Pennsylvania’s Liquor Problem

Fine Wine & Good SpiritsBuying whiskey should be easy, right?  Not in Pennsylvania.

As many of my fellow Pennsylvanians know, the state stores where you can buy your booze aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  These government-run liquor stores are often cold establishments, and I’m not talking about the temperature.  The employees are less than helpful and the selection is limited and often difficult to scan.

For those of you who aren’t following me, Pennsylvania is what is known as a “control state”.  This means that the wine and spirits stores in Pennsylvania are run by the state government, from pricing to logistics to taxes to hiring/firing.  Now, why would the government want to run these stores, when they could privatize and let somebody else worry about this?  Frankly speaking, it’s because we’re stuck in a faulty system run by unions that the popular vote just can’t break.  According to a blog written by Whisky Advocate’s Lew Bryson, the PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) isn’t even worried about being profitable.  In fact, over half of these stores are not profitable!

So let’s talk about service for a moment.  As a disclaimer, I will point out that I am not anti-government.  That being said, it’s no secret that your average, hourly government employee typically won’t go out of their way to help you.  I wrote a blog post called Whiskey Profiling about a month back about my issues with state store employees.  Just the other day, another incident occurred that really irked me.  I went to the store right across the street from where I live, and was browsing the Scotch section.  A woman walked out of the office (which was occupied by about three other people likely not getting much done…).  I said hello to her and she kind of shrugged me off.  She proceeded to walk right past me and ask two other (older) customers if they needed any assistance.  I was planning on purchasing well over $100 in whiskey for my wife for Christmas, but left the store in disgust at her blatant disregard and disrespect toward me.

A separate set of incidents strengthen my argument further.  While at Whiskey Fest, I tried a Canadian whisky called Forty Creek.  After speaking with the master distiller, he assured me that his brand was available in the state.  A few days later, I went to a state store down the road from me.  I  looked on the shelf and couldn’t find Forty Creek.  In the check-out line, I asked the clerk if they had any or could special order it for me.  He looked at me like a deer in headlights as if he had never even heard of Canadian whisky.  He told me to check with the guys in the office.  I walked up to the office and found two men sitting at a computer and asked if they could look into this whisky for me.  They hardly looked up at me and didn’t smile or engage me in conversation despite my efforts to be polite and friendly.  They said they could bring it in from another store about 15 minutes down the road.  They told me it would be about four days.

Let me stop right there.  They were going to special order a $25 bottle of whisky for me from a store 15 minutes away, and it was going to take them four days!  I reluctantly accepted and gave them my name and phone number.  Four days passed without a call, and about 10 days after the initial store visit, my wife called the store to check on their progress.  Not only did they not know anything about Forty Creek, they did not have my name or phone number documented anywhere!  My wife gave them my information again, and they gave the same BS answers about a four day lead time.  Well, I still have yet to receive a phone call and that was about two months ago.

Needless to say, there are a number of issues with Pennsylvania’s treatment of its liquor stores; problems that a new logo and shelf set-up can’t solve.  Nobody is happy about any of this except for the state raking in the taxes, and the worthless cashiers and managers keeping their jobs despite their sub-par performance and know-how.  Let’s follow in the trends of the 21st century and privatize before people get even more fed up and look elsewhere (as if they’re not already).




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  1. Don’t be too quick to blame state-control liquor. If you privatize the liquor stores, the vast majority of liquor stores that crop up will be essentially the equivalent of a convenience store: you will get exactly the same kind of service as you are describing now. Yes, some boutique shops will open up, with knowledgeable and hopefully friendly staff, but then who knows what prices you will be paying?

    What I’m saying is you will be just as likely to get bad service under private ownership rather than state. On the one hand, in my area in the Philadelphia suburbs, the liquor store staff is VERY friendly and helpful. I asked a guy about SLO a couple weeks ago, and he talked my ear off for 5 minutes. On the other hand, Jason Pyle recently posted about liquor store service on Sour Mash Manifesto, where he too lamented the poor service and staff with no knowledge whatsoever (he’s in Tennessee, a privatized state).

