Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

It’s Saturday night in Tacoma, WA and I’m perched in my usual spot at the bar at Tacoma Cabana. Tiki master Jason Alexander is showing me his latest well lineup. Strangely, there’s no Plantation rums, typically the core of his lineup. I ask about their omission. “Can’t get ‘em anymore” he says. How can this be?

Plantation parent company, Maison Ferrand has been a darling of bartenders and spirits aficionados for years, selling well-regarded brands like Plantation, Citadelle Gin, Cognac Ferrand, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and many others. You’ll find their brands on craft cocktail menus all over the U.S. However, here in Washington State, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of Pierre Ferrand products on a bar menu or liquor store shelf in recent days. But only six months ago, the situation was very different–Ferrand’s products were readily available and pouring into cocktails in bars everywhere. So what gives? The answer is a microcosm of what’s wrong with how liquor is sold in the United States.

Up till recently, Washington stores and bars would order their Ferrand products from American Northwest, a regional wine and spirits distributor. Until one day a new distributor, Crush & Cooper of Washington LLC, announced they were the new Washington distributor for Pierre Ferrand. Hmmmm…. Order fulfillment shifted to Crush & Cooper, and things were running smoothly for months, till one day when the flow simply dried up. American Northwest had filed a lawsuit to prevent Crush & Cooper of Washington from selling a number of products previously distributed by American Northwest, including Ferrand’s. The end result for Washington State consumers (at least in the short term) is that a large number of spirits are suddenly unavailable in bars or on store shelves.

How is this possible? Why does who distributes a product matter? And why can only one distributor sell a product in a given market? If the answers to these questions are a mystery, you’re likely not yet familiar with the byzantine disaster known as the Three-Tier Distribution system. If you set out to design an efficient system for getting a wide variety of goods from producers to consumers, a la Amazon.com, it would look completely unlike today’s existing Three-Tier system. The number of players and regulations involved makes it a minor miracle that anybody in the U.S. has access to more than five brands. Let’s take a look at the Three-Tier, and see how it impacts what liquor you drink.

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Cocktail Obsession: Pizzicato Passage

Seattle winters are more cool gray drizzle than snow, and our rainy Decembers are mostly indistinguishable from our Novembers and Januarys. But for people of the spirited persuasion, December in Seattle means one thing: Rob Roy’s Advent Calendar cocktail menu. Twenty five different drinks, holiday themed (or at least wintery), and many only available on their designated days as they require special ingredients and preparation. Leaving the best for last, December 24th is commemorated with the Chartreuse Blazer –a sibling of the infamous Blue Blazer, involving flaming streams of chartreuse poured long distances between metal mugs.

This year though, an earlier recipe in the calendar caught my attention. I’m always on the lookout for oddball combinations of ingredients, and my eyes popped when I saw sherry, Meletti, gin, and Ancho Reyes all in the same drink! Dubbed the Pizzicato Passage, the recipe is the brainchild of Rob Roy owner and all around mixology badass Anu Elford. In case you’re wondering, pizzicato is the Italian term for “plucked string,” a stringed instrument playing technique.

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Checking out Mavenhal’s Bar Back bag

One result of my Instagram photos featuring my latest cocktail shenanigans is that when Mrs. Wonk and I are invited to social gatherings, I often get tasked with bringing cocktails, rather than the traditional, say, bottle of wine or dessert. And I’m certainly not one to slack off with something simple like a Dark & Stormy – the Cocktail Wonk must represent! Sometimes a punch I’ve make in advance is the ticket. But I also enjoy rising to the challenge and making the same cocktails I’d make at home, but on the road. A batch of 1944 Mai Tais for eight? No problem!

As you might imagine, bartending away from your home set-up requires a bit of pre-planning and toting lots of equipment with me. For the aforementioned Mai Tais, for example, I’d need the following:

  • Two bottles of rum
  • Bottle of dry curacao
  • Bottle of orgeat
  • Bottle of simple syrup
  • Shaker
  • Limes
  • Knife to cut the limes
  • Handheld lime squeezer
  • Lewis bag and mallet for crushed ice
  • Straws

And depending on the location, perhaps even bags of ice from ice maker or cocktail glasses. That’s a lot of equipment to bring! Suddenly a pie seems a lot easier.

