Alcohol

Getting Virginia Off the Sauce

The Old Dominion's new governor promises to end the state liquor monopoly

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Ask an immigrant to tell you about her first impressions of America—especially someone who hails from a communist or socialist state—and eventually she'll get to the part about the grocery store. After a lifetime of empty shelves, poor selection, and unreliable hours, the cornucopia of an American Safeway or Kroger is a revelation. The colors, the music, the lights, the people! Massive stores crammed to the gills with three-dozen brands of cereal and 17 kinds of frozen potato products seem like something out of a dream.

This is how I felt the first time I bought booze outside my home state of Virginia.

Growing up in Virginia, the only liquor store I knew was the ABC "package store" in the local Bradlee Shopping Center. The linoleum was dingy, the adjustable industrial shelving a grimy grayish off-white. Unlike every other store on the strip there was no music, just the hum of the florescent lighting and the consumptive coughs of the other patrons. The clerks wore smocks over their clothes, a practice that had been abandoned by virtually all other retail establishments by my 1980s childhood. Every shelf was tidy and completely full of liquor—no problem there—but the selection was abysmal, with rows and rows of identical bottles lining the walls.

There was a Giant grocery store next door—a convenient place for revelations about the glories of the capitalist system—and a wine shop a few doors down. But neither of them sold booze. Only the state-owned, state-run ABC was authorized to vend hooch.

Virginia is one of 18 states where the government is the monopoly rumrunner. Supermarkets, gourmet shops, and corner stores are all forbidden to sell liquor. But Bob McDonnell, the newly-elected Republican governor, has promised to end the monopoly on liquor sales in the Old Dominion.

This bold gesture isn't because McDonnell is an especially thoroughgoing libertarian; there are plenty of other areas where he'd like to see more state involvement in the private lives of citizens, not less. This isn't a 12-step program to help the commonwealth go cold turkey on alcohol money either. McDonnell has no intention of letting Virginia's bottle-based income fall below its current levels of more than $100 million a year. In fact, part of the reason McDonnell is considering privatization at all is that he is looking for cash to spend on transportation infrastructure. He predicts that selling off the state's 334 liquor stores to private players and gathering licensing fees from more private sellers will bring in $500 million in the short run, while leaving long-run income intact. (The Washington Post remains unconvinced, noting that McDonnell's figures may be too optimistic.)

But no matter what the political and budgetary machinations, Virginians are unlikely to wind up paying more for their rotgut, and they are very likely to wind up with a better selection and a relatively skeeze-free shopping experience. Commonwealth officials can focus on governing a large landmass without having to fuss with the details of running a liquor empire. And the move may even represent a net gain for the state budget in the future when the state sheds responsibility for ABC employee benefits and pensions, and starts bringing in real estate and other tax revenue from the privatized stores.

And assuming they're not regulated within an inch of their lives and hemmed in by the continued existence of a state-dominated wholesale system, the privately-run stores are likely to be more profitable. In addition to being able to compete with D.C. on price, they can expand their stock—80 proof and otherwise. Right now, high-margin novelty rim salt and Jimmy Buffet-themed blenders aren't sold alongside the tipple in Virginia because the only thing stupider than a state selling intoxicants is a state selling Margaritaville Mixers to go with them. The number of stores will likely increase under privatization, although the cautious McDonnell has promised "a limit placed on the number of authorized retail outlets to reflect community concern."

Virginians haven't suffered alone with terrible state liquor retail establishments. But the number of states with public provision for gin gimlets mixins' is shrinking. Iowa, West Virginia, and Alberta, Canada have all privatized their moonshine vendors. Each of those states adopted revenue neutral privatization policies—meaning that they pledged to set rates to keep the flow of cash into state coffers from liquor sales steady. As it happens, the booze biz boomed and the tax money started flowing in, which meant those states had to reduce wholesale markup rates in order to keep too much money from flowing in to the state coffers and violating the terms of the deal. Washington State, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are considering similar plans. 

