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This article is one of a series on privatizing wine and spirits sales in Pennsylvania. The full list of articles may be found on the Privatization Index Page.

One of the mantras of the pro-privatization crowd is that a privatized system would expand product selection in Pennsylvania. I made clear in an earlier post that I believe the wholesale fees imposed by HB11 work against diversity of selection, but the question remains: How does the product range in our state stores compare to unrestricted private markets?

Top figures at the PLCB have publicly stated that they believe the selection in their stores to be comparable to what is found in license states. In a January New York Times article, CEO Joe Conti said that his Premium Collection stores are "as good as you would find anywhere in the country." PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton testified to the House Appropriations Committee in March, "We're very proud of the fact that [...] there's great product selection in Pennsylvania."

In general, the PLCB tends to compare itself to private liquor stores in other states as if it were just another retailer in a competitive market. This is a tacit acknowledgement of what residents in border areas perceive it as. Viewed from this perspective, the PLCB is a well-established, experienced retailer with a solid mass-market selection, generally reasonable prices, and attractive deals on some products that even draw in shoppers from out of state.

Of course, the PLCB is not "just another retailer." To those of us who live far from the state border, not to mention Pennsylvanians who wish to avoid breaking the law, it is the entire wine and spirits market. No other retailer can step in to serve consumers whose needs the PLCB leaves unfulfilled.

Given our statutory prohibition against choosing between competing retailers to shop at, the only reasonable evaluation of our available product range would be to select a sizable geographic region in a license state and put our state stores up against the combined selection of every private retailer in that region.

I don't have a list of all products available from all retailers in, say, South Jersey, but I do have distilled spirit price lists from a handful of specialty outlets across the country. Although these are a poor proxy for a comprehensive regional product list, they are sufficient to answer our original question.

A break-down of these price lists, with supplemental bottle sizes and gift packs removed, is as follows:

PLCBAstor W&SBevmo!
(HQ store)
The Party SourceBinny's
American Whiskey1920203751
Brandy - Flavored53121711
Canadian Whisky195193028
Eaux de Vie1025263048
Irish Whiskey1729303041
Liqueurs - Amari/Bitters921101417
Liqueurs - Cream1411313729
Liqueurs - Fruit4876112138147
Liqueurs - Herbal1116152123
Liqueurs - Nut910142318
Liqueurs - Other485282120109
Liqueurs - Pastis/Anise1119182127
Mezcal/Other Agave22871328
Other Whiskey1106817
Rum - Flavored4622517850
Rye Whiskey519131225
Scotch - Blends2837595879
Scotch - Single Malt37156132237571
Vodka/Gin - Flavored11866138233149
Whiskey - Flavored6381913
Whiskey - Unaged31751723

This is a snapshot as of June 30th, so the recent delistings aren't taken into account. Items from the PLCB online store are excluded in fairness to the other vendors, whose listings reflect items available on a store shelf for immediate purchase.

Looking at the numbers, it is fairly clear that criticisms of Pennsylvania's spirits selection are well-founded. Astor Wines & Spirits, a Manhattan retailer with as much retail floor space as one of our Premium Collection stores, stocks a variety of spirits half again greater than what is available across our entire state. Under a larger roof, The Party Source near Cincinnati carries a selection 2.5 times the size of ours. The 24-store Binny's chain in Chicago outdoes everyone with an enormous range of more than 2500 different spirits.

For enthusiasts who focus on certain categories, the discrepancy is even greater. There are only 37 bottlings of single-malt scotch in Pennsylvania, compared with well over 100 at every other retailer and an awe-inspiring 571 options (really!) at Binny's. Cognac drinkers must contend with a mere 22 selections, rather than 50+. Niche categories such as grappa and absinthe suffer further still.

The product management team at the PLCB is well aware of their standing in comparison to private stores, and about 18 months ago they began building a specialty spirits program focused around the online store as well as 32 designated specialty spirits stores which carry an expanded range of products. (Regular readers are aware that I've provided input to this program from the beginning.) In the course of 12 months, the in-store portfolio brought in about 70 new products and the online store nearly tripled its spirits selection.