    On the whole, I don’t personally care TOO much that PA is state controlled: they do a very good job at it and have some good prices overall (some exceptions). However, I am pretty glad that I can drive to Total Wine in Delaware in 25 minutes… My biggest wish would be that we could order whisky shipped to us from within the US. Anyway, I think you need to just find a store with more friendly staff. Maybe go to the store after work when you’re still dressed up 😉

    Finally, I’ll state that my guess is that transitioning to private liquor stores is not just a political matter – the state has a HUGE inventory, and someone would have to buy all that inventory if you were going to get rid of the state stores. They would lose a lot of money.

      • Ryan on December 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

      In my opinion (and I’m definitely not made of money), I would shop every time at the boutique shop and pay more money. Similarly, I’d rather shop at Target and pay a little more for a smile and a helpful attitude than go down the road to Wal-mart.

      I too live in the Philadelphia suburbs, and coincidentally about the same distance from Total Wine. My concern is that it’s a well-known fact that cops sit out front of places like that and wait for people to bring the tax free goods back into PA. Easy targets, and not really worth it to me.

      As far as the inventory issue goes, apparently Costco and several other conglomerates have offered to buy up the stores and all of their inventory, and the state has turned them down repeatedly. I’m not sure that’s entirely the issue.

      Good points though, and it certainly makes the debate that much more interesting!


      1. Hey Ryan,

        A few things:

        1) I hear you on the boutique shops. If there was one close enough by for me to frequent, I would go where the staff is friendly and helpful, even if I had to pay a few extra bucks. My worry is that there wouldn’t be too many good ones. I wouldn’t go into downtown Philadelphia for booze very often, for instance.

        2) A well known fact? Not to me it isn’t. Do you know someone this has happened to? I have a hard time believing that cops have nothing better to do than ticket people shopping for booze in Delaware. Honestly, I’d never even worried about it at all. Shouldn’t they tell you in there when you show your PA ID that it’s illegal to bring it back to PA? Is it illegal?

        3) Interesting about the Costco offer. I guess I should do some research before I form an opinion! I haven’t been following the debate too closely, as you can see.


          • Ryan on December 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm
          • Reply

          1.) I’m glad we agree! But I also see your point that they may be few and far between.

          2.) Maybe it’s not such a well-known fact – my apologies! It’s not necessarily liquor; it is “not police friendly” to purchase anything in Delaware and bring it over the border. I’m not sure of the legality behind it, but I have heard of cops tailing people into parking lots of places like the Best Buy on Route 202 and following them back to PA. I’ve heard similar instances with Total Wine, but usually when people are buying a good amount of booze, say for a wedding or something.

          3.) I haven’t done much research either, aside from the little bit for this blog post. I’m sure there are plenty more sides to the story; I just know I’m not getting the products and service I expect, and my opinion is that the ownership is to blame.


            • Ryan on December 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm

            C’mon, there are people getting mugged walking around Philadelphia, and we’ve got police officers getting people for shopping at Best Buy!? If I ever witness this happening, I will be writing a letter to our congressman telling of this travesty.

            I’m sure you’re at least partially right about the ownership. If it were privatized, at least some good liquor stores would emerge with owners who hire friendly staff and train them. However, there would still be stores that suck.

      • stephen on September 13, 2016 at 11:38 am
      • Reply

      They could just keep the state run stores and let private stores compete and see who blinks first? There’s actually a lot of issues with state run liquor. I’ve had similar experiences trying to special order things. I’ve been told they can’t just order 1 bottle I’d have to order half a case.

      • Ray Broskey on December 6, 2016 at 8:57 pm
      • Reply

      Do state store employees qualify for state pensions ? I am just wondering if they are considered the same as other state government employees. If they are, it seems to be an unnecessary expense.

    • Todd on January 5, 2012 at 11:45 am
    • Reply

    Hey Ryan,
    I am originally from Philly, so I know exactly what you are talking about. It had begun to change (slightly?) about 10 years ago or so when they got a new head to the LCB. I guess it has stalled, huh? Too bad.

    We used to go to NJ and Del. to buy and never had any problems.

    But I do have to ask the question. Why didn’t you just drive the extra 15 minutes to get the bottle?

    Twitter: @dstilld

      • Ryan on January 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Todd.

      Really appreciate the comment. Not sure why I didn’t just drive the extra 15 minutes. I guess I wasn’t in too much of a hurry at the time to buy the whiskey, and had other things to do. Oh well; won’t make that mistake again!


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