Another citizen-improving side effect of privatization: An end to the petty crime encouraged by the deprivations of a restrictive state monopoly. Turns out, for instance, that a friend of my family—a Virginia lady and veteran party thrower—has been violating state law for decades by popping up to Calvert Woodley Fine Wines & Spirits in D.C. to stock up the Bloody Mary bar. Bringing a case of Capital City booze into Virginia risks a $2,500 fine, a year in jail, and confiscation of her trusty Model A. But who can blame her? When I moved to D.C. as an adult, the liquor stores were a revelation. For starters, there are so many! Can't find Old Overholt for your Manhattans in Rosebud on 17th and R? No problem, they probably have it at Cairo on 17th and Q. Sure, most of the clerks are still surly, but you can always choose to hit a different store next time if the checker gives you guff about your fondness for Malibu rum.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: Get Us to 500 Donors, Or That's the Last You'll See of Lobster Girl

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  1. Washington State is one of those still trying to enforce Prohibition in some ways in its state liquor stores. Some stores actually carry wide stocks and take some chances – most others seem to be more like the VA ones you cite from earlier. Oh, yeah, you can special order something – but only a case at a time, and only if it’s on the pre-approved list of spirits approved by a state board.

    Feh. I head for Portland nowadays when I need to restock on anything but the most basic bar supplies.

    1. You realize that Oregon is a liquor control state too, right? Maybe our bread lines are just a little shorter than yours 🙂

      Beer and wine are grocery items though.

  2. Welch was right! No Lobster Girl in this article!

  3. He will not only fail, he will epic fail. There’s a major, and I mean major interest to seeing the monopoly continue.

    Talking about it is as far as you’ll ever get Virginia. Have fun with that.

  4. After a lifetime of empty shelves, poor selection, and unreliable hours, the cornucopia of an American Safeway or Kroger is a revelation.

    But think how those lines and poor selection “brought people together”.

  5. Mangu just doesn’t get it. Having lousy liquer stores benefits everyone who matters. If the liquer stores are bad and open at odd hours, that just means more people will go to restaurants and bars to drink rather than drink at home. That benefits the people who really matter (politicians) in two ways. First, restaurants and bars take some of the money they are making and give it to politicians to ensure they can keep their competetive advantage. You want a drink on Sunday? You better go to a bar because the liquer stores are closed. Second, those people drinking at bars are likly to get DUIs. And that produces the real goodies like big fat fines and justifications for increased police power.

    Given that, why the hell would any state government want to have free competition from liquer stores?

    1. John,

      I’m from VA and bars and resteraunts hate the ABC system because they have to buy retail prices by law not wholesale. Also there is a perverse law that says they need a 24 hour advance notice for purchases, but the stores are closed on Sundays. So if a bar runs out of given drink on a busy friday night, they cant get restocked until Monday. Look at this video for some mroe gems of the VA system: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3KQVRQIvKs

      However, I do agree there are special interests who want the monopoly… wine and beer distributors are one of them because they dont want the competition.

      1. That is totally screwed up. Most blue laws benefit bars and restaurants. But more than anything they benefit distributors.

        There is a whole list of people who leach via state and local law, liquer distributors, real estate agents, and car dealerships are the most egregous.

        1. VA liquor laws are bad. One of the worst things about VA.

    2. DC has private liquor stores and has more and and more upscale restaurants, bars, lounges, wine bars etc than Virginia or Maryland. Even the wealthiest ex-urban areas of Bethesda/Chevy Chase, north Arlington and Old Town Alexandria AT BEST have about the same amount of upscale drinkeries as DC. Which has private liquor stores.

      Your thesis fails empirical testing.

  6. OT: “Hasan Charged With 13 Counts of Murder in Ft. Hood Attack”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11…..quire.html

    1. I know the guy who is defending him. He was first a judge and then a defense attorney when I was out there. I have tried cases against him. J.P. Galligan is a clown of the highest order.

      The Army is going to fuck this up. They always fuck up death penalty cases. They fucked up the one where the guy shot all those people on the PT field at Fort Bragg. They will fuck this one up to. They will put one of their show horses on the case rather than someone who knows what they are doing. They will get a conviction but do something completely stupid with the sanity board or the admission of evidence and the conviction will be overturned on appeal. This guy will die of old age before they ever execute him. They don’t have the stomach for it and the JAG Corps is too political and incompetant. They should really try this guy in federal court. Let DOJ handle it. DOJ has shown that they can actually obtain a death penalty and make it stick.

      1. Thak goodness this all gets fixed in the future. One of my book characters is an Army JAG in the 2030s 🙂

        1. The state of Texas could charge him with murdering the unborn baby that he killed. The baby was a civilian, not military.

          1. That part of Fort Hood, I beleive is exclusive federal jurisdiction. I don’t think the state can charge him even though he killed a Texas resident. Too bad they can’t because that would be a good sollution. Texas is very efficient at enforcing the death penalty.

