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Why you can’t and how you can get the bottles you want
Scoring a bottle of beloved Blanton’s or Buffalo Trace bourbons around these parts has been likened to finding the golden ticket or winning the lottery—and you kind of have to do the latter to land one (see “The Liquor Lottery” sidebar). For bourbon and spirit lovers alike, the limitations and execution of NC’s state-run liquor system is confusing—even if you grew up here. So what’s the deal? And is the state-run system beneficial for consumers, bar owners and distributors? Here, we break down what being a controlled state means, why some bottles can’t be found at ABC stores and how to get the bottle you want.
North Carolina is one of 17 “controlled” states, where spirituous liquor is sold through a state-run system. And, fun fact, of the four states that border North Carolina, only Virginia uses a similar model, while the rest are privatized.
So how did this happen? Post-Prohibition, the Wake County Board of Alcoholic Control was established by the narrowest of margins—1,356 votes—approving a controlled system that allows for regulating the sale of alcohol beverages under the monopoly system we still use to this day.
Currently, there are 25 ABC stores across Wake County, nearly half of which are in Raleigh… and while that may sound like a fair amount, consider how many locations you can purchase spirits in states with private liquor stores—think South Carolina, Georgia—or places like Arizona and Illinois, where it’s literally available at every convenience store, grocer, etc.
State-Run vs. Privatized
For many, the debate over state-run vs. privatized comes down to price, selection, availability and ultimately control over what we can drink in NC. And if you ask Bryan Hicks, the general manager of Wake County ABC, he’ll tell you that NC’s system is ideal—but multiple Raleigh bar owners, distributors and general consumers will tell you differently.
“[The ABC system] is an archaic, terrible system that should be destroyed,” maintains one local bar owner. “I’ve been dealing with it for so long and seen so much and
it’s just ridiculous.”
According to the bar owner, as far as selection goes for consumers—with the exception of a handful of individuals—there’s not many distributors who are trying to bring anything new and interesting here. “Distribution companies don’t want to deal with the system, so they don’t bother coming into the state,” he says. He also points out the infamous limited selection in local ABC stores, and hard-to-get bottles that should be readily available—but aren’t (more on that to come).
It’s important to note as well that bars and restaurants with a “mixed beverage” license have to stock up at specific stores, or directly at the Wake County ABC’s warehouse—meanwhile, all 25 ABC stores are open to the public. Just not on Sundays.
And because our system is state-run, bars have to pay for bottles/cases they order in advance and wait for them to come, which may take multiple days, weeks or even months. “Sometimes by the time we get it, the trend or fad is over,” says another local bar owner. “And having the cash tied up while we are waiting for the product is hard.”
Scarce Spirits + Static Pricing
From a consumer standpoint, logistics aside, Raleigh and Wake County residents best the state as booze hounds. Wake County ABC has the highest gross retail sales—excluding mixed beverage licensees—of any board in the state, and the second most gross sales overall. And all of the top five individual stores in the state for total sales are in Wake County (in order: Sandy Forks Road, Wake Forest, Village District, Triangle Town Mall and Capital Boulevard, and Appliance Court and Capital Boulevard).
You’d think that’d be good news for Raleighites, considering consumer demand and available square footage often determines what you can find on shelves. So why then are there bottles you can find out-of-state but not in NC? According to our ABC insider, “What has been explained to me is that if you’re a privately owned business, you can negotiate sales. For example, you may have to buy a lot of one product [from the distiller] that doesn’t sell well in order to get a product that does sell well.” In essence, the privately owned businesses scratch the distiller’s back, and the distiller’s scratch theirs.
But the reality is, popular spirits—bourbons like Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s and Weller—can almost never be found here, but slide on down to SC and you’ll likely be able to. Short of the holiday lottery, scoring a bottle from a rare shipment in NC would be as elusive as spotting a unicorn.
“Being a bourbon fan in NC can be pretty challenging,” agrees one local entrepreneur. “Finding favorites or new releases is virtually impossible—between a lack of options and inventory, and the lottery system. South Carolina stores don’t have the same inventory issues, so when I’m traveling through the state, I stop to pick up my favorite bottles and new releases.”
That said, on a positive note, the state-run system does mean consistency in pricing—so, for example, a bottle of Marker’s Mark will run you the same whether you’re in Apex or Boone. Same goes for high-end bottles. “You’re not gonna have to pay that retail price,” says the bar owner. “Pappy Van Winkle is $300 here instead of $1,500 in open states.” So no price-gouging here (however, some bottles will run higher here than in many other states).
Ultimately, privatization of liquor is just like anything else. In essence, it’s an open market (think like price competing between adjacent gas stations). So if $1,500 is the going rate, there’s no control. But for independent operators, a private system means paying taxes, of course—though nothing on the order of our current model.
“I think the product would be cheaper if privatized,” contends one local hospitality insider. “We pay a $3.75 [mixed beverage] tax on every bottle we buy, which the consumer that walks in the ABC store doesn’t have to pay.”
From ABC’s perspective, Hicks readily rattles off a list of reasons why our current setup is preferable. The biggest reason: Because it’s publicly run, the ABC system puts millions back into local governments. In the last fiscal year, Wake County ABC contributed more than $18 million to the county, nearly $3 million to Raleigh and more than $1.3 million to Cary.
But at the same time, that influx is tempered by unnecessary cost, as one local distributor argues: The ABC system requires quite the labor force of people who literally never touch a bottle of liquor. “Of 171 ABC Boards, 513 people have benefits and a salary who do not touch liquor bottles,” he says. “Every one of those boards has a general manager, at least three board members… and then you get to the store level, store managers and clerks. The board GM and the three board members do not touch liquor bottles. So, do the math.”
We should mention ABC also references other potential controlled-state benefits. Where a privatized system would likely lead to an influx of liquor stores, our limited locations means lower rates of youth and binge-drinking, says Hicks, adding: “A high density of retail locations is associated with more suicides, assault and other violence.” And there’s also the $5 million that went to programs tackling issues like substance abuse in NC.
Clearly, no one is denying the significance of those social advantages. The debate is how to reap those benefits while also scoring that bottle you’re after.
As it stands now, according to our Wake County ABC insider, if you’re looking for rare bourbon, the popular Village District store is probably your best bet. From there, hit the Sandy Forks store, or one of the higher-volume locations. And if you’re looking for something specific, Hicks suggests you call your local store. ABC, we’ve been told, keeps a tally of requests to gauge interest
and meet demand.
So bringing this full circle from that fateful 1937 vote, as liquor laws continue to loosen, what are the odds we ever become privatized? Well, according to our General Assembly informant, “there’s definitely an active effort to reform it. A lot of legislators want to privatize it—but they know that can’t be done easily because the state has been controlling it for so long.” There are also a few associations who support any efforts for it—like “the NC Retail Merchants Association and the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, who both want to see privatization.”
That said, not all hope is lost, as “there seems to be continued interest in recent legislative sessions in changing how the ABC system works,” adds the General Assembly source. So, until then, bottom line—if you can’t find what you want, ask your ABC store to order it for you—or, just head west on I-40 or south on I-95 to another state.
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