On June 1, Washington became the first state since Prohibition to transfer its liquor business from state control to the private sector, and empty shelves in grocery stores thus far are proving the state's transition to be a rough one.
While afflicted by their own inexperience dabbling in the art of alcohol sales, stores were also subject to the state's newly-privatized supply chain. It was the latter factor, according to a supervisor (who requested anonymity for personal reasons) from Trader Joe's on Capitol Hill, which caused that store to quickly run short of several spirits--a characteristic shared by several area retail outlets during the inaugural weekend of privatized booze.
"We didn't necessarily receive everything we were supposed to receive; there was a lot of out of stock from our suppliers," the supervisor says. "And as far as getting more if we needed it, we have set delivery days, so it's not like we can get additional shipments."
Similarly, Nick Keogh, beer manager at the University Village QFC, absolves his store from blame for the perceived liquor drought. "Before when the state warehoused everything, they always had everything in stock. So, of course, when we went private, you have got all of these warehouses who still don't have their supply chains set up."
Smaller local distributors, such as Vinum Importing, may be better off than larger national names such as Southern Wine and Spirits, who carry the larger, more mainstream liquor names that shoppers may first reach for.
David Lusby, sales manager at Vinum, says that he primarily focuses on local and craft spirits, and that the transition to privatization "hasn't been a difficulty for us. We're a smaller player, so [the shortages] haven't happened for us."
"You figure, when 70 years of state control is dismantled in six months, there're always going to be hiccups in that fast transition," he says. "Other states have always been privatized or a control state. This is the first transition since prohibition."
Steven Stone, master distiller and founder of Sound Spirits, says that he has to wait and see how the market change affects his business.
"Before the state was the only distributor, for both bars and stores. Now that the system has changed over, it's like a big ball that has just stopped," says Stone. "There's a lot of inertia right now, and it will take a lot of effort to get it rolling again. There's some confusion in the market as retailers figure out who they are going to buy from. Are they buying from a retailer? From a distributor? And who has the products?"
"The system before, it worked for us because the distributor was the state, and they were pretty neutral, and they were actually pretty good at supporting local [brands]," he adds. "But now we just have to wait and see what happens."