        2. Do we get flying cars by then? Or at least jet packs?

          1. No flying cars or personal jet packs in this series. But cargo aircraft, or almost any other aircraft not carrying people is automated and pilotless. The only fighters and bombers in the American fleet with pilots are Air Force.

    2. Are you saying he was drinking?

      1. The witness from the strip club he used to attend says he drank a few sips of lite beer.

  7. NH (not mentioned in the article) also has state-run liquor stores. They are profitable, diverse, accessible, and cheaper than neighboring states who have private liquor stores but tax the shite out of them. FFS, there are 3 state run stores on NH’s 10 mile stretch of I-95.

    Sure, privatizing in NH would potentially increase availability (depending how laws and zoning were revised post-privatization) and would potentially increase diversity (again, depending on how liquor laws were revised), but the status quo in this state really is OK.

    1. MP,

      NH wasn’t an omission. KM-W lists other states (and a Canadian province) which have privatized their liquor monopolies, she doesn’t catalog every “control” (government-monopoly) jurisdiction.

    2. No one has ever driven from DC to VA to buy liquor. So one thing VA (and NH)lose are sales to people out of state, and sales to in-state residents buying across the border.

  8. I wonder if anyone can explain why state-owned and operated liquor stores in New Hampshire sell liquor at lower prices than privately-owned stores in Massachusetts. The selection of wines in liquor stores in NH is decent but not exceptional, and wine prices are not any lower than in Massachusetts. But liquor prices are definitely much lower in NH. This is one argument for state-owned enterprises that I don’t know how to refute.

    1. Regarding wine, remember that wine and beer can be sold in retail shops in NH. There are a variety of boutique wine stores in NH with better selection than the state. Only liquor is restricted to state run stores.

      As for the price differential, much of that can be attributed to the fact that there is no direct excise tax on liquor in NH. The “profit” from the stores is the de facto tax.

    2. Because everything cost more in Manhattan, partly due to taxation and partly due to high rents.

      I can rent a 3 star hotel room in Philadelphia for $55 on priceline.com but it will be $455 in Manhattan and even if I use priceline.com it will be $275.

  9. Katherine Mangu-Ward on Booze in Virginia

    Careful! That’s how people get pregnant with their cousin’s child. (Wait, maybe I’m thinking of West Virginia.)

    1. It still works in Roanoke.

    2. Liquor can make you pregnant? I think you are supposed to take it orally.

  10. As a NH person, the reason our liquor is so cheap is that there is no tax on liquor beyond the profits the stores make.

    1. I think the fact that you can probably buy a storefront building in NH for $200,000 to house your liquor store and find decent employees who can add,subtract and conjugate verbs for $8 an hour may have more to do with it.

  11. “Old Overholt”

    I am reminded of a terrible night more than 30 years ago.

  12. Here in Pennsylvania you have go to the state store to buy your liquor and an entirely different package store to buy beer. Oh, and you can only buy beer buy the case. The logic being that if you only sold 6 packs, people would drink more.

  13. When I lived in PA (State College) back in the 8o’s you could buy beer to-go in bars, but only 2 6-packs at a time. So if you wanted the equivalent of 2 cases, you had to go in, buy 2 6-packs, bring them to your car and the do it again 3 more times.

  14. “Sure, most of the clerks are still surly”

    Say what? Katie, you must be the one who’s surly. I’m about a hundred years older than you, plus I’m a guy, but when I pop into Rosie’s or the Cairo for a forty of Olde English or Mickey’s Malt Liquor (“With the Imported Taste!”),* they treat me just fine.

    *Yes, this is a joke, because you can’t crack a forty around Dupont no more. I don’t know if this is economics or the goddamned hand of government bureaucracy.

  15. Washington State, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are considering similar plans

    Don’t know about the first two, but privatization will come to Pennsylvania’s LCB about a day after Jebus has raptured his flock into heaven.

    It’s a union vote for Democrats, plus add a couple dozen bible-thumpers in the GOP, which means it doesn’t have the votes in the legislature.

    1. Maybe two days later, if the Rapture happens on a Saturday.

    2. Being a Pa. resident, I’d say one day, or even two, is wildly optimistic.

      But we do have casinos now, so who knows.

  16. The promise to eliminate the state monopoly on package (by-the-bottle) sales of liquor was the only thing about McDonnell’s campaign that I found appealing.

