Shelf life

Liquor may soon be coming to grocery store shelves, and some in the local and craft industries have thoughts.

Oklahoma House Bill 2354 was supposed to be about local winemakers and self-distribution.

But that was before Feb. 27, when Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) moved to strike the entire language of the bill and replace the whole thing instead with a measure that industry insiders have been expecting for a while now: allowing sales of full-strength liquor in grocery stores.

click to enlarge Shelf life
Berlin Green
The sign pointing to George's Liquors

Currently, fewer than half of American states allow grocers to sell liquor, reasoning that it would only increase concerns of theft and access to underaged drinkers. But both those that produce more niche, craft-level spirits and those that specialize in selling them point out loads of other concerns about things like selection, availability and how it would affect the viability of Oklahoma’s beloved, hyperlocal market.

“In short, this law would suck for liquor stores,” said Cody Wilson, owner of both George’s Liquors and Modern Liquor in OKC. “But I don’t think it’s closing any stores down that aren’t already going to close with or without the change.”

Wilson bought George’s in the wake of State Question 792, which made sales of full-strength beer and wine legal in grocery stores, so he’s had his focus set on the “specialty store” niche since day one.

But even if he feels confident that his locations will survive the coming changes, he’s not openly supporting any bill that will so dramatically change the game and hand control of the state’s spirits industry to corporate grocers.

“I’m not campaigning for or against it,” he said. “The downside with this is that liquor stores have zero to gain. So that change has to be in the products and customer service at your store. Whatever happens, we will continue to sell things grocery will never know or even think about.”

That is, for as long as those more unique, specialized products continue to see distribution in Oklahoma.

Since SQ792 changed the way that distribution works in the state — in particular, requiring producers to sell exclusive distribution rights rather than being available to any distributor — availability of many smaller-run and niche products has plummeted.

Just ask any Oklahoma whiskey lover looking for rare or allocated bourbon releases. 

Once incoming brands are all expected to compete for shelf space in the small, carved-out corners of Walmarts and Targets across the state, availability issues are likely to worsen. With more consumers picking up all their drinking needs in grocery stores rather than specialty stores that have more room for — and more interest in — small and local brands, Oklahoma could easily see a major drop in local beer, wine, and spirits production.

Over at Guthrie’s WanderFolk Distillery, Head Distiller Jeff Cole says that’s because smaller, independent operations like theirs rely on exactly the kind of independent, mom-and-pop stores that are threatened by this new legislation.

“All of us believe that these brands are built in small stores. You don’t build brands in Walmart,” he said. “And believe me, I get it. Everyone wants the one-stop shop. But I personally think we’re going to lose as many as half of our breweries, and definitely some of our distilleries, because we’re already barely hanging on.”