On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the recent law in New York that brings back to-go cocktails. What does this mean for restaurants, bars, and consumers? And what are some caveats or challenges that liquor and wine stores will face as a result? Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And it’s the Friday vampire podcast, and we’re talking to-go cocktails.
J: I wish I had a to-go cocktail right now.
A: Me too. Specifically a New York to-go cocktail. But they’re back, hopefully.
J: Yes, they are officially back.
A: That’s right. We’re not waiting for anything else to get passed.
J: No, they’re already back on the menus of delivery services.
A: Oh, that’s amazing. So they’re back, but they are back with caveats.
A: And I think that that’s what’s more interesting about this conversation, besides the fact that to-go cocktails are back. This has been a long road for us New Yorkers, right? We had to-go cocktails. They came with Cuomo chips. Then we had a bunch of restaurants and bars set up bottle shops and things like that. And then we lost it all one day when the Legislature decided that they did not want to support it being extended. We have a great piece by Tim McKirdy about how that all went down. Then the governor, Governor Hochul, promised to bring them back in her State of the State address. And she did so in her most recent budget. So she used a provision in the state budget in order to slide them in. But there’s been a lot of wheeling and dealing that has gone into allowing them to come back. What’s most interesting about the return of to-go cocktails is what we’ve talked about a bunch, which is the power of the middle tier and the power of all these lobbyists and especially the off-premise lobbyists. A lot of liquor stores did not want to-go cocktails to come back, which I think is just so stupid.
J: Well, I think it’s interesting. Obviously there were compromises in this legislation, which is that restaurants can no longer sell full bottles of wine or liquor, and to-go have to be sold with substantial food items. Not a candy bar, bag of chips, or anything like that. Did you also know that, as part of this compromise, liquor stores are now allowed to be open on Christmas Day in New York?
A: It’s kind of crazy.
Z: I did not realize they were not allowed to.
J: It’s like, oh we’ll give you this, too. Just so you whine a little less about this, for restaurants. Which I think is really interesting.
A: What makes me so crazy about this, too, is especially with the mass proliferation of RTDs now, they’re already selling to-go cocktails at liquor stores. It’s not like these restaurants and bars are going to have something that they don’t. The only thing that the restaurant bars are going to have is a cocktail specifically made by this restaurant or bar, which a liquor store was never going to be able to have. To me, this is continuing to be a debate that I don’t understand, except for the fact that everything is always about money.
Z: Let me let me add a little context here, and I’m not one of those that are 100 percent not going to defend either the middle tier lobbyists or the liquor store lobbyists. I don’t know if this is explicitly the case in New York, so if I’m wrong about this, please let me know. But in a lot of states, certainly here in Washington State, a distributor can offer different pricing to an on-premise account, i.e., a restaurant or bar for a bottle of wine, a bottle liquor, etc., and can a charge different and usually higher price to an off-premise account, i.e., a wine shop, liquor shop, etc. I can understand there being a little bit of a concern from the liquor and wine retailers broadly. Hey, if you let that continue to be the case, then these restaurants and bars can undercut us and we can’t compete. I’ll be honest, as a buyer in a restaurant, I’d get bottles of wine that were $5 less for me because it was often aimed at a glass-pour placement or just a recognition from the wholesaler that my margin is going to be higher for anything I’m selling on premise. They’re trying to get that wine on my list at a more attractive price point or just get me to buy it in the first place. So I’m a little sensitive to the notion that, in some of these cases, these purely off-premise accounts could be undercut. But I think there are lots of ways you can go about making that situation less messy without creating all these hoops to jump through for to-go cocktails. I want your guys’ opinion on this, too. Do you feel like at this point right now as we sit here in April of 2022, are to-go cocktails a big deal for these places now? Everyone’s going out. I’m sure people are still doing take-out. There are probably still some very Covid-cautious folks. But this isn’t April of 2020 or June of 2020. It doesn’t feel as vital to bars and restaurants as it did a couple of years ago.
J: I agree with that. Obviously, I support this for the restaurants and bars, but not because I necessarily want to partake in it myself for that very reason. If I’m going to go to a place, I’m going to go to a bar and have a cocktail. I’m not necessarily going to order one home or to-go myself, but I think that there are people who would still like to do that. I think restaurants and bars are still hurting, right? They’re still benefiting from this. If this is an opportunity for them to make up some of that revenue that they lost, then why wouldn’t we support it? Obviously, I know it’s for only three more years. It’s not an indefinite thing, but I think it is still valuable to the restaurants and bars that were hit so hard over the past two years.
