(See story update here).

As a bourbon lover, I’ve been concerned about the upcoming bourbon shortage and have occasionally squirreled away an extra bottle to save for when the supply is entirely diminished by the demand of high-quality bourbons. As such, there are certain brands that I have developed a taste for that I have monitored the availability of to make sure I don’t lack for my favorite spirits. A few friends and acquaintances share these concerns and desires, and as we began to monitor the stocks at our respective favorite ABC stores we noticed a disturbing trend.

A number of premium bourbons are perpetually out of stock at the ABC government stores throughout the Commonwealth. At first we attributed this to an issue with the distillery, but later we confirmed that the shipments are coming to Virginia on regular schedules and the bottles do arrive at our local ABC government stores for sale. However, they are simply not made available to the citizens of the Commonwealth. Continued amateur sleuthing on our part has finally yielded results and we have figured out what is going on. And it is corruption at the store level in the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The ABC store managers are holding the stock in the back and selling it to out of state liquor stores to sell at inflated prices in exchange for kickbacks.  When stock comes in, local ABC managers let the liquor store owners of neighboring states are informed, then ABC store managers hold the bottles in reserve in the back for the out of state liquor store owners – unavailable for Virginia consumers. (see correction below)

You see, the ABC buys and sells liquor at fixed government prices set by the ABC Board. However, our neighboring states have private liquor stores that can set their prices based on the local market demands, and the competitive prices for certain premium bourbons is significantly higher in our neighboring states, specifically Maryland and the District of Columbia. A prime example is Elmer T. Lee premium bourbon sold by Buffalo Trace Distilleries. Elmer T. Lee is a long-time favorite of mine and is priced at $33.90 at my local ABC store.  It has not been in stock for about a year.

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At Pearson’s Wine and Spirits in Washington DC, Elmer T. Lee sells for $64.98 a bottle.

At De Wine Spot in Brooklyn New York, Elmer T. Lee sells for $99.98 a bottle.

At Traino’s Wine & Spirits, Elmer T. Lee sells for $109.99 a bottle.

For estimated prices, see: The Wine Searcher.

The corruption in the ABC was confirmed when my fellow bourbon lover confronted his local store about the lack of stock when shipments were continued. The ABC manager admitted to the above scheme, went into the back and came out with a bottle of Elmer T. Lee that he sold to my friend.

Update: Here is a full account from my friend that clarifies the above conclusion:

My friend went into the ABC checking once again for his favorite bourbons while picking up a bottle. As is both of our habit, he asked about Elmer T. Lee and some other Buffalo Trace bourbons.  There was a distributor representative in the ABC store giving tastings of another liquor. The distributor mentioned that he thought he saw some Elmer T. Lee in the back.  At that point the store clerk confirmed he thought they had some in stock in the back.  My friend then inquired as to why it was not on the shelves, and at this time a store manager who had overheard intervened and said that the cases in the back were held in reserve and not available for sale.  My friend then asked the manager if there was a way to reserve bottles, because my friend would like to get on the list. The manager would not say how one could reserve a bottle or why these were being held in stock, but eventually agreed to sell my friend one of the bottles in the back. My friend then purchased the bottle of Elmer T. Lee.

After the purchase occurred the distributor representative told my friend about how ABC managers hold the bottles in the back for liquor stores in other states. The distributor told my friend that as a distributor has access to the stockrooms and can see what stock is being held back. He then personally gets kickbacks from northern liquor stores for letting the northern stores know en the ABC stores get stock in from certain distributors, including Buffalo Trace. The northern stores make arrangements with the ABC managers in Virginia to hold the liquor until they can come down and purchase it, reselling it at a large profit up north.  My friend had no specific knowledge of whether or not the ABC manager received an additional specific kickback.  That was merely inferred from the information given to him by the distributor representative.

Perhaps Former Governor McDonnell was correct when he tried to privatize Virginia’s ABC stores.