The Ohio Division of Liquor Control recently released a warehouse inventory reduction list featuring 700 underperforming spirits. In addition to a lot of dubiously flavored well liquors, several small-batch and niche liquors are at risk of disappearing from Ohio’s rolls of legal spirits because they’re not big moneymakers for the state.

Story by Jenny Rogers

Maybe it was the dreary weather, or maybe Columbusites were just particularly thirsty, but on a Monday evening in mid-January, the bar at M was busier than usual. It was packed with patrons eager to order a drink from Cris Dehlavi, a pioneer of Columbus’s craft cocktail scene.

The most frequent request that night? M’s Vanilla Old-Fashioned, a cocktail crafted with vanilla-bean infused Woodford Reserve, bitters, fresh OJ and Cherry Heering, a ruby-red liqueur beloved for its rich flavor and versatility (it’s a main ingredient in classics like gin-based Singapore Sling and scotch-based Blood and Sand).

Making more than 20 of the old-fashioneds on a Monday is atypical, but it’s still not all that surprising, Dehlavi says. People really love this cocktail.

But the restaurant’s patrons may not be able to order the Vanilla Old-Fashioned—in its current form—for much longer. That’s because Cherry Heering is one of more than 700 spirits named on the Ohio Division of Liquor Control’s most recent Warehouse Inventory Reduction (WIR) list, a roundup of spirits that, by the division’s standards, aren’t selling well and have the potential to lose their list status for good.

The sudden release of the WIR list is an unprecedented move that has craft cocktail advocates seriously concerned—and has the potential to change the way we imbibe in our city.

“This is a pretty rough list for us,” Dehlavi says. “The state de-lists things all the time, but I haven’t seen it like this before. It’s such a dauntingly big list of stuff that we use all the time.”

It features some spirits that likely won’t be missed—there are 17 flavors of Pinnacle vodka alone, as well as things like Bacardi Dragon Berry and a handful of sugary-sweet “moonshine” wannabes.

But also on the chopping block are products like the aforementioned Cherry Heering, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and dozens of exceptional whisky and mezcal varieties—items essential for creating the kinds of cocktails Columbus drinkers have come to expect on menus.

For those who have fought to bring new spirits into the state—and have worked to bring cocktail culture to Central Ohio—this list represents a huge step backward.

“These are specialty products without alternatives,” says Adam Roelle, wine and spirits manager for Cavalier Distributing and one-time beer and spirits manager at Weiland’s Market. “I’m not talking about a bunch of different flavored vodkas and shit like that—I’m talking about quality, unique items.”

Ultimately, whether or not this will affect your world depends on what you like to drink. Your Jack and Coke is safe. Something like Blind Lady Tavern’s Law and Order (mezcal, Ancho Reyes, Allspice Dram, lemon juice and pineapple gum)? Less so.

 

How did we get here?

After the repeal of the Volstead Act ended prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, the decision on how to regulate the reborn alcohol biz was left to the states. Among the states that chose not to maintain complete prohibition over alcoholic beverages, the majority established private license systems. But about a third of states—17 as of 2016—created government monopolies. (Fun fact: Ohio led the anti-booze charge, outlawing alcohol consumption a full six months before the rest of the nation, thanks in part to the presence of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, which put down roots in Westerville in 1909.)

In Ohio, we appoint businesses to sell liquor as agents of the state. Every bar and restaurant has to buy heavy liquor—beverages with alcohol content equal to or greater than 21.5 percent ABV—from an assigned state agency. (A parallel license system is used to regulate the sale and distribution of lighter alcoholic beverages, like beer and wine.)

“The state has this pesky number of 21.5 percent, which somehow changes normal business,” Roelle says. “It’s an absolute monopoly that’s federally OK. You can’t do this with any other business. Ohio, obviously, voted that we don’t like monopolies—look what happened with marijuana—but people don’t realize we already live with this when it comes to liquor.”

In theory, regulation ensures quality and that the booze you buy in Columbus costs the same in Cleveland. But it also means that the state gets final say on what’s allowed for sale. The process for getting a spirit listed appears simple enough: A bartender or distributor presents their case in front of division reps, who then give a yay or nay. But even with the go-ahead, there’s no promise a spirit will stay for long—209 Gin, which Dehlavi successfully advocated for last year, looks like it might be on its way out.

“It’s delicious,” she says. “That’s a big fat shame.”

“As a cocktail bartender, you understand the importance of an ingredient even if you don’t use it all that often. We’re talking about basic ingredients for a lot of classic cocktails.” —Barbara Reynolds, The Bottle Shop

The guaranteed money-makers—Absolut, Bacardi, Jägermeister —get a lot of love from the state. Niche products? Not so much. The spirits on the WIR list, dubbed slow-moving, represent just 4 percent of Ohio’s liquor sales—numbers that don’t justify the current inventory, the division argues.

“We want to focus on the new products consumers want,” says Kerry Francis, communications director for the Ohio Department of Commerce. “The inventory is too high for the products on this list. When (state liquor agencies) have products that aren’t moving, they’re just taking up space.”

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story—and the sluggish sales argument won’t placate bartenders. “Of course, Grey Goose Vodka sells hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cases,” Dehlavi says. “Something artisan, like Allspice Dram, you use only a quarter of an ounce in a drink. It can’t sell that much. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.”

Think of your spice cabinet at home. You use salt all the time, but that doesn’t make it worthier than thyme or coriander—at least not in a well-rounded kitchen.

“As a cocktail bartender, you understand the importance of an ingredient even if you don’t use it all that often,” says Barbara Reynolds, owner of The Bottle Shop. “We’re talking about basic ingredients for a lot of classic cocktails.”

