Why a Control State Liquor Store Might Be Your Best Bet for Finding Rare and Interesting Spirits

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[Photographs: Jennifer Bakos]

This spring, Mark Roy, a New Hampshire state employee, quietly traveled down to Lynchburg, Tennessee. There, he visited Jack Daniel, where master distiller Jeff Arnett and assistant master distiller Chris Fletcher led a small group through the sprawling grounds, offering samples of whiskey pulled from a couple dozen of their best barrels. By the end of a long day, Roy had purchased 16 barrels of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select. The cost? Around $12,000 apiece, some $200,000 all told. Each barrel would be emptied, bottled, adorned with special brass medallions reading "Granite State Collection," and shipped back to New Hampshire in time for summer drinking.

Don't worry; no sort of public malfeasance or improper spending of your tax dollars was at play here. Yes, Roy is a government employee, but he's the spirits marketing and sales specialist for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission—and making interesting whiskey purchases is kind of his job.

"I am lucky," Roy tells me over the phone from his office in Concord. "I wouldn't say we have carte blanche or anything, but our state government has allowed me to have some serious buying power. That's reflected in what we can offer our consumers."

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New Hampshire is what is known as an alcohol beverage control (ABC) state, one of 17 still left in this country, remnants of the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though laws and regulations differ from one control state to another, the term essentially means that these state governments have legal monopolies over both wholesale and retail sales of certain alcoholic beverages within their borders—in New Hampshire's case, that includes all spirits and wine. If that sounds pretty awful, well, admittedly, some ABC states are indeed worthy of the scorn heaped on them by more adventurous drinkers.

"Oregon liquor stores can eat shit," writes one Reddit/Bourbon user. "I am so sick of living in this stupid control state." Control states like Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are frequently blasted on online whiskey forums, and probably rightly so. ("PA sucks ass!" notes another Reddit/Bourbon user, while the Cleveland Scene harshly calls Ohio's liquor sales "a bureaucratic human centipede.") These states often have a lackluster selection, bad retail hours, and countless hoops that need to be jumped through to acquire even slightly obscure bottles. But nothing says control states have to be so bad.

Walk into one of the 80 New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets— many of them giant, red-barn-like warehouses situated right off the highway near the borders of Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Quebec—and you'll see a remarkable amount of, well, everything. The state has 1,400 liquor store employees. Several of these stores are over 20,000 square feet, and there's a 33,000-square-foot location set to open in Nashua in August.

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There are only 150 bottles in the world of this Glen Grant 50-year Scotch. It sells for $13,999.99.

Earlier this summer, I found myself at the Portsmouth outlet (store #38, if you're counting), right off a US 1 traffic circle. It was 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning, yet the store was already packed with customers, many wheeling around shopping carts and filling their baskets with booze, Supermarket Sweep–style. Sure, most folks opted for well-priced, quotidian wines and spirits, but shrewder customers might have noticed the bottles of, say, Knob Creek 2001, Booker's Rye, or WhistlePig's 15 Year Rye, all new and fairly limited offerings I've yet to see on the shelves in New York, where I live. Heck, I've barely even heard of these bottles making it to New York City.

Look, I'm one of the last writers in the world who'd want to praise anti-free-market bureaucrats, especially when it comes to their micromanagement of alcohol in this country. And, while it would be silly for me to claim that any government-run enterprise is gonna be all sunshine and roses—you've been to the DMV, right?—I've come to realize that not only do a few control states have a shockingly good liquor selection, many even offer limited bottlings and unique releases that might never see the shelves in the 33 privatized states. It just matters who's in control of each control state.

If you have a unionized, "just waiting till retirement" desk jockey manning your state's liquor supply, like in, say, Pennsylvania, you're probably screwed; have a passionate guy in charge, like Roy or Howard Wasserstein, the deputy director of procurement, distribution, and retail operations at the Idaho State Liquor Division (ISLD), and you could find yourself in an unexpected liquor oasis.

The key, according to Michael Hodge of WhistlePig, is that "control states want to discourage binge drinking." That means that in some cases, the "control" portion of the phrase can actually be a beneficial thing for seekers of rare higher-end spirits, like WhistlePig's $120 Madeira- and Sauternes-barrel-finished Old World rye and its $175, cask-strength Boss Hog. "The craft alcohol movement is about drinking better, not drinking more," Hodge adds. "You consume our product or other [high-end] products like it in moderation. You sip it. It's not just something cheap you can take a ton of shots of. That's why lots of control states are moving in that direction of stocking these better whiskies."

Wasserstein agrees with that theory, telling me, "Because we're a control state, one of our missions is not to push more liquor but to sell better liquors. We try to feature newer, more premium things, $50-and-up bourbons. We don't need to sell 14 different kinds of peach schnapps."