    I suspect that this was really a move to disemploy a large number of state employees (and presumed Democratic voters), the bit about privatization was just spin.

    BTW, the guy is a slimeball. One of the “Women for McDonnell” featured in his campaign ad was an Assistant Atty General (ie, a state employee whom he supervised).

    1. What, you don’t like raising the speed limit on more rural interstates to 70 mph?

    2. Oh come on. He’s way prettier than Deeds. If you have to see someone on TV for the next 4 years, McD (and his womenfolk) are MUCH easier on the eye than that little demwit hick.

  17. Oh, and Kitty, the ABC stores in NoVa are far and away the best in the state, since they have to provide an incentive for people not to go to DC or MD for their booze. In many rural ABC stores you couldn’t browse, the inventory was all behind the counter and you had to go to the window and ask the cashier to get you your bottle.

    It was the Giant Food ref that gave you away.

    1. Mangu doesn’t know there is any Virginia outside of PW and Fairfax County.

    2. Ms. Mangu-Ward cannot help her provincial upbringing and it is rude for you to belittle her just because she has not had the exposure to the world that you Lynchburg and Dumfries cosmopolites are afforded.

  18. This was a big part of my vote for McDonnell (his opponent was so socialist he even wanted the government in the liquor business).

    So he better deliver on this.

  19. Imagine waking up tomorrow in Libertopia. This is the approximate reaction my wife had when I took her to my hometown of New Orleans for the first time. She was absolutely, totally flabbergasted at the fact that you could buy hard liquor at CVS (or the gas station for that matter). Not to mention the sheer amount of people who start off their day by having a three martini breakfast. She could not wrap her head around the fact that there are zero restrictions, you can buy whatever you want whenever you want.

    1. Ah yes…as a New York City native, the discovery of “no open container laws” in New Orleans struck me as amazing and remarkably civilized. (Of course, I haven’t been there in the height of public drunkenness season, either.)

  20. In Kansas we now have liquor by the drink and Sunday booze sales. From Liquor stores. Grocery stores sell only 3.2 beer.

    1. I grew up in a Tennessee county adjacent to the county where they make Jack Daniels. They make it in the same plant it was always made in, on a farm where they grow their own trees to make their own barrels and their own charcoal for filtering etc.

      It’s a dry county. They cannot sell it to you or even let you sample it when you take the excellent and free tour they offer, with local stand-up comics hired to be tour guides.

      They do at one point put you in a room where they flap the lid of a giant barrel at you and you do get tipsy from the fumes.

  21. Something weird – earlier this year I tried to purchase a liter of ethyl alcohol with which to preserve biological specimens. We’re talking the pure stuff, laboratory grade anhydrous alcohol. Turns out that as a private citizen (not a business) I can’t buy or order it online without running afoul of the ABC. So I drove up to DC and bough a bottle of Everclear. Not quite what I was looking for, but close enough for my purposes.

    1. And it is great with Campari and a citrus twist

      1. And flatworms!

  22. It used to be that Kansas had very restrictive sales practices and high taxes. People in the KC area would go to MO to buy booze. The Ks Revenue Agents would go lurk in a Mo liquor store parking lot, follow the person into Ks then bust them.

    The owner of a large chain liquor store in KCMO swore pout vagrancy warrants against them the KRS agents.

    1. Wow I have never heard that. Kansas didnt’ have liquer by the drink until the early 80s. It was the home of Carie Nation and had some seriously bad laws for years.

    2. Back in the ’70’s, MA would send Troopers to NH to bust MA residents. NH responded by arresting the Troopers for loitering. Governor Thomson also was the one who had Live Free or Die added to our license plates.

      Ah, the good old days, when NH really was a bastion of liberty.

      1. Virgnia ABC goons used to stake out Eagle Liquor, then follow Virgnians across Key Bridge and bust them the moment they violated Virginia’s law against “importing” more than the legal maximum. That ended pretty damn fast with the DC Council passed a law in the late 70s or early 80s making such shenanigans a felony.

        (Other good things the DC Council has ever done: {the null set})

        1. Eleanor Holmes Norton, otherwise a lying tax predator whore, did guilt Congress into giving first time home buyers a $7500 tax credit way back in 1997 or so

      2. Thomson once had a speech where a bunch of people protesting cuts in welfare benefits showed up. He told them that they could follow him back to his office and he’d find jobs for them.

