Availability of specialty spirits is alive and well

In response to Jonathan Ammons’ article “Handcuffed: Local Bartenders Decry ABC Law Restrictions” [July 9, Xpress], 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. In 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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One thought on “Availability of specialty spirits is alive and well

  1. Having lived in New Bern for a few years I find Mr. Combs reasoning as laughable now as it was years ago when I moved out of NC. One only has to travel to see a Total Wine, Binnys, Joe Canals, Bevmo or other stores with 4,000 spirits in stock on the shelves not special order. One has to wonder how they get the products consumers want given the reasons listed by Mr. Combs. The claim that NC has the 3rd best tax collection of the 16 control states is amazing only to Mr. Combs. When you combine a monopoly in sales and high taxes with the third largest population of the control states what else would you expect?

    The dire predictions about Washington state are the same fear tactics that are being used to fight privatization nationwide. Washington State prices did go up, when you add 27% in new fees that will happen but they didn’t do up 27% and that is due mostly to price competition. Walk into one of the 40+ Superstores of 20,000 square feet and more that are in Washington when none existed before and tell me that selection has decreased. How big the the largest store in Asheville Mr. Combs? Craft distillers hurt? Explain why Craft Distiller licenses increased 83% in the year after privatization. People don’t open businesses without some confidence they can sell their product. Washington’s public safety is better than North Carolina. They have a lower DUI rate, underage DUI rate, DUI fatality rate, Binge drinking and underage binge drinking rate and the underage DUI has decreased 20% since privatization.

    So tell the people again why having limits on selection, is better than the free market? Why not having what 33 other states have is better and explain how having this system makes the citizens safer even though none of the evidence supports that conclusion. What you should be telling people is you want to keep your job and that is all.

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