As every drinking Virginian knows, liquor can only be legally purchased at state-run ABC stores.
So people had questions last week when bottles that look an awful lot like whiskey, vodka and rum popped up at a 7-Eleven in Richmond.
ummm I’m not trying to narc but uhhhh what is this liquor display in a convenience store in VIRGINIA, did I miss something?!?! pic.twitter.com/TQsaNwisLY
— taber (@taber) February 25, 2019
The store had not, in fact, gone rogue. Instead it was just among the first to begin carrying a new line of products that look and taste like liquor but are made from (and technically qualify as) wine.
The products are manufactured by Sazerac, a major New Orleans-based distiller, and are designed specifically for states like Virginia with strict regulations on where and how liquor can be sold.
They clock in at 21 percent alcohol by volume, which is the state maximum for a wine product and about half the strength of a standard spirit. Unlike liquor, which is distilled, the products are made by heavily filtering and then flavoring a wine base.
An ABC spokeswoman said the products were approved for sale in Virginia last year.
The branding is clearly intended to evoke the products they mimic without using words like whiskey or vodka. Hobble Creek is labeled as a “traditional, blended, special select” product. Stroyski is labeled as “Russian-style premium.”
The fine print on both describes them as “grape wine with natural flavors added.”
“They can be enjoyed neat plus they also make a fantastic array of mixed drinks,” said Amy Preske, a company spokeswoman. “We are very pleased with the consumer and retailer acceptance thus far.”
Sazerac is the biggest manufacturer to get into the market, but similar products have been available for years, sold primarily to restaurants in states where liquor licenses are expensive or otherwise cumbersome to obtain.
“It definitely suits a very niche need,” said Phil Reis, the sales manager of Premium Blend, a Miami-based company founded by two brothers 28 years ago in response to the high cost of liquor licenses there, which can approach $250,000.
“In Florida, you walk into a little Latin restaurant, a mom and pop shop, and they’re able to serve a margarita with a beer and wine license using our products. And that margarita often has as much alcohol, if not more, than a distilled spirit.”
That’s because while the products are generally about half strength, restaurants can just put twice as much in.
“People look at me and go, but that’s not real alcohol,” he said. “I say, let me serve you four drinks and let’s see if you can stand up.”
Designing products to match industry regulations is hardly new. Katja Seim, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the liquor industry, said it reminded her of how auto-manufacturers have responded to new fuel-efficiency requirements by designing a car’s weight to be just within a less stringent standard.
“It’s not that surprising that this would happen in the liquor industry, though I haven’t seen many clear examples like this,” she said. “It suggests that in a world where it’s relatively easy to adjust the characteristics of your products, you can do that to circumvent regulation.”
How do they taste? Passable, but not great, said Greg Johnson, a chef who owns Citizen in downtown Richmond and agreed to sample some of Sazerac’s offerings.
He described the whiskey-style product as “very weak and artificially flavored – it’s never seen any wood or a barrel or anything like that. It tastes like caramel coloring and whiskey extract.”
The vodka-style product, he said tasted like “very weak, very cheap vodka.”
But at $5 for a 375 millimeter, he says “the price point is right – for hooch.”
(Less sophisticated tasters said the products drink just like weaker versions of their bottom-shelf brethren — not necessarily offensive but not great, either.)
Johnson sees it as a down-market product that might appeal to low-income drinkers who can’t easily make it to a liquor store, though he said he could also see it appearing in some restaurants that don’t have full liquor licenses, which, while not prohibitively expensive as they are in some other states, do require restaurant owners to comply with a strict ratio of food-to-liquor sales.
“They could serve it in a dive bar or something like that,” he said. “By law I could serve a full bottle of this. I could put this next to a customer and they could drink the whole bottle because it’s considered wine. …
“It’ll get you there. It won’t be fun.”