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Only 400 bottles of Ladyburn 41 Year Old Single Malt Scotch were released in the US. Suggested retail: about $2,000.

Boise Weekly praised Wasserstein for this very strategy in an article fittingly headlined "Drinking Better: Sales of liquor are up in Idaho, but not because people are drinking more." Writer Jessica Murri explains how Wasserstein envisions his state-run liquor stores more like "big jewelry store[s]," with classy wood shelving stocked with plenty of luxury products.

"Our committee can bring in anything we think is interesting and good for consumers," Wasserstein notes. "And part of driving revenues [for the state] is in bringing in expensive things that can move."

The Gem State pulled in $179 million in revenue last year courtesy of the ISLD, which Wasserstein jokes must stand for "I sure like drinking." They sure like drinking in New Hampshire, too, but, increasingly, more residents are opting to drink quality as opposed to quantity, thanks specifically to the options Roy is providing them.

"Being 'control,' Mark really doesn't have to do what he does [for New Hampshire]," Chris Fletcher of Jack Daniel tells me. "It's not like the state gets any discounts for the bulk purchase of our barrels. They could just as easily push our regular bottles out the door. But the effort he puts in? It's just really neat."

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Roy is quite humble about his own importance in New Hampshire's liquor chain—a state the Breaking Bourbon blog recently ranked the #3 state for buying bourbon in the whole US. "I think, ultimately, I have a small effect on it all," Roy tells me. "The sales and the 'viewability' that the suppliers are going to get of their products is what really matters.... We have prime locations on the highway. People find a good bottle in New Hampshire, now they're texting, telling all their friends. When special whiskeys come to our state, they are getting showcased, bought, and then quickly spread throughout New England."

That's one reason the distillers like being in bed with certain control states. The state of New Hampshire has been hand-picking barrels since 2001, well before barrel selections became de rigueur among liquor stores. And Jack Daniel isn't the only distillery Roy has purchased barrels from, either. In the past few years, he's grabbed one-of-a-kind casks of Buffalo Trace, W. L. Weller, Blanton's, WhistlePig, Knob Creek, Crown Royal, Dewar's, Herradura, and Patrón, and he's even blended his own barrels at Angel's Envy in Louisville.

This isn't one man's whimsy, though. Roy is only able to have such power because his customers are pumping so much money back into New Hampshire's economy. New Hampshire is easily the most profitable control state, with $642 million in alcohol revenues last year, $151 million of which went back to the state to be used for education, health and social services, transportation, and natural resource protection.*

* In my research, I couldn't help but notice that control state liquor stores were once called "dispensaries," a term that parallels the legalized-marijuana dispensaries now pumping so much money back into Colorado, Oregon, and Washington's government funds.

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Patrón's En Lalique retails for $7,499.99; only 700 bottles were produced.

"The Liquor Commission is a vital source of state revenue," Roy says. "That's why more and more legislators have recognized the need for flexibility. We require far more flexibility than a typical state agency."

So flexible is New Hampshire's treatment of alcohol sales compared to that of its neighbors that a good 50% of the state's 11 million yearly consumers actually come from out of state, many from nearby Boston. They're lured by the low prices, tax-free purchases, outstanding customer service, and a massive selection, curated mostly by Roy. Liquor geeks are drawn by the rarities you'll almost never see stocked in other states.

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Retailing for $4,999.99 each, three bottles of Appleton Estate 50-year rum were made available in New Hampshire. Only 800 were produced in total.

Roy says he "keeps his ear to the ground" and devours Whiskey Advocate and Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown's newsletter, among other industry periodicals. He wants to know what obscure items will be released soon—and then he tries to figure out how to obtain them. In the last few years, Roy has landed extremely limited bottles of Glen Grant 50 Year Old (only 150 bottles in the world), Ladyburn 41 Year Old Single Malt Scotch (only 400 bottles in the US), Glenfiddich 1978 Single Malt Scotch (only 110 bottles in the world), Appleton Estate 50 Year Old Jamaican Rum (800 bottles worldwide), and, most notably, even The Macallan "M Decanter." These are wildly rare bottles you couldn't find in most of the finest liquor stores in New York or San Francisco—yet there they are, stocked in an outlet off the side of a mundane New Hampshire highway.

"There were 24 bottles [of M] for the entire world, and we got three of them!" Roy tells me proudly, though he wants me to realize that obtaining these rarities isn't just about interstate bragging rights. "We have a customer base actually buying these products, too"—he attributes that to being both tax-free and centrally located within New England. "They're not just showcase items that sit around gathering dust."

Yes, not only did those three Macallan M Decanters sell for $4,999.99 each, but Roy acquired two additional bottles from a nearby privatized state—and those sold, too! It's enough to convince many distilleries to quit worrying and to start loving control states like New Hampshire—product actually moves.

