The costs of convenience

Abandoned liquor store

Over at Blue Oregon, politico and former pub owner Jesse Cornett argues against liquor privatization, satisfied with the system the way it is:

Bar and tavern owners obtain their liquor almost the same way that anyone in Oregon does: they buy it from a liquor store. It comes with a small discount and can include delivery. When I called in my order, they would ask when I wanted it. Right away? Sure. See you in 30 minutes. At a certain time? Great, we’ll see you then. Run out of a particular product late in their hours? Just pop by. Call on your way and it’s sitting at the counter waiting for you. The system works exceptionally well for Oregon’s pub, bar and restaurant owners. Obtaining liquor was much more convenient than any other product.

Jesse is absolutely right about this. Oregon’s system makes buying liquor simple. To stock the bar I manage, I make one phone call, receive one delivery, and write one check. Easy! In contrast, our wine buyer deals with more than a dozen distributors, taking separate deliveries and writing individual checks for each of them. Pain in the ass!

So yes, the current system is convenient for bar managers. But that’s a terrible reason to keep it in place. It leaves unaddressed, for starters, the cost to the bars. Licensees in Oregon receive only a very small (about 5%) discount off retail. The set price means we don’t spend time bargaining or making deals, or what is known in less regulated states as “doing your damn job.” It also means we pay more for our liquor, making it harder to put quality spirits in our menu cocktails.

The situation is even worse when we want to bring in relatively esoteric spirits from other states. Oregon distilleries benefit from the fact that the state’s monopoly buyer, the OLCC, gives them de facto favorable treatment. The agency is very likely to “list” their products, meaning it will purchase them in bulk and sell them at a lower price. That’s good for local distillers, but not so good for out-of-state producers and the consumers who want to buy their spirits.

As an example, I requested aquavits made in the Midwest as special order items this year. To the OLCC’s credit, they both eventually arrived, but our system renders the prices exceedingly high. The Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit sells in Oregon for $42.45 a bottle. In its home state of Wisconsin, I see it selling for $29.99. The North Shore Aquavit from Illinois? $47.25 in Oregon, $27.99 at Binny’s in Chicago. Shipping costs account for a portion of the difference, but not nearly all of it.

Advantaging local distillers over out-of-state producers shouldn’t be the goal of our distribution laws. It may even be unconstitutional. I have no doubt that skilled local producers will continue to thrive in a private market, just as they do in the privatized beer and wine system. And if there are some producers who cannot survive without the government buying their product in bulk, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the business.

(As a point of contrast, Matt Yglesias notes at Slate today that Washington, DC’s unique openness to importing spirits is part of what has made the city’s bar scene so fantastic. Oregon would do well to follow its lead.)

If Jesse’s argument were correct, there would be no reason not to extend it to restaurants’ other inputs. If a state monopoly on liquor is so great, why not monopolies on beer and wine too? Or on meat and cheese and fish and bread and vegetables? It would be so much easier on the chefs! But no one would take these ideas seriously, because we’ve long since figured out that essentially free markets are the best way to distribute normal goods. Liquor is a mostly normal good – and to the extent that isn’t because of negative externalities, taxes are a far better way of addressing that than inefficient distribution is.

As I never tire of reminding people when it comes to questions of distribution, markets are for consumers. Not only consumers who want local products, but all consumers – even the ones who just want stuff that’s basic and cheap. They would very much like to pick up a bottle for a few dollars less than they pay now and not have to visit a special store to get it. This is why privatization is likely to happen eventually, regardless of how it affects bar managers and local distilleries. Consumers are tired of dealing with a distribution system designed for the 1930s.

And this is where Jesse has a good point: There are going to be winners and losers with privatization, and distributors and large retailers are going to exert their influence to ensure that they get an advantage. This is one reason that Washington state’s privatization measure bars entry to new, smaller stores. If Oregon privatizes via ballot initiative, as appears increasingly likely, then we may end up with similar problems.

The solution to this is acknowledge that getting privatization right is difficult, but doable, and to demand that the legislature write a bill that learns from Washington’s mistakes and puts consumers first. The alternative is to wait for ballot initiatives written by retailers, one of which will inevitably pass.

[Photo by Joseph Novak used under Creative Commons license.]

[Disclosures: In addition to working as a bartender, I consult for several spirits brands and beverage-related products. I have not worked for retailers or distributors.]

