A $2,000 glass of whiskey, a state law banning bars and a years-long fight lawmakers can’t seem to untangle

By: - August 23, 2018 6:01 am

Mac McCormack stands behind the bar at McCormack’s Whisky Grill in Richmond, which specializes in high-end liquor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It’s really thick, intensely flavored and, at McCormack’s Whisky Bar in Richmond, it goes for $2,000 a glass.

“It’s absolutely unique compared to other spirits,” says owner Mac McCormack, describing The Macallan M, one of the world’s most expensive whiskeys.

A bottle retails for as much as $6,500, so the mark up is reasonable in the scheme of things. What’s unreasonable, McCormack says, is the fact that he can’t sell it and the other high-end liquors his bar is known for without running afoul of state laws aimed at banning bars.

Enter the ratio — a long-debated but never defeated scheme to limit liquor sales to bona fide restaurants. At least 45 percent of a restaurant’s sales must come from food and non-alcoholic beverages under the law. Beer and wine don’t count, but liquor and mixed drinks do.

For most restaurants, meeting the requirement doesn’t present a challenge, say ABC officials.

But at McCormack’s, with it’s $2,000 top shelf, the ratio is a constant worry.

For the record, he only sells about one glass of The Macallan M a year. More common but still ludicrously expensive sales come in at around $200 to $300. For instance McCormack’s might sell a $260 glass of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s every other day. And he has plenty of whiskeys priced in the $8 to $40 range.

It all evens out to an average liquor sale of $22, which sounds reasonable but remains troublesome when you consider his average entree price is just $18. And while he promises the mac and cheese he sells is “some of the best you’ve ever had,” even the hungriest customer is only likely to eat one dish worth while they could easily have three drinks.

Restaurants specializing in craft cocktails, which can go for as much as $20 a drink, are running into similar problems.

A glass of 20-year-old Pappy sells for $260 a glass at McCormack's Whisky Grill.
A glass of 20-year-old Pappy sells for $260 a glass at McCormack’s Whisky Grill. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After he got hit with his second ratio violation, McCormack took to the courts in the hopes of getting it overturned. It didn’t work. He lost his case in Richmond Circuit Court. Last year, the state Court of Appeals ruled against him and the state Supreme Court refused to take up his case, saying it’s a matter for the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, McCormack sold the bar to avoid losing his liquor license. The new owner got a new license and, with it, a fresh start on ratio violations. McCormack remains general manager.

The General Assembly has debated changing the ratio for years but has thus far failed to reach an agreement. While past efforts have focused on simply lowering the ratio to either 25 or 35 percent to make it easier to meet, this summer lawmakers have been considering what a total overhaul might look like.

The Senate subcommittee on alcoholic beverage control heard Tuesday from Travis Hill, the CEO of the state’s department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, who proposed potential solutions:

  • One would set a fixed threshold for monthly food sales that, if exceeded, would exclude a restaurant from meeting the ratio. Hill said that if it was set at $10,000, 92 percent of licensed restaurants would qualify. At $20,000, 81 percent would qualify and at $25,000, 76 percent.
  • The second would set a threshold based on the number of seats in a restaurant.
  • A system based on the liquid volume of alcohol sold has been ruled out already as impractical.

The senators on the panel haven’t given a clear indication of how they feel about the proposals.

Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, wondered whether buying food shouldn’t just become a prerequisite for drinking. “Why can’t it be if you drank three beers, you have to buy a hamburger or something,” he said.

ABC officials said Utah takes an approach similar to that but that it’s hard to enforce. “They don’t make you eat it,”Hill said.

The restaurant industry is still uncertain about the proposal as well. “I’d love to be able to tell you we have a definite consensus but we’re still a work in progress,” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association.

The committee plans to continue discussing and gathering feedback with the aim of introducing legislation this year that might finally be able to pass.

For his part, McCormack thinks the threshold approach would solve his problems. But he’d love it if the state just gave in and just started allowing bars.

“The law is so antiquated,” he said. “There’s bars in every other state. There are bars in Virginia. They just pretend to be restaurants.”

Mercury staffer Mechelle Hankerson contributed to this report.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.