Given enough time, can the PLCB reach the in-store product selection offered by the private retailers above? It doesn't seem likely, due to the PLCB's long-standing political obligation to make its products available to all populated areas of the state in a non-discriminatory fashion. The PLCB would need to expend more than $10 million on inventory and expanded retail floor space in dozens of locations around the state to stock product that, by and large, will simply collect dust for years.

Lacking a legislative mandate to relax this doctrine of equal treatment, our most likely path to a vastly expanded product range is through mail order. The PLCB's online store is making a sincere effort to pump up its selection, and it is possible that a change in state law may permit the shipping of spirits to Pennsylvanians from out-of-state private retailers.

On the other hand, if the legislature forges ahead with HB11, it is my sincere hope that the bill is amended to reduce wholesaler license fees to more reasonable levels. Only if that happens will privatization have a chance of bringing improvement to our product selection.
You may have noticed a new promotional category in the official product catalog called "State Mandatory". The PLCB is using this designation to flag items which every single store is required to stock, unless they receive special permission from Harrisburg. The criteria for being on the list is fairly straightforward: these are the items with the strongest, most reliable sales statewide, in every store cluster. (Each store is assigned to one of five marketing clusters based on its sales characteristics and surrounding demographics. You can read more about this on the PLCB website.)

What kind of blogger would I be if I didn't paste the list into my blog? For the enlightenment of all, here below are the 100 most widely popular spirit products in Pennsylvania:

