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States allow a taste at liquor stores

With about 5,000 brands of liquor available on store shelves, suppliers of some top-selling spirits hope modernization of state alcohol laws will get customers to try new products.
Image: Eunique Brown
Beginning in July, Virginia will let customers sample products before buying at about 330 Alcohol and Beverage Control, or ABC, stores.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With about 5,000 brands of liquor available on store shelves nationwide, suppliers of some top-selling spirits hope modernization of state alcohol laws will get customers to try new products boost revenue for them and states.

Virginia is one of the latest states to change what critics say are outdated alcohol laws. Beginning in July, the state will let customers sample products before buying at about 330 Alcohol and Beverage Control, or ABC, stores.

New Jersey, Vermont and Maine also eased their tasting laws in the last year, and a total of 43 states have changed liquor laws to allow spirit sampling at stores, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association representing nearly 70 percent of all liquor brands.

Tastings laws are part of a larger movement to modernize state alcohol laws to cater to consumer demand and help generate cash for money-strapped states without having to raise taxes or cut programs. States also have moved to repeal age-old prohibitions on selling alcohol on Sundays and Election Day.

Changing these laws provides consumers with more convenience, businesses with more choices and state treasuries with much-needed revenue, said council spokesman Ben Jenkins.

"These laws no longer make sense in today's economy," Jenkins said. "More and more, 76 years after the repeal of Prohibition, states are knocking down those bans to make their alcohol laws more efficient and modern."

Alcoholic beverages generate about $380 billion in U.S. economic activity, about 30 percent of which comes from liquor, according to DISCUS. And alcohol beverages, which are among the most highly taxed consumer products, generated $40 billion in direct and indirect revenues for state and local governments. In Virginia, ABC stores have contributed $1.5 billion to the state's general fund during the last five years.

Those in the industry say easing alcohol laws is beneficial to companies as well as states. In particular, tastings show customers what options they have when going into a liquor store. It also is part of an effort to get customers to buy more expensive products.

"We find tastings to be a very important tool that enables consumers to try premium spirits products and often leads them to purchase them," said Jack Shea, vice president of corporate communications for Pernod Ricard USA, whose brands include Absolut vodka and Malibu rum.

Shea pointed to the importance of tastings for a new brand of Absolut that combines the flavors of blueberry, pomegranate and acai, which it is aggressively promoting.

"Giving people a chance to try that could very well lead them to buy it and to help gain further visibility versus other competing new products," he said. "It definitely can become a key part of our strategy to capture the imagination of consumers."

The opportunity to try different liquors would also allow consumers to make better choices on which products to buy, said 62-year-old Jeff Curtin of Richmond, who said he may participate in tastings if they are going on when he's at the store.

"I have my favorites but there's probably better stuff that I don't know anything about and I'm reluctant to try it because it's not cheap," Curtin said.

Tom Johnson, a regional manager for Brown-Forman, whose brands include Jack Daniel's whiskey and Southern Comfort, agreed: "It gives us a great opportunity to get our products in front of a consumer who otherwise might not be so willing to shell out $30, $40, $50 for a bottle of spirits that they've never tried before."

But others, like 31-year-old Richmond bartender Jana Hampton, worry that some customers could abuse the privilege of sampling products.

"I don't have much of an issue with it as long as the sellers abide by the liquor laws," Hampton said.

Virginia ABC officials are developing guidelines for tasting events with those concerns in mind, said spokeswoman Kathleen Shaw. The law specifies customers can only sample a total of 1.5 ounces — or about a shot — of distilled spirits at a tasting event, which will be conducted by the companies.

While the specific monetary impact of tastings is hard to quantify, it is clear from the amount of product purchased during tastings that they are a boon for consumers, companies and states, said Jim Short, director of marketing of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which has allowed tastings for more than seven years with a minimum of 5,720 tasting events each year.

Discussions about easing state alcohol laws are becoming more common, but it is important that policymakers keep health and safety in mind, said Steven Schmidt, vice president of public policy for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, which represents the states that directly control the distribution and sale of beverage alcohol.

"There's a balance that needs to be struck," he said. "And the balance is between public health and safety, and certainly consumer desires and demands. It is an appropriate role for states to take in asking that question."