My trusty workhorse for hauling bottles and tools around has been the crafty use of a soft-sided picnic cooler with a shoulder strap. With strategic packing I can wedge in the bottles so that they don’t jostle around too much, but for taller bottles this means laying them on their side, leading to potential spillage. My shaker doubles as a hard-sided container for smaller items like straws, knives, bitters bottles, etc. By the time it’s fully loaded, the cooler is heavy and uncomfortable to lug around by the shoulder strap. I often thought there had to be a better way to do this, but my trusty cooler was free so I didn’t pay much attention to improving my situation.

A little over a year ago I saw a Kickstarter effort for a new a new bartender’s bag from Seattle-based Mavenhal (they launched under the name Barkeeper & Co.).  Their waxed canvas bags in the form factor of a duffle bag are designed for bartenders by a professional bartender. Looking at the photos online, I was impressed by the features and attention to detail. All that said, the Kickstarter was a bit more money than I wanted to drop at that particular time. If I worked as a bartender or brand ambassador, I wouldn’t have blinked, however– a well-designed, task-specific bag that you use every day is worth its weight in gold. The Kickstarter was successful, and soon I saw customized Mavenhal bags pop up in the social media feeds of various bar industry luminaries.

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Stalking the TTB:  Upcoming U.S. rum releases from El Dorado, Rhum JM, Skotlander and more – Nov-Dec 2015

Another post for the rum wonks out there…

Following an earlier blog entry about rums approved for U.S. sale in late 2015, here are my top picks for new rums that should be appearing on store shelves and back bars in early 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent TTB label approvals, and that’s a good starting point if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or label approval.

To construct the list below, I ran a query against the TTB database, constrained to the past two months, and cherry-picked the label approvals of broadest interest to the rum community. There are certainly more rum approvals than listed here. While many small U.S. distilleries make rum, their scale and distribution is limited, so I’ve omitted them. Also, be aware that there is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing on the shelf.

One challenge of looking at TTB label approvals is that there’s no clear way to determine if it’s a new product or simply a small change to an existing product’s label. I made a best effort to filter out existing products with tiny label changes, but I may have overlooked something. Feel free to let me know if an offering here is already available.

The big news in the list below is the El Dorado “cask finishes.” Starting with the beloved El Dorado 12 year from Guyana as a base, the folks at Demerara Distillers Limited then additionally age the rum in one of four additional casks – red wine, ruby port, white port, or Sauternes (a sweet French wine). Images of these El Dorado cask finish labels have been floating around on Instagram for months, and I’m quite excited to see them making their way here to the U.S.

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Turn Your Daiquiri Up to 11

Rum. Lime. Sugar. The Holy Trinity of tropical drinks. Nearly all Tiki or tropical recipes are some spin on these three ingredients. The daiquiri is the category’s foundational cocktail, consisting of — you guessed it — rum, lime, and sugar. A classic, simple daiquiri is widely considered one of the best ways to evaluate a rum.

Recipes for a classic daiquiri are all over the map, ratio-wise. Many go too heavy on the lime and sugar, relegating the rum to a background role. The sourness of the lime and the sweetness of the sugar should always be balanced. When Mrs. Wonk wants something not too fussy after a long day, I use this template:

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Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun?

In my all-too-infrequent visits to Seattle’s Rumba, I never fail to encounter this passage from Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum:

“Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of ‘America’s spirit,’ drink one of the most regulated spirits known. To be labeled bourbon, it has to be made with a certain percentage of corn and aged in a certain kind of barrel.  But excessive regulation is not the spirit of America. Unrestricted experimentation is. Rum embodies America’s laissez-faire attitude: It is whatever it wants to be. There’s no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites. Rum is the melting pot of spirits – the only liquor available in clear, amber, or black variations.”

I know the passage well — it hangs in a certain, shall we say, hard-to-miss location in the men’s restroom. I particularly like it because the passage succinctly outlines the opportunities and challenges the rum industry faces.

There’s no shortage of coverage in the spirits press lately about how rum is in resurgence, how rum is the next big thing, and how brown spirits drinkers are turning to aged rums as the bourbon craze (Pappy Van Winkle, anyone?) plays itself out.

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