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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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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Upcoming U.S. Rum Releases from Plantation, Cana Brava, Doorly’s, J.Wray, and more – Sept-Oct 2015

This posts is for my rum wonk compatriots who are always searching for new rumtastic beauties for their collection. In a prior post, I wrote about the searching the TTB site to look for TTB label approvals. Generally speaking, each unique spirit must get TTB label approval before it can be sold in the U.S. The presence of TTB label approval implies that the producer plans to bring this sprit to market. To get label approval, label images and other details must be provided to the TTB. In turn, this information and label images for approved labels are available to anybody on the TTB site.

To construct the table below, I did a targeted query against the TTB database, constrained to the past few months, and then cherry picked some of the label approvals that I think are of broadest interest to the rum community. There are certainly more rum approvals than what’s listed here. It’s also likely that many of the rums in this list haven’t been officially announced by the brands. There is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing on the shelf.

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A Wonky Guide to Finding Unreleased and Obscure Spirits

If you ask me for my favorite site for learning about new spirits releases, I’m almost positive the answer will surprise you. Sure, there are great sites like Liquor.com and countless blogs (including this one) which breathlessly promote little nuggets of information, frequently gleaned from a spirits company’s PR rep. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But what if I told you about a site that lists every single purchasable spirit, regardless of who makes it? And frequently well before it’s on any liquor store shelf? (Small disclaimer: This site only covers spirits for sale in the United States, but the U.S. has a huge spirits market.) Now are you intrigued? Even better, imagine that site was searchable by product name, type of spirit, or producer? Now how much would you pay?

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