Edit: After weeks of rumor and speculation, the Virginia ABC has just announced a new system to distribute these allocated spirits products, without ever truly explaining why the agency had stopped selling them throughout Virginia in March and April. We detail the rather confusing, “randomized” new system here.
The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) seems to have a bourbon whiskey problem. If you’re a whiskey enthusiast who happens to live in the Old Dominion, with its state-operated liquor store system, then you’ve likely noticed that something seemingly unusual has been going on recently. Granted, it may have been difficult to tell anything was amiss for the average consumer, given that shelves at ABC stores have been patchy and often bare in many spirits categories for months at this point, as the state’s in-house distribution network seemingly reels from a bevy of challenges related to the pandemic, staffing, and the transition to new storage warehouses. Still, sought-after and allocated brands of whiskey have typically still shown up on store shelves throughout the state anyway, on a roughly weekly basis during the entirety of the pandemic. What’s happening now, on the other hand, is something more unprecedented.
As far as I can tell, no consumer in the state of Virginia has legally purchased a bottle of Buffalo Trace Bourbon for the last three weeks, or possibly longer. The same goes for Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, Henry McKenna Single Barrel, W.L. Weller Special Reserve, and dozens of others on the Virginia ABC’s sprawling list of “limited availability products.” These products, which can also be described under the umbrella term of “allocated” bottles, are presumably still being delivered to ABC warehouses by distributorships and distilleries—they’re simply not being included in resupply shipments to stock store shelves. Or in other words, the Virginia ABC seems to have entirely stopped selling allocated products—which are overwhelmingly bourbon brands—for the last month or so, and they’ve declined all requests to explain why. This has led to rampant speculation, angst and rumors among the state’s whiskey enthusiast community, to say the least.
Around a month ago, online chatter in Virginia’s whiskey community hit a fevered pitch, following the apparent leak of a press release that seemed to promise a major shakeup in how allocated products would be sold in the state. This mode of information arriving was nothing new to the state’s bourbon geeks, as leaks from unofficial ABC sources have been common, and “insiders” with ABC connections typically are the first to deliver such news to the rank and file bourbon geeks on Facebook, long before the state agency has ever actually confirmed anything. The news spread quickly, and the so-called “Wishlist Wednesdays” policy was soon being discussed on Twitter, on Facebook, on Reddit and beyond.
The state’s consumers are all currently wondering what is happening within the Virginia ABC.
The gist of the Wishlist Wednesdays policy is essentially that instead of ABC stores selling allocated products on whatever day they happened to receive their weekly shipment from the truck, they would instead hold those products to be sold exclusively on Wednesdays. This policy would also change the existing rules about how many bottles any one consumer is able to buy—previously, consumers could buy one bottle of each allocated product, while the Wishlist Wednesday policy would make it only one bottle of any allocated product per day. In other words, if a store had six different allocated products to sell on any given Wednesday, you’d have to choose one of those six. Those products would be sold on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone waiting in line (and trust me, Virginians wait in line for whiskey), with numbers issued to people waiting in line by store employees.
The purpose of this policy would be, in theory, to make the system more fair and accommodating to a wider customer base who want the chance to buy these allocated bourbons at MSRP, rather than being gouged for them by those snapping up allocated bottles to then trade and flip on the secondary market. By limiting the number of bottles to only one per person, per store, the policy would at least modestly cut into the ability of the so-called “flippers” to amass bottles for resale. For example: If a store has 24 bottles of allocated bourbon, across four brands (6 bottles of each brand), the previous policy would have meant that the first six people in line could (and likely would) buy all 24 bottles. Under the new policy, 24 different people would each leave with one bottle, which gives the flippers less incentive to line up in the first place.
Various online profiles on Facebook and Reddit, claiming to be ABC employees who were familiar with the supposed new policy, have commented on how this would all apparently work, and most seem to be in favor of the policy.
The only issue—the Virginia ABC has never confirmed the existence of the “Wishlist Wednesdays” policy, and the original stated beginning date in the leaked memo was Wednesday, March 30. On Twitter, and in my own email inbox, the Virginia ABC has replied to all inquiries about this with a single boilerplate response, calling the original memo a “draft news release” not intended for release. As Public Relations Manager Dawn Eischen stated to me directly:
There have been a lot of rumors in the last few weeks about limited availability products that have been posted by non-official sources. The memo you mention was a draft news release that was not issued. Changes that impact retail customers will be communicated ahead of time via our website, social media platforms and the Spirited Virginia e-newsletter, and, in some cases, announced to the news media. For accurate information, stay tuned to the official sources I mentioned.
Note, there’s no actual denial there of the memo’s veracity—Eischen simply states that the news release was not intended to be issued, while tacitly confirming that it was indeed originally “drafted” by the ABC. This would seem to imply that the news release wasn’t a fake or forgery created by some bored prankster, but a genuine Virginia ABC creation. The obvious question, then, is “why?”
