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Monday, 14 November 2011

Buying Alcohol in the U.S.

So I just took a trip to Seattle for a few days, and of course took the time to visit the highest rated and reputable bars I could find, as well as take a couple trips to the liquor store.
I was a little surprised, both in a good way and a bad way, by the selection and prices of the latter. It's probably because I put the American liquor store on a giant pedestal in my mind due to my frustration with B.C. liquor prices and selection, and therefore created this dream of endless hallways filled with rye and amari and bitters and everything I could ever need and everything is always in stock and everything only costs a nickel.
This wasn't the case, obviously, and while I did spend a considerable amount of money on things I would never be able to get in Vancouver, I was a little surprised some differences I didn't expect.
I'll relay this for those of you who, like me, have had a U.S. liquor store pedestal, and I will also relay -the- place to go if you end up in Seattle.
(Keep in mind this is just Seattle, so I'm only comparing B.C. to Washington and not to the U.S. as a whole).

First I went to the nearest small state-run liquor store I could find. The selection of whiskey and liqueurs was surprisingly weak, and the selection of gin and rum were very good. The rum that was there I didn't even recognize for the most part, and yet there were a lot of rums that are readily available in Vancouver that were nowhere to be seen. Also surprising was the amount of Canadian whiskey. They had a HUGE amount of stock, not a lot of brands though, and actually had more wall-space devoted to Canadian than American whiskey. In both stores I went, there was a hilariously large selection of those tiny, airline-sized sampler bottles of spirits and liqueurs. And bitters! Oh my gosh bitters. They had a whole pile of Peychaud's just sitting there for $4 each, so naturally I bought 2 bottles. In Vancouver, Angostura is in every Safeway, never in a liquor store, and the only other bitters I've heard you can find here is orange at a independent store.

Where to shop in Seattle
So, the above was disappointing, but then I did a little research and found out where cocktail-addicts shop in Seattle. The first answer that I found was "The best liquor store in Washington state is... in Las Vegas. Or California." So my whole comparison discussion here I imagine would look very different if I took a different trip.
It does turn out that there's a huge warehouse which doubles as a state-liquor store in Sodo (which I assume means "south-of-downtown") about a 10-15 minute drive out of downtown Seattle. This is apparently where bars and restaurants will order their booze in huge quantities, leaving the leftovers at this warehouse. This means they have a crazy selection and occasionally some items are on sale.
I basically crapped my pants when I walked in. I'd never seen so many kinds of gin or absinthe in one place, I'd never heard of a bunch of brands and strange-looking liqueurs, I'd never seen that many kinds of bitters for sale, etc. It was pretty amazing.

Price, though, is the real discussion here. Here's the very interesting part: some things are cheaper in Canada. And no, I'm not talking about Canadian products. Canadian whiskey was priced basically the same as here, and some other items, such as Taboo absinthe, which is made in the Okanagan in B.C., went for HALF the price we pay here - where it was made!
Most 'regular' gins (ie the ones you can find easily) were a couple dollars cheaper, that's it. Again, the rum selection was very different, so it was hard to compare, but I did notice a couple, such as Kraken rum, that were $15 cheaper. Mount Gay rum and Appleton Estate rum were nowhere to be seen, or they only had the cheaper kinds, which is too bad because they're my favourite (so far), and 2 of the highest rated.
Bourbon was much cheaper (Buffalo Trace went for $26 when in Vancouver it's $42) and they did have a much larger selection, but rye was very limited. Even at the big store I was only able to find about 5 different kinds of rye whiskey, and none of them looked very good. However, a bottle of Old Overholdt is way more interesting than the majority of Canadian whiskeys, and it was only $20.
Scotch actually seemed somewhat the same in terms of selection and a little cheaper.
Tequila was completely incomparable. Even the biggest stores in Vancouver have maybe 5 brands available, and they're all really expensive. Tequila selection in the U.S. is vast and on average about half price. I'm not much of a Tequila drinker, so this didn't break my heart as much as it would some, but if you are an enthusiast, you need to take a trip to the states.
Liqueurs were fairly comparable, though the selection was way larger at this second store. The typical ones were the same price, but we found some very cool ones (like a violet liqueur that is 'natural' and isn't in the creme style, meaning there is less sugar, no artificial colouring, and not as perfume-y) for under $30.
The gin, oh my gosh the gin. The selection was about 4x what I normally see, and everything was affordable. I bought a bottle of Martin Miller for $31, which you can only find at an independent store here for at LEAST $50. They had brands I'd never heard of, and some I'd only tried recently but never seen available, like G'vine.
They had Bitter Truth bitters (lemon, chocolate, celery, Creole), and Peychaud's. The Bitter Truth went for $15-17 each, but in Canada you'd have to order it online from Germany and pay shipping, which would probably end up at double that price.

And here's the exciting part for us here in B.C.: amari are cheaper here! Even this giant warehouse full of rare products had a selection that wasn't that much better than somewhere like Viti downtown, and all of them were more expensive than our government liquor store or the same as the independent. I grabbed Averna, which I haven't seen around, and there was St. Maria as well, which I've seen in bars but not in stores, but the usual Aperol, Campari, Fernet, and less usual Ramazzotti were all more expensive. In fact, Campari is $11 cheaper in Vancouver.

The last thing I will relay, to end on a note that's negative towards B.C. in hopes that one day our prices will start to balance out, but a positive note for me... is the Carpano Antica. This is the oldest and most delicious kind of Italian vermouth. I found it in only one place in Vancouver (Viti) and they asked for over $90 for it.
I bought it from this Seattle liquor store, where they had numerous bottles... for... $26. Holy crap is right.

Verdict
Not -everything- is bad in Vancouver. Some of our prices are the same if not comparable, some things are cheaper, and we apparently have a very different selection of rum, which is neat.
The downside is that more than half of the items are a couple bucks cheaper to half the price, they have endlessly more tequila than we do, more gin, cheap ryes, more than just Angostura bitters, and more absinthes.
So don't be too disheartened, there's still a lot we get here, and not all of it costs your soul in comparison. Even just one trip across the border for some bitters and maybe a rye will help you out, but our situation here is not as awful as I thought. We still pay way too much, but our selection is not pathetic.
Yay!

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