"Building that relationship with the state [of New Hampshire], Mark, and the team that picks our barrels is very special to us," Ana Kornegay tells me. She's the brand director for Jack Daniel's Craft and Luxury division, overseeing strategy for the company's higher-end lines, like the single-barrel "Personal Collection" program, Gentleman Jack, and Sinatra Century, of which only 10,000 bottles were released in the US. Roy was able to bring a good portion of those $500 bottles into his stores.

"A [privatized] state, like California or New York, won't go out of their way for brands in the way we will," Wasserstein believes—it's one reason he's been able to build such a good relationship with distilleries like Buffalo Trace and WhistlePig.

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Of course, if we're talking about fancy whiskey, then we have to talk about Pappy Van Winkle. The Van Winkle line has easily become the most sought-after in all of America; released every year, sure, though mostly unattainable for regular Janes and Joes. These bottles rarely appear on the shelves in privatized states—the few bottles available are almost always held in the back of the store for the most prized customers, or even kept by the store owners themselves. If Pappy does make it onto the floor of the store, it's often priced well above the suggested retail. (Nowadays, Pappy 23, listed at $250, sells for upwards of $2,000 on the secondary "gray" market and in more unscrupulous private liquor stores.) These are problems control states are able to combat. Somewhat.

"We enjoy a great relationship with control states. They are very important customers," Kris Comstock, the senior marketing director of premium whiskey Buffalo Trace, tells me. The Kentucky distillery produces not only the six different Van Winkle expressions but also the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), probably the second most coveted line of whiskeys on the market at the moment. "Control states do a nice job offering bottles to their customers as fairly as possible, and maintaining fair prices."

While control states don't seem to get any more Pappy or BTAC than the other states—Buffalo Trace remains coy on the exact distribution numbers—it is far more likely that you will actually see a bottle "in the wild" in these control states. In other words, actually sitting on the shelves.

"As soon as it's announced, my phone starts ringing off the hook. I immediately know the [yearly Pappy Van Winkle] press release has just come out," Roy tells me.

All control states release their bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, and other LEs (nerd parlance for "limited editions") at the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP, set by the distilleries—no price gouging here. Likewise, since they're government institutions, control states don't allow for any sort of employee shenanigans, like, say, that one rogue clerk "keeping something in the back" that's only to be brought out for certain customers he favors.

In New Hampshire, most limited-release bottles are put right on the shelves, often unannounced, usually with a two-bottle-per-customer limit. That's how BTAC is handled, though Roy notes that clever shoppers always figure out when that release day will occur, often after monitoring delivery-truck shipment schedules, and will have lined up outside the stores before they've even opened for the day.

For Pappy Van Winkle, however, New Hampshire does an online lottery, which is becoming increasingly common among control states. In Idaho, anyone can enter the Pappy lottery so long as they're able to get to Idaho to pick up their bottle—around 4,000 folks entered last year in the hopes of winning one of a reported 250 bottles or so. In Pennsylvania, you must be a state resident if you hope to score one of the state's 1,500 or so Van Winkle bottles. All this is great for regular folks looking to buy "unicorn" bottles, but many hardcore whiskey hunters admittedly don't like this so-called fair system.

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Only 320 bottles of The Macallan Masters of Photography ($1,499.99) were released in the US, and New Hampshire had six of them.

"For me, control states take the fun out of hunting bourbon," Blake Riber of Bourbonr tells me. He lives in Florida, a privatized state. "I'm sure there's thousands of people in the lottery that have just heard about Pappy on TV, so they enter." Likewise, a whiskey collector friend from New Hampshire told me, "For me, I have no opportunities to build a relationship [in a control state]. I'm a good customer, yet I have to wait in the same lines or enter the same lottery for the limited stuff as everybody else."

Though he did hit nearby store #38 on the day the BTACs came out last year—scoring a Stagg and a W. L. Weller—my New Hampshire friend gives most of his weekly whiskey business to Julio's, a privately run liquor store in Westborough, Massachusetts. There, the thousands of dollars he spends per year allow him to get "hold" cards and preferential treatment on special bottles, like Yamazaki's Single Malt Sherry Cask. Despite all that, he does begrudgingly admit to liking the "democracy" of New Hampshire's stores. Many people do.

"You're always going to hear people mention the 'p word,'" Roy tells me right before we finish our call. "Let's go private, get it out of government hands. But look at other states that have done that and the situations they're in." In fact, a recent study showed that Washington State residents who voted to privatize liquor sales in 2011 now regret supporting the measure.

"The grass is always greener," adds Roy. "We work hard to give customers the best service and the best bottles we can. I really do think it's worth keeping liquor sales in the government's hands."