Perhaps the most simple potential answer to the “why?” question, Occam’s razor-wise, is that the bloated bureaucracy of the Virginia ABC simply hasn’t allowed them to make the transition to Wishlist Wednesdays as quickly as they hoped. This is a very large state agency, with almost 400 stores that employ more than 4,000 people statewide. The ABC is a leading revenue producer for Virginia, and a major part of funding state programs and government. But few would ever describe it as “efficient.” Delays are expected, when it comes to this kind of proposed, fundamental change.
This wouldn’t explain, however, why the flow of allocated spirits has completely dried up at ABC locations in the last month—why not simply continue running stores normally until the new policy takes effect, or at least until it’s finally and officially announced? There would be no news stories or consumer consternation if the ABC elected to simply continue running business as usual while they hammered out the logistics of their plan. Instead, stopping the flow of allocated bourbon for a period of time approaching a month has only drawn increased attention to the issue. Keep in mind, this is an entire state we’re talking about here. And none of it is helped by the agency avoiding addressing the issue, as thousands of consumers rail at them on a daily basis and demand an explanation. At this point, every tweet from the ABC simply elicits jokes and questions about “Where is the allocated bourbon?” People only go more ballistic, meanwhile, when they read online accounts of ABC stores receiving allocated bottles … only to then send the bottles back to the warehouse. We can’t speak to the veracity of these claims, but it’s far from the only version of this story I’ve seen in the last few weeks.
Names removed, for the sake of privacy.
The online rumor mill, naturally, has plenty of theories on what is going on, ranging from the potentially plausible to baseless speculation. Some insist that Wishlist Wednesdays will still be announced soon, and that the state is simply saving up all those allocated products for a massive bacchanalia of buying in its first weeks. Some believe that the existing lottery system will be expanded to include all allocated products. Others, meanwhile, claim that the entire policy was in fact fake from the beginning, a tactic cooked up by the Virginia ABC as a method to find and pinpoint the source of information leaks from within the agency. According to many of the local Virginia bourbon hunters posting online, these leaks have been a fairly serious problem for the organization, as the supposed leaker would have been selling insider information to flippers, who were then able to plan their operations accordingly. It might sound absurd, but when many of these bottles can be flipped for 300% or 400% their MSRPs on the illicit secondary market, it begins to seem more plausible. Suffice to say, we have no idea where the truth lies, but it’s clear to see while browsing the local Virginia whiskey groups that the overall anti-ABC sentiment is running high right now.
At the very least, it’s difficult to argue that this whole last month has been anything other than an organizational and logistical disaster for the Virginia ABC—there’s no scenario where product being shipped to stores, and then returned to the warehouse, is considered ideal. Likewise, it seems that there have been huge communication lapses and breakdowns happening here when it comes to individual ABC store operators and managers, with some saying they know all about the supposed new policy, and others saying they’ve never heard of it. Even the folks operating the stores appear to be in the dark on this one, as all the allocated whiskey in the state lingers in stasis and consumers grow more and more angry.
As an outside observer who only really documents, rather than participates in the mania for buying and hoarding allocated bourbon, I ultimately find myself empathizing with those who are attempting to run the Virginia ABC smoothly as they deal with this issue. The agency has clearly faced some adversity during the pandemic, which has strained the logistics of operating its more than 400 stores. No matter what decision they ultimately make when it comes to distributing these products, they’re going to be met with derision, outrage and entitlement from a large chunk of the state’s “bourbon collector” community, many of whom are frankly insufferable participants in the secondary market who would never be satisfied with any outcome, no matter what it is. The undeniable problem, though, is that allocated bourbon has become such a contentious issue in the state that the hassle of dealing with it has seemingly paralyzed the entire agency—such a chaotic situation that these products are now apparently piling up in storage while the consumers gnash their teeth. Suffice to say, the drive of these collectors to singleminded hunt these allocated products is exactly why I wrote an essay in January, begging bourbon hunters to consider diversifying their drinking.
This is actually a great time to explore the spirits world OUTSIDE of allocated bourbon like the above.
It’s impossible to say how this situation in Virginia will finally resolve, but wanting to hear one more account straight from the horse’s mouth, I went down to my own local Virginia ABC store to ask the manager directly if she was aware of the Wishlist Wednesdays policy. To my surprise, the manager said yes, assuring me that it was “absolutely real,” although she unsurprisingly had no idea of when it was meant to be officially announced or finally go into effect. Nor did she have any clue of when brands such as Buffalo Trace or Blanton’s would again begin escaping from the ABC warehouses and landing on store shelves, simply stating that they hadn’t seen anything allocated “in quite a while.”
And so, an entire state continues to wait for some kind of sign with bated breath, quizzically wondering what is going on inside the Virginia ABC. This place is thirsty, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t have to wait much longer before the whiskey begins to flow once again.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.