals continue the discussion about North Carolina liquor laws

SPIRITED ARGUMENT: "When I follow the rules that have been given to me, I should get what I ordered," says Kala Brooks, liquor curator at Top of the Monk. Brooks is among local bartenders hoping for changes in the state's alcohol control system. Photo by Cindy Kunst
SPIRITED ARGUMENT: "When I follow the rules that have been given to me, I should get what I ordered," says Kala Brooks, liquor curator at Top of the Monk. Brooks is among local bartenders hoping for changes in the state's alcohol control system. Photo by Cindy Kunst

In response to our recent article (“Handcuffed: Asheville Bartenders Decry ABC Law Restrictions,” July 9 Xpress), General Manager Mark Combs of the local Alcoholic Beverage Control system had a few things to say. “North Carolina’s alcohol control system is indeed conservative,” he wrote. “Reforms are slow and deliberate, but many will argue that the system is a good balance of consumption and control. For example, North Carolina ranks third among the 50 states in revenues and 48th in per capita consumption. It is a model that facilitates the deliberate, responsible consumption of alcohol.”

Combs went on to address bartenders’ complaints about the difficulty of obtaining specialty products. “For special orders, my staff routinely researches, determines bottles per case, prices and special-orders them according to customer instructions,” he wrote, adding, “Our ABC stores can’t sell our customers what distillers won’t ship to us. And not all suppliers are willing to fill special orders — or to fill them quickly.

“When a bar wants a specialty spirit, good communication and lead time can minimize delay, so if businesses already know their drink specials for the coming quarter or two, they can let us know and we can begin communicating with the distiller. … Don’t let out-of-state, big-box grocers sell you a bag of goods called privatization.”

Combs’ response, however, failed to address many of the issues raised by local business owners in last month’s article. “I am absolutely not asking for privatization,” says Kala Brooks of Top of the Monk. “What I am asking for is that when I follow the rules that have been given to me, I should get what I ordered. If I am required to order a minimum amount of something to get it, I should get all of what I ordered, because you gave me that requirement.”

Many local bar managers complain that while the state did develop a “boutique list” that allows for three-bottle cases of specialty products, the main result has been that the price per bottle has gone up — and it’s now even rarer that those products are shipped within a reasonable time frame. “As a small bar,” continues Brooks, “if I arrange my budget and allocate money to buy anywhere from three to 12 bottles of something that I might use one bottle of per month … that’s a huge chunk out of my budget, and if it would just come in when I order it, that would be fine — or if it would come in at all! You tell me that if I follow these rules, then I will be able to get what I ordered, but that is not the case.”

The ABC, she reports, never gives her estimates as to when the product will arrive, saying, “It is a complete grab bag as to what actually gets shipped here from Raleigh, and when. “When we opened this bar in September, I ordered the Willett Pot Still Reserve,” Brooks recalls. “I had ordered a half case for my bar, which, at the time, was the minimum order required. It took from September until March for me to get them; I was only allotted two bottles, and it hasn’t come back since. If you drive to South Carolina, just over the border, you can buy that bottle off the shelf; you can buy 10 bottles if you want! And they are also a control state!”

Brooks isn’t the only local bar manager who’s unhappy with the system. “To me, it seems unfortunate that we have a request system for a product that is readily available nationally,” adds Jasper Adams of The Imperial Life. “Why is it a request? Why is that not just an order?”

Meanwhile, a frustrated-sounding Scott Dagenhart of Nightbell asks, “Why are so many of these boutique items hiding in the back of the store, unknown to the general public, if we as bars have to buy from the same place as the average Joe buys retail? Why are these ABC employees not trained to sell boutique items? … What am I supposed to tell an excited bar patron when he/she asks, ‘Where can I get Batavia Arrack?’ Isn’t a bit of teamwork a doable way to assuage this problem? Especially since, hell, we’re paying all that extra money to fund a regulatory organization?”

Cocktail bars like Nightbell end up paying more than three different taxes on the product they buy, and they’re required to maintain three different heavily regulated liquor permits merely to operate.

For the past two years, Jim Dahlin has worked as a cashier at local ABC retail stores to supplement the income from his full-time job as student activities director at Montreat College. “There are so many people at individual ABC stores in the area who are doing a really good job, but I think the bureaucracy holds things up,” he observes, adding, “Most of those problems come from Raleigh.” Asked if he’s received any kind of training concerning the products he sells, his response is quick: “None whatsoever.”

Imagine walking into an auto-parts store whose employees had no idea what a sparkplug is. It would be hard to blame them if the store neither required them to have prior experience nor gave them any training on the job. And when I ask Dahlin if he’d ever worked another retail job that required such little knowledge of the products, his answer was, “Not at all. It’s crazy. But from my perspective, it was kind of nice, because I didn’t feel like I had to know anything.”

