A Sad State

I have heard endless complaints about the lack of selection of high-end cognacs, unusual rums, and obscure Armagnacs in Washington. That's because Washington, like 17 other states and Montgomery County, Md., is a "control state," in which the government regulates alcohol sales by controlling its retail or wholesale distribution. Restaurateurs, retailers, and consumers alike bemoan Washington state's cherry-picked spirits offerings. They wax poetic about shelves brimming with unusual products in California—an open state in which the government is not involved in the spirits business. I often can't even get my beloved Fernet Branca without shopping around a couple of stores. When I lived in New York, the divey corner liquor store had a shelf full of it. Perhaps we should be heartened that the state uses much of the money from alcohol sales for education, research, and alcohol-abuse prevention programs; since 1934, the industry has contributed more than $4 billion to state and local budgets. Various control-state executives also claim that control-state stores provide greater selection, because they don't carry only profitable, popular products. What's more, many executives maintain that control states operate stores in underserved and lesser-populated areas that wouldn't be served in an open state. The Washington State Liquor Control Board carries 1,100 spirit brands, according to Steve Burnell, the board's wine program manager. He adds that this figure has steadily increased, to the tune of 100 to 150 items in each of the past three to four years. The state's 320 stores also carry approximately 400 special-order items at any one time, according to Burnell. "In a huge market like Los Angeles or San Francisco, you might find some stores that carry more brands; in smaller communities in California. you might find less. Our 1,100 items are available throughout the state. It's a different distribution model." Burnell notes that while any item can be special ordered, with "grappa and eau-de-vie, we don't have a large selection, as demand is rather narrow." Mary Kurcaba, manager of store No. 101 on Fourth Avenue South, says "we have all the range we want." Open states, on the other hand, "only carry what they think is going to sell and be profitable, so selection isn't their first priority." The only issue she has, she says, is that some suppliers don't want to sell products to the state. But many buyers remain frustrated with the system. "When we want something out of the ordinary, it's up to me to do the research and ask the state to special order it," says Donna Moodie, owner of Belltown's Marjorie restaurant. "It's like there's one extra step for us." As a restaurateur who likes to highlight the unusual, she laments the lack of selection. "Would I like to serve something more obscure? Yes." The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unless you want to start running hooch over the border like in the old days, we haven't got much choice but to buck up and special order. lzimmerman@seattleweekly.com

 
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