New cocktail books — and a reader giveaway

In the past few months a slew of cocktail books have come out that share one detail commending the excellent taste of the authors: They all include a recipe or two from me. That’s all I need to know to conclude that a book is worth buying, but for those with more exacting standards, here’s a little more information about them.

901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide, Stew Ellington — For truth in advertising, it’s hard to beat the title of Stew Ellington’s book. It is what it says it is. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect from it. The size is the first surprise. The book is big, with a nice hardcover, and spiral bound so that it lays flat while open. This makes it ideal for referencing while mixing. Like the title says, it’s practical.

After a brief introduction the book launches into “68 lists of the cocktails by type, flavor, theme, and more” to fit every mood, occasion, or whim, including “postprandial” and “expensive.” Then comes the meat of the book, 901 Ellington-approved cocktails presented in alphabetical order and given a star ranking.

My Shift Drink is one of the cocktails, earning a ranking of 4 1/2 stars. Before this goes to my head, I’ll note that other 4 1/2 star cocktails include the Surfer on Acid and the Goober. Part of the fun of this book is that it’s so eclectic and isn’t afraid to slum it with ingredients like coconut rum and Midori. These drinks appear right alongside mixologist favorites like the Brooklyn and Boulevardier. Stew is a passionate enthusiast rather than a professional bartender, and even if I question some of his selections, he reminds me to take off my blinders and try things I may normally overlook.

One of my frustrations with many contemporary cocktail books is that in the hunt for originality, they call for ingredients that are too esoteric or require too much preparation for easily trying things out. These books certainly have their place, and I enjoy them, but making complicated drinks is what I do for a living. When I come home, I want a book I can flip through to find something to try on a moment’s notice. Generally eschewing homemade or hard-to-find ingredients, 901 Very Good Cocktails is perfect for that. Anyone wanting a cocktail book that rewards casual and frequent exploration will be very happy with it.

Savory Cocktails, Greg Henry — Greg is a food and drink writer based in Los Angeles. His collection of savory cocktails rounds up mostly contemporary drinks in chapters focusing on sour, spicy, herbal, umami, bitter, smoky, rich, and strong. This is a very culinary approach to cocktails, and many of the recipes will require some shopping or preparation. They look like they’re worth the effort. A couple beer cocktails, including a take on the Dog’s Nose garnished with porcini mushroom powder, I have bookmarked for trying soon.

My own Golden Lion and Smokejumper are included, along with classics, Greg’s originals, and contributions from other notable bartenders. Greg is also a professional photographer and the book is very attractively shot. Definitely recommended for fans of strong, unusual flavors and those willing to put some work into making fantastic drinks.

Mezcal: Under the Spell of Firewater, Louis E. V. Nevaer — Where to begin with this one? A friend alerted me that my Mexican Train mezcal cocktail appeared in this book, so I ordered a copy expecting a solid introductory guide to the spirit. How could I have anticipated that Mezcal 101 would include a chapter on mezcal and sex?

You deserve just the right kind of mezcal. The kind that will make your nipples erect and irresistible to your partner. (Who needs ice cubes when you have mezcal on hand?) The kind that will make oral sex explode like fireworks. The kind that will mix with the taste of sweat, and salt, and the pheromones that emanate from each other’s nether regions to create something that, if it were to be bottled, would sell millions of flasks at Bergdorf Goodman.

If I’d written a chapter like that, perhaps The Cocktail Collective would have sold better. So maybe this book could have used a little editing, but in few spirits guides does the voice of the other come through so directly. It’s a slim volume, very offbeat, and you may find better resources for straightforward, factual information about mezcal. That said, it’s a fun book, and would probably be a useful reference if you’re visiting Oaxaca (which I’ve yet to do). The recipes for mixing and cooking with mezcal are also intriguing.

The Cocktail Hour: Whiskey, Brandy, and Tequila, Scout Books — You may remember Portland-based publisher Scout Books’ first trilogy of pocket cocktail guides, devoted to vodka, gin, and rum. They’re back with a sequel collection for the spirits above, once again featuring recipes from a bunch of mostly West Coast bartenders and writers, along with charming illustrations.

As with the first collection, I’m giving away a few sets of this new one to a few lucky blog commenters. To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post, one comment per person, before the end of the day this Friday (PST). On Saturday I’ll randomly select three winners and send them the set of books.