That statement, however, would strike fear into the heart of any small-business owner who overheard it coming from an employee on his retail floor.

“They’re a business. They are there to sell a product, and they don’t even know about it because no one has trained them,” says Donnie Pratt of Cucina 24. “They don’t have distributors or reps coming in and saying, ‘Here’s this new product, here’s what it’s about, here’s how we make it, here’s how you should sell it.’ Which is how it works in independent wine shops and beer stores. They’re just seeing spreadsheets and ordering products, getting them in, looking at the bottle and saying, ‘Oh, that’s bourbon, cool: Let’s put that in the bourbon section.’ They just need to be trained!”

Neighboring control states such as Kentucky and South Carolina, meanwhile, regularly stock readily available products that are unheard of in North Carolina.

Until recently, South Carolina had the most conservative alcohol distribution system in the country, wastefully requiring bars to serve everything from a mini-bottle like the ones you get on airplanes, to “regulate consumption.” In 2007, however, they created a progressive control system that’s helped Charleston develop one of the most respected cocktail scenes in the country. And if they could do it, why can’t we — particularly with a state Legislature that seems bent on reform and liberation from so called “big government”?

As for the state’s impressive revenue statistics, Malcolm Knighten of Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder may have said it best: “It’s very telling that we are third in revenue but 48th in per capita consumption. That can only mean two things: (1) Prices are too high. … It’s simple division. (2) You have no actual means of measuring consumption of alcohol per capita whatsoever.”

Following is the letter Mountain Xpress received from Mark Combs and the Asheville ABC Board:

Jonathan Ammons Response letter

July 10, 2104

In response to Jonathan Ammons “Handcuffed: Local Bartenders Decry ABC Law Restrictions”, the availability of specialty spirits is alive and well.

North Carolina’s alcohol control system is indeed conservative. Reforms are slow and deliberate, but many will argue that the system is a good balance of consumption and control. For example, North Carolina ranks third among the 50 states in revenues and 48th in per capita consumption. It is a model that facilitates the deliberate, responsible consumption of alcohol.

The North Carolina ABC Commission and Asheville ABC Board work diligently to provide its customers and mixed beverage accounts the spirits they desire. The State warehouse currently lists 1,800 special order and 2,100 in-stock brands. For special orders my staff routinely researches, determines bottles per case, prices and special orders them according to customer instructions.

!But our ABC stores can’t sell our customers what distillers won’t ship to us. And not all suppliers are willing to fill special orders – or to fill them quickly. At first glance, it might seem difficult to understand why a distiller would not want to ship any and all products all the time. The answer is basic economics: Spirits are expensive to ship. Then the supplier has to pay federal tax on the product when it leaves the distillery. The state ABC Commission has made it easier for local ABC boards and businesses to purchase specialty items by creating a boutique collection (smaller cases), but it still is ultimately up to the distillers to make their product available.

Unlike myriad other products, distillers have formidable obstacles to increase supplies for their product if demand suddenly increases. Distilling capacity, ingredients and the aging process slow down supply. It’s a constant challenge in the spirits industry to anticipate and stock spirits to meet a fickle, unpredictable market. For example, if one bar in the state wants Batavia Arrack and it is the only one in the state ordering it, the local ABC board that buys it gets stuck with the excess inventory that nobody else wants and any excess inventory in the state warehouse vexes the supplier. This is costly for everyone but the bar.

!When a bar wants a specialty spirit, good communication and lead time can minimize delay, so if businesses already know their drink specials for the coming quarter or two, they can let us know and we can begin communicating with the distiller. Additionally, many of our retail customers network with others to share per case costs to control inventory expenses.

North Carolina is a customer-oriented system that works and works well. 2012 the State of Washington privatized its liquor sales. A December 2013 article in the Portland Tribune stated: “In addition to higher prices, less product selection and the harm done to our local craft distillers, Washington also has…serious safety and public health concerns….Don’t let out-of-state big box grocers sell you a bag of goods called privatization.

Mark Combs,

General Manager

Asheville ABC Board

 

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

One thought on “Handcuffed redux: Locals continue the discussion about North Carolina liquor laws

  1. Mark Bloom

    You can call it what you want, but I call it socialism. Why is the state government in the business of controlling the distribution of alcohol? Why is the state in the business (and it is a business) of selling alcohol? Here is a link to my reasoned yet passionate response to the issue: http://ashevilleblog.com/socialism-asheville/.

    I love Asheville. North Carolina, not so much. This is just one more reason.

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