American Whiskey
  • Banker's Club Whiskey 1.750 L
  • Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Black Label Whiskey 750 ML
  • Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Black Label Whiskey 1.750 L
  • Seagram's 7 Crown American Whiskey 750 ML
  • Seagram's 7 Crown American Whiskey 1.750 L
  • Evan Williams Black Label 7yr Bourbon 750 ML
  • Evan Williams Black Label 7yr Bourbon 1.750 L
  • Heaven Hill Bourbon 1.750 L
  • Jim Beam Bourbon 750 ML
  • Jim Beam Bourbon 1.750 L
  • Maker's Mark Bourbon 750 ML
  • Old Crow Bourbon 1.750 L
  • Christian Brothers VS Brandy 750 ML
  • Christian Brothers VS Brandy 1.750 L
  • E&J VS Brandy 750 ML
  • E&J VS Brandy 1.750 L
Brandy - Flavored
  • Jacquin's Blackberry Brandy 750 ML
Canadian Whisky
  • Black Velvet Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Canadian Club Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Canadian Gold Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Canadian Mist Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Crown Royal Canadian Whisky 750 ML
  • Seagram's VO Canadian Whisky 750 ML
  • Seagram's VO Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Windsor Canadian Whisky 750 ML
  • Windsor Canadian Whisky 1.750 L
  • Hennessy VS Cognac 750 ML
  • Banker's Club Gin 1.750 L
  • Burnett's Gin 1.750 L
  • Gordon's Gin 1.750 L
  • Seagram's Gin 1.750 L
  • Tanqueray Gin 750 ML
  • Tanqueray Gin 1.750 L
Irish Whiskey
  • Jameson Irish Whiskey 750 ML
  • Bailey's Irish Cream 750 ML
  • DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps 750 ML
  • Disaronno Amaretto 750 ML
  • Jägermeister Liqueur 750 ML
  • Kahlúa Coffee Liqueur 750 ML
  • Southern Comfort 750 ML
  • Southern Comfort 1.750 L
  • Southern Comfort 100 proof 750 ML
Ready-To-Drink Cocktails
  • Montebello Long Island Iced Tea Cocktail 1.750 L
  • Bacardi 151 Rum 750 ML
  • Bacardi Superior Silver Rum 750 ML
  • Bacardi Superior Silver Rum 750 ML (plastic bottle)
  • Bacardi Superior Silver Rum 1.750 L
  • Banker's Club White Rum 1.750 L
  • Castillo Silver Rum 1.000 L
  • Jacquin's Gold Rum 1.750 L
  • Jacquin's White Rum 750 ML
  • Jacquin's White Rum 1.750 L
  • Ronrico Silver Rum 1.750 L
Rum - Flavored
  • Calico Jack Spiced Rum 750 ML
  • Calico Jack Spiced Rum 1.750 L
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum 750 ML
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum 750 ML (plastic bottle)
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum 1.750 L
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum 100 proof 750 ML
  • Captain Morgan's Parrot Bay Coconut Rum 750 ML
  • Malibu Coconut Rum 750 ML
  • Dewar's White Label Scotch 1.750 L
  • Inver House Green Plaid Scotch 1.750 L
  • Jose Cuervo Especial Gold Tequila 750 ML
  • Jose Cuervo Especial Gold Tequila 1.750 L
  • Tortilla Gold Tequila 1.000 L
  • Absolut Vodka 750 ML
  • Absolut Vodka 1.750 L
  • Banker's Club Vodka 1.000 L
  • Banker's Club Vodka 1.750 L
  • Burnett's Vodka 1.750 L
  • Crown Russe Vodka 1.750 L
  • Gordon's Vodka 750 ML
  • Gordon's Vodka 1.750 L
  • Grey Goose Vodka 750 ML
  • Grey Goose Vodka 1.750 L
  • Jacquin's Vodka 1.000 L
  • Jacquin's Vodka 1.750 L
  • Kamchatka Vodka 1.750 L
  • Laird's Vodka 750 ML
  • Luksusowa Vodka 1.750 L
  • Nikolai Vodka 1.000 L
  • Nikolai Vodka 1.750 L
  • Nikolai 100 proof Vodka 750 ML
  • Nikolai 100 proof Vodka 1.750 L
  • Pinnacle Vodka 1.750 L
  • Skyy Vodka 750 ML
  • Skyy Vodka 1.750 L
  • Smirnoff Vodka 750 ML
  • Smirnoff Vodka 750 ML (plastic bottle)
  • Smirnoff Vodka 1.750 L
  • Stolichnaya Vodka 750 ML
  • Stolichnaya Vodka 1.750 L
  • Svedka Vodka 750 ML
  • Svedka Vodka 1.750 L
  • Vladimir Vodka 1.000 L
  • Vladimir Vodka 1.750 L
  • White Tavern Vodka 1.750 L
Vodka - Flavored
  • Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka 750 ML
  • Three Olives Cherry Vodka 750 ML
Why are these 100 products so important? They account for roughly 60-70% of unit sales. That's right: one-twentieth of the spirit products in PLCB stores represents two-thirds of sales. Making sure those products are in every store is a sensible plan in my book.

There are a few dozen wines marked as State Mandatory as well. They can be found in the official catalog.
I've revised the spirits selection report that I posted last week to further break down the "in-store" column. Read that post first for some background.

The biggest difference from the first report is that I've removed the 130+ in-store items that are on close-out. It seemed unfair to include these since the PLCB intends to remove them from the in-store selection. I've also removed the twelve spirits that are listed in fewer than eight stores (and not available online or by SLO) since these listings tend to be inventory errors, and no product is actually available in the listed stores.

Spirit Category100+ stores8 - 99 storesOnline onlySLO onlyTotal
American Whiskey19011737
Brandy - Unflavored
Brandy - Flavored5001015
Canadian Whisky1620826
Cordials and Liqueurs116105270401
Cream Liqueurs19401740
Eaux de Vie4143544
Grain Alcohol02013
Irish Whiskey11341432
Other Whiskey01034
Rum - Unflavored
Rum - Flavored39003271
Rye Whiskey320712
Vodka - Unflavored
Vodka/Gin - Flavored12500127252

The strangest result from this report is that the state seems to be using an all-or-nothing strategy in deciding where to stock spirits. The "premium selection" stores, of which there are seventy across the state, apparently represent an improvement of no more than 10% over the standard fare. The online store, which is supposed to improve product selection even further, contributes a paltry 6% more spirits. Tequila, bourbon and scotch are the only three categories in which the PLCB seems to be taking much advantange of the limited-availability and online-only options—augmenting the standard selection in each category by 25%, 33%, and 45% respectively.