On the brand ambassador lifestyle

What being a brand ambassador is like the other half of the time. Photo from N. Huisman, Dubai Airport.

For the past three years, I’ve had one of the most fun jobs the hospitality industry has to offer: brand ambassador for a major spirits company. Being a brand ambassador means you get to be a bartender without committing to actual shifts. You get to be a salesman without having to actually do sales. You’re paid to combine the roles of educator, enthusiast, and bon vivant. You travel. You visit the best bars and bartenders around the country, try their drinks, and put the tab on the company card. The job’s got its perks.

My work as a brand ambassador was strictly part-time. I expect that doing it every day would have taken too destructive a toll on the body, like being a professional athlete but without the ennobling physical struggles and achievements. Unfortunately, my role was scheduled to change in July. The company was growing and it was decided that ambassadors would need to leave their other work behind and take the job full-time. I was naturally in line for the position, which offered the kind of compensation I haven’t enjoyed since leaving DC to make drinks and write for a living. A salary! Benefits! Paid vacation!

It was certainly tempting. But I’d already become frustrated with the extent to which my professional life was tied to alcohol. When your job involves spending a lot of time in bars sampling tasty cocktails, complaining about long hours isn’t the sort of thing that earns one sympathy from friends in more traditional lines of work. And I’m not going to lie: Having experienced both, a bad night at the bar is generally better than a good day at the office.

Even so, work is work, and it’s more satisfying when it’s doing something productive than when it’s simply logging hours. At times the brand ambassador job can feel like the latter. Regardless of whether the activity will accomplish any concrete objective, one feels the pressure to visit accounts. When there are more fulfilling ways to spend the time — writing, reading, cooking, being at home with a significant other — this gets to be a lot less fun than it sounds. But hey, it beats digging ditches.

Nearly every source of income I’ve had for the past few years involves some amount of drinking. The brand ambassador position does, of course. So do managing a quality bar program and writing about spirits and cocktails, both of which require tasting at the very least. This combination clearly wasn’t sustainable for the long-term, and going full-time into the most consumption-oriented job of them all would have been much worse. I could already picture the weight gain, the frequent meals in restaurants and airports, the late nights and groggy mornings. Some people manage to pull it off while remaining in reasonably good shape, but I doubted I’d be one of them. I figured I could do it for six months, max. Long enough to pay off some debts and maybe move to a new city.

That was my intention going into what should have been a breezy phone call to work out the details of a position that I’d already been essentially offered. But over the course of the conversation it became clear that what I wanted from the job and what the company needed weren’t in alignment. I mentioned my concerns about balancing health with the demands of constant travel and time spent in bars. I mentioned the book proposals and other projects I had in the works, and the priority they would take if they go forward. I’m not really sure whether it was excessive commitment to honesty or unsuppressed desire to tank the interview that led me to bring these things up, but bring them up I did. They needed someone more committed. The conversation went south. I knew, hanging up the phone, that I would not become a full-time brand ambassador. This was financially challenging. It was also a relief.

Having the job for a few years was a fun ride that took me all over the US and to Amsterdam and Sri Lanka. It was great while it lasted as a part-time thing, but taking it on full-time and exclusively began to be, despite the perks, a prospect I greeted with considerable ambivalence. I’m glad to be moving on and am already feeling healthier from easing out of the role the past few months.

The company and I parted on friendly terms and we’ll still work together on occasion. And lest this post sound too preachy, I’ll note that I’ll be working with some other brands and beverage-related products too. I’m not leaving the business (and I still like to Bone Luge — I’m hardly one to rail against excess). However my work going forward will be much more focused on discrete projects and events; these are the most interesting parts of the job for me anyway. And when I’m off work, I’m really off, so I’ll be free to devote more time to projects outside the industry.

In the months ahead I’ll be more often on the non-drinking side of the bar. I’m still running the cocktail side of things at Metrovino, and also picking up one night at week at my friend Kyle Webster’s new spot, Expatriate. I’m currently working with six different companies in the drink world on a variety of projects. Recent forays into street performance have reignited my enthusiasm for magic and led to actually earning some money from it. And as mentioned above, I have book proposals in the works, so if all goes well I’ll be having to write furiously in the not too distant future. For now I’ve narrowly avoided full-time employment once again, but this is more than enough to keep me busy and may even loosely resemble a career.