Take mezcal. The selection of this smoky agave spirit is already limited in Ohio, and now there are seven varieties—including three Mezcal Vago products—in danger of being de-listed. “We’ve worked so hard to get them in the state, and we already don’t have much to begin with,” Dehlavi says. “You go to Chicago, and there are bars that have like 30 and 40 mezcals. We have just a few and they’re taking them away.”

And then there’s Pisco Porton. “It may not be a well liquor, but it’s incredibly important,” she says. “It has a rich history, and there’s no substitution.”

That’s the argument bartenders wish the state would hear: If you lose a flavored vodka or two, you have dozens more from which to choose. But if you lose Allspice Dram, cocktail menus across the city will need to be scraped and reimagined.

“I think the state needs to understand that we’re never going to sell 500 cases of Allspice Dram, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it available to us,” Dehlavi says.

This is the first warehouse inventory reduction in two years, Francis says, a practice typically performed twice a year. “In the past three years, more than 1,000 new products have been added, while virtually no products have been delisted,” she says. “We evaluate the status of products and make changes based on consumer demand.”

But Columbus’ growing cocktail culture relies on the availability of these products. We wouldn’t expect a chef to craft a crave-worthy menu with half the ingredients in his or her kitchen, so why should we expect our bartenders to do their best work while missing important spirits?

 

What can we do?

With just four months to save these products, many are nervously looking for a solution or an alternative. And it’s not as simple as buying up a ton of inventory, Dehlavi says. “I already order a lot!” she says. “We thought about it; we thought about buying all we can. But that won’t solve the problem in July when I’ve gone through everything.”

And, in any case, most cocktail bars can’t afford to buy bottles they don’t yet need. So, can anything be done? We can “vote” with our dollars, of course.

“Right now is the time that this stuff needs to be supported more than ever,” Roelle says. “Basically, you need to buy these products if you want to keep them in the state.”

But even if we order the brandy cocktail instead of the Moscow Mule and hit up Curio more often, that won’t solve the problem entirely. “People are already doing a good job of supporting the cocktail bars in this city,” Dehlavi says. “I think we have a good community of people who are going to these places, and people are drinking. People are definitely drinking. You can’t make them drink more.”

One thing to avoid? Heading out-of-state to (illegally) buy your spirits.

“You can still get this stuff here; nothing is going away for good … yet,” Roelle says. “I just spoke with a guy who runs a cocktail spot in Cincinnati, and he just got back from buying two of our items—on the WIR list—in Kentucky. I get it; he didn’t think he could get it anymore, and he needs it. But we’re too used to giving up. A lot of (bartenders) feel like, well, this is just another thing they’re doing to screw us.”

Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts understand that if Columbus is truly the cosmopolitan city we claim it to be, having access to the spirits on the WIR list is vital. “How do we get the state to see that money isn’t all that matters?” Reynolds asks.

When asked what factors—beyond sales—determine what ends up on a warehouse reduction list, Francis insists that the state’s goal is to offer the products consumers want.

“Some of the factors we look at include the amount of product inventory currently in the Contract Liquor Agencies and warehouses, how quickly products are selling and how sales compare to similar products,” she says. “We also look at seasonality and uniqueness.”

The challenge? Comparing these products is like comparing Mrs. Dash to saffron.

“For them to take these all away like this … I just think it’s wrong,” Dehlavi says. “It’s always been wrong, but I’ve never seen it like this.”

As for that Vanilla Old-Fashioned, Dehlavi’s plan B—a nonalcoholic cherry syrup—will likely keep customers happy, but the drink won’t be the same without Cherry Heering. Why? Because we’ve gotten used to the good stuff.

We have the talent here to make Columbus a true cocktail destination. All we need are the ingredients.

ENDANGERED, BUY NOW

Stock your bar with these spirits while you can.

  •    Cherry Heering
  •    St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
  •    No. 209 Gin
  •    Pisco Porton
  •    Amaro Lucano
  •    Armagnac Castarede
  •    Disaronno Amaretto
  •    Tamdhu single malt scotch whisky
  •    Courvoisier 12-year cognac
  •    Mezcal Vago
  •    Clement Martinique rum

A POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE

Control state expert Adam Roelle on a possible solution for liquor control woes

I have an idea that could possibly create the kind of market in which we could get quality products. Basically, we’d need to designate within each market—whether it’s Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland or Columbus—specific stores at which specialty and unique products can live and grow and not feel under constant threat of being kicked out of Ohio due to lack of sales.

Of course, people need to understand why we don’t already do this. Legally, a bar or restaurant is allowed to buy its products only from one assigned state agency, right? The challenge is, when we have so many places that want to do quality cocktails, we have to spread our inventory out among that many more stores. And these stores may only have one or two accounts actually using the products in question.

My proposal is to have about four specialty stores in each market where you could buy these products consistently.

Consider M; it’s known for great cocktails, but its state agency is Alum Creek. It sucks. They’re going to sell flavored vodka and rum all day, and good for them. But that store has nobody other than M using these unique spirits, which inflates the inventory in the market.

In my perfect world, M would still have to buy its Absolut, its Captain, its Kettle, its volume stuff from the state store. But for specialty items, they’d be able to get an order to Weiland’s or somewhere like that and get those products from there.

It’d make my job easier, too. I’d be able to grow these products, because I’d actually be able to do my job—sell, develop a market and grow brands—instead of going through the process of transferring bottle around and dealing with the state stores.

If we were able to keep these specialty markets as a thing, I really think it’d deal with the inventory issue. —As told to Jenny Rogers