The effect of removing the close-out and practically-unavailable spirits was dramatic in some categories. Cordials and Liqueurs lost almost a quarter of non-SLO items. Rye went from eight spirits down to only five: Jim Beam, (ri)1, Wild Turkey, Sazerac 6yr and Thomas Handy. The single non-SLO Armagnac disappeared, since only one store has stock. These differences underscore the fact that the PLCB product catalog isn't a direct representation of the selection available in stores.

There is some good news out of all of this. I'm told that the PLCB folks in Harrisburg are well aware that their spirits selection and allocation could be improved, and they're considering their options. Hopefully we'll see some improvements in the future.
In order to generate the updates I publish every week on this site, I regularly download the entire PLCB spirits catalog and import it into my own database system. This gives me the ability to run many different types of reports against the data besides the usual weekly update. I thought I'd start sharing some of the more interesting ones with you.

Today's report breaks down the spirits available from PLCB stores and SLO vendors by category. These are not the mostly-useless categories that the PLCB uses; they're a custom set that's similar to what private retailers in other states use: Absinthe, American Whiskey, Bourbon, Cachaça, etc. I've hand-sorted all of the PLCB spirit product listings into these categories. I've also removed "duplicate" products—although Tanqueray Gin is listed in six different sizes and two gift packs, it only counts as a single item in the table below.

Note that this table doesn't include wine (except vermouth and aperitifs), non-alcoholic mixers, pre-mixed ("RTD") cocktails, etc. It also doesn't include 35 spirits that I was too lazy to go figure out what they were, like "Gokoo Comfortable Sky" and "Sans Rival Masticha".

**Update (Feb 4): The "In-store" column below includes both spirits available off-the-shelf in retail stores and spirits only available from the PLCB's online store. As a commenter pointed out, this is a bit deceptive, and I'll break out online-only items separately in future reports if possible.

**Update (Feb 9): I've posted an updated report with the in-store column broken down further.

Spirit CategoryIn-storeSLO onlyTotal
American Whiskey211839
Brandy - Unflavored162238
Brandy - Flavored61016
Canadian Whisky18826
Cordials and Liqueurs172260432
Cream Liqueurs271643
Eaux de Vie103545
Grain Alcohol213
Irish Whiskey211334
Other Whiskey134
Rum - Unflavored3982121
Rum - Flavored472976
Rye Whiskey8614
Vodka - Unflavored8268150
Vodka/Gin - Flavored141115256

The in-store breakdown is unsurprising. The catch-all category of Cordials and Liqueurs is the largest; followed by flavored vodka; with scotch, unflavored vodka, and tequila in distant third place. Bourbon and flavored and unflavored rums come in fourth, and then everything else together adds up to less than a quarter of the total.

Some old grumbles stand out here. There is not a single pisco available in stores, although at least 20 different labels are imported into the US. Only two cachaças can be found on the shelves, neither of which I recommend. And now that Coeur de Lion has been put on close-out, we're limited to a single Calvados and a single Armagnac. (I would grouch about aquavit too, but there are like five aquavits available in the whole country, and it's not exactly a high-volume market.)

I was surprised to see that almost sixty gins are available, half of them in stores. A quick investigation revealed that half the in-store gins are well brands, but we still have some bright lights in the gin section: Plymouth, Hendrick's, Beefeater 24 and Bluecoat are all nontraditional labels that I'd be quick to recommend. Unfortunately, there are still too few modern gins in stores, and I look forward to the day I can walk into a Wines and Spirits Shoppe and pick up Citadelle, Martin Miller's, North Shore, Aviation, No. 209, Old Raj, and many others.