        No one showed up.

  23. Per capita alcohol consumption in gallons of ethanol by State, United States, 2006

    Italics* indicate a state monopoly on wholesale or retail sales.
    1.99 or below:
    Alabama
    Arkansas
    Kansas
    Kentucky
    New York
    North Carolina
    Oklahoma
    Tennessee
    Utah
    West Virginia

    2.00-2.24:
    Georgia
    Indiana
    Iowa
    Maryland
    Michigan
    Ohio
    Pennsylvania
    Texas
    Virginia
    Washington

    2.25-2.49:
    Arizona
    California
    Connecticut
    Illinois
    Maine
    Minnesota
    Mississippi
    Missouri
    Nebraska
    New Jersey
    New Mexico
    South Carolina
    South Dakota

    2.50 or over:
    Alaska
    Colorado
    Delaware
    Dist. of Columbia
    Florida
    Hawaii
    Idaho
    Louisiana
    Massachusetts
    Montana
    Nevada
    New Hampshire
    North Dakota
    Oregon
    Rhode Island
    Vermont
    Wisconsin
    Wyoming

    I don’t see a whole helluva lot of correlation.

    * Goddam squirrel won’t allow me to use checkmarks. I’m firing up the barbeque and sharpening my knives you capricious fuckin’ rodent.

    1. Shouldn’t you control for age and body weight?

  24. Florida: Free and Drunk. Free and Drunk.

    1. And heavily armed…

    2. Although somewhat less than we used to be Pro Lib – remember drive-thru liquor stores?

  25. God I miss Louisiana. You can buy liquor in any grocery or convenience store until
    2 a.m.. Plus they have drive through daiquiri kiosks that sell liquor by the drink. Plus if you leave a bar, they have plastic cups by the door for you to pour the rest of your beer or drink in and take it with you!

    1. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should be a convenience store.

      1. Wins the thread.

  26. On KMG’s first paragraph: whenever a new family member makes it here from Cuba, I love the inevitable Costco trip.

  27. Perchance they can move this line of thought a bit further north. Howard County Maryland, to be precise. Howard County, and some other Maryland Counties (not sure which ones exactly), have regulations in place that prevent any establishment other than liquor stores and bars from selling my beloved ethanol alcohol in any of its glorious forms. This includes grocery stores, gas stations, etc. I called shenanigans as soon as I walked into a gas station for a sixer of something cheap. I figured that some sort of malfeasance led these local governments to adopt these ridiculous rules.

  28. This is one of the reasons I like Nevada. In my hometown supermarket, they keep the liquor right next to the slot machines.

    1. Yes. But when I moved to Nevada 20 yrs ago I was floored to find out Clove Cigarettes were banned.

      I could get hard liquor at the gas station, play the slots at the grocery store, rent a prostitute anywhere outside of Clark county – by they protected me from smoking spice!

      Now cloves are banned everywhere, and of course the feds have a hotline where you can call to report people selling the pre-ban cloves or who have just relabeled them as cigarillos but are selling them to cigarette smokers.

  29. Eric Brescia, the Ron Paul/libertarian candidate who ran as a Republican this year from Arlington/Falls Church (47th District) for delegate, started this idea and had it in his campaign platform before McDonnell adopted it.

  30. I only wish Pennsylvania would follow suit. Sheetz is trying to get beer sales in convenience stores. As someone who once worked in such stores, it was a daily question to travelers who wanted a six pack while camping. I had to tell them for a 6 pack, had to go to a bar, for a case had to go to a beer distributor. Or act like a local and drive across the border into MD and buy it anywhere!

  31. Can we please dispense with the idea that pro-life is “un-libertarian?”

  32. I hope that at least you can get a drink in a Virginia restaurant now without going through the nonsense of bringing your own bottle with you. Back in the day you brown bagged your booze and your server put it in a numbered locker and then poured your drinks one at a time. Restaurant owners loved it; they didn’t have the hassle of obtaining a liquor license and were allowed to charge you the earth for a glass, a couple of ice cubes and a splash of soda water.

  33. I wonder how much prices might change if/when this is changed. I can’t imagine its just something that can be changed at the drop of a hat. Tho the last time we had a republican governor he got rid of the car tax and it cost the state alot.. Just saying. You can see what the prices are now pretty easy on http://virginialiquorprices.com

  34. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  35. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  36. Can we please dispense with the idea that pro-life is “un-libertarian?”

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