Let's talk about whiskey. The bourbon fanatics who always complain that there are few decent bourbons available in stores seem to be right. In recent years the state has added a number of high-end Van Winkle bourbons, as well as the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, but other than that, choices are pretty much limited to the the basics: Beam Small Batch labels, BT's mid-range bourbons, Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve. Surprisingly, there isn't much bourbon available by SLO—mostly well brands and eclectic labels. The bourbon selection in Pennsylvania leaves much to be desired. (For comparison, Bevmo in California has 87 bourbons available to be purchased off the shelf.)

In comparison, scotch drinkers have less to complain about, scotch being the third largest category for both in-store items and total items. While a selection of 88 scotches is fairly weak compared to larger private retailers, adding in SLO items brings the total to 233. Is it fair to give the PLCB credit for the SLO scotches? More so than for other spirit categories, I think—the in-store selection covers most of the lower-priced scotches, so SLO scotches tend to be expensive enough that distributors will allow retail customers to order single bottles. (Sometimes they need a kick in the tookus to remind them of this. For example, the PLCB website says that Southern wants a minimum order of six bottles of Bowmore 25yr at $187 a pop. This is insane, but it's probably wrong.)

On to my favorite category: rum. I love rum. And, unusually, the PLCB seems to be taking a proactive approach to this fast-growing market. High-end rums on the shelf include not just the heavily-marketed stuff like 10 Cane and Tommy Bahama, but true gems like Appleton Reserve, Mt Gay XO, Matusalem Grand Reserve, Zacapa 23 and Zaya. They even took a chance on a Martinique rum—Clement White—and although it didn't work out, it's unusual to see a niche artisianal product like this show up in stores at all. I hope demand materializes for the other rums, as it would be sad if the PLCB took a gamble on this market segment and Pennsylvania consumers just kept buying Bacardi and Captain Morgan.

The other segment with huge growth at the moment is tequila. Here the PLCB seems to be stuck in 2003. Sure, there are 70 tequilas available on the shelves, but they're mostly the same brands that have been on the shelves for years: Don Julio, Cabo Wabo, Herradura, Patron, and of course all the mixto garbage. Many of the higher-end labels are offshoots of the old giants, like 1800 (Cuervo) and Gran Centenario (Sauza). It's nice to see newer entrants like Corazón and Siembra Azul, but where are the benchmark tequilas that people in other states have been drinking for years? Where are El Tesoro and Partida? Where are Chinaco and AsomBroso? Sure, they're available by SLO, but our tequila drinkers deserve better than that. For now, I just point people to Siete Leguas and leave it at that.

The rest of the categories I can't say much about. Eaux-de-vie seem underrepresented, especially since that category includes kirsch and slivovitz and other fruit distillates; grappas, at least by SLO, seem overrepresented. The cognac selection feels pretty slim, particularly for in-store items, as all but four of those in-store items are from the Big Four cognac houses. It'd be nice to have some Frapin or Ferrand stuff in stores. As for shochu and soju...well...maybe in ten years they'll start catching on.

What can we determine from all this? With the exception of rum, scotch, and of course vodka and flavored spirits, the PLCB in-store spirits selection seems weak. Considering the statutory restrictions under which the PLCB operates, it may be best to resign ourselves to the fact that in-store product selection will probably always be highly conservative. The way things work now, if a product isn't popular enough in the middle of the state, it can't be stocked at either end of the state.

However, with the growing interest in high-end spirits and cocktails in the US, the PLCB may want to consider alternative means for giving retail customers access to speciality products. Reducing the learning curve for the SLO process would be a good start—why can't SLOs be placed through an e-commerce website, instead of requiring a series of coordinating phone calls between the customer, the special purchases section, and the fulfilling distributor? In addition, expanding the range of spirits available through the existing online store should be an easy thing to do, and promoting it more heavily would probably do wonders for online sales.

Well, I hope this analysis has been as interesting to read as it was to write. Leave a comment with your thoughts, and feel free to ask questions or make suggestions for future analyses.

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