A: It’s not the lifeline it was, but it’s a nice piece of revenue. And especially for the bars and restaurants that are doing a lot of to-go orders already, it’s just a nice way for them to include this in the meals that are already going out the door. If you are ordering from whatever,your version of Grubhub, Seamless, etc. is and you want a cocktail or a beer to go along with that burger, the fact that now that can be delivered is very beneficial to the restaurant. Because as we all know, you make a lot of your profits on alcohol. And a lot of people have gotten used to doing Friday dinner at home now instead of maybe going out because, “Oh, I’m getting a similar quality from the same restaurants I liked and it was nice to just do it at home and hang out with my family.” I think that that is probably a bigger revenue generator and more important for restaurants, especially around the entire state of New York, than the idea that lot of people had that neighborhoods are going to turn into Bourbon Street. We’re just going to go and go bar hopping with to-go cocktails and go party in the park. I think some of that happens in certain neighborhoods, especially the neighborhoods that are already notorious for it in the early pandemic. Like the East Village and the West Village and things like that. You heard of these stories of people getting sh*t-faced in Tompkins Square Park. But in my neighborhood, maybe someone will go and get one or two to-go cocktails and go sit in Fort Greene Park. But they’re not going to do that as much because, yes you’re right, they are now going out. They’re hanging out at bars. They’re meeting other people out at bars. That’s what we all want to be doing. The biggest case I heard, which is similar to what you’re talking about with the pricing, Zach, is that a lot of spirits and wine shops made the case that they don’t get to see the best bottles. The reps are different and there are reps and there are certain wine brands that really only want to be at restaurants. This goes back to our glass-pour conversation. But then if you allow these restaurants to also sell bottles to go, they could potentially create better wine shops or wine shops that have selections of bottles that you just can’t get. That then causes maybe because customers to be like, “Well, I’d rather shop at X Restaurant’s Bottle Shop than shop at the actual wine store.” Because X restaurant’s, bottle shop has bottles that I like to drink because I already like to go there to drink, too. That’s an argument. I think it’s kind of a BS argument. But I do think it was one that was made.
Z: But this is part of the liquor lobby’s general arguments, which I find to be completely unconvincing. Which is that we don’t want to have to do any work to capture sales, so please don’t let anyone compete with us. It’s already true that if you’re a wine connoisseur, you’re going to seek out certain wine shops because they’re going to get better wines. They’re going to get wines that you’re more excited about because the proprietor has connections or they work really hard to secure special bottles that not everyone can get. If you’re just a corner liquor store or neighborhood wine shop, etc., and you don’t work at that, no sh*t that some people are going to choose to go elsewhere because they can. I find this frustrating, and I’m not a New Yorker so it doesn’t affect me directly. But throughout the country we all suffer in some ways from the ways in which these lobbies are so powerful, whether they’re the retailers or the wholesalers. The notion that we we should just be grateful that we can buy alcohol somewhere is such bullsh*t to me. Just because you happen to have the liquor license or a retail shop in neighborhood X, you shouldn’t have to compete?
J: Is that a thing? Do they make an argument?
Z: I don’t think anyone’s going to come out and say that overtly. But they’re saying, “We don’t want to compete. We don’t want real competition.” Again, it’s especially true in New York because there are so many of these businesses that are one-off businesses, but they all kind of work together in these lobbying efforts to restrict access to alcohol. Sometimes it’s couched in puritanical language, but often just in a purely naked business sense. I mean, I get it, right. You had a good thing going. And if you’re a long-established liquor store, the pandemic and to some extent the rise of DTC delivery services and stuff that has been the first real challenge to your primacy since Prohibition ended. It’s very true, and I totally understand that they don’t want things to change. It’s not in their best interest for things to change. But it is kind of sickening in some ways to see just how much power they have through the act of lobbying, through donating to politicians and stuff like that. Obviously, this is not the only arena in American politics where this is the case, but it’s one that’s pertinent to all of us. It’s all the more frustrating because, as we’ve seen over and over since the pandemic started, how fractured and unorganized the restaurant and bar industry is in this sense. There are big lobbyists, but they’re for the huge restaurant chains. There isn’t the same lobbying effort either at the federal or individual state levels by the restaurants and bars that we tend to talk about and get excited about. It just puts them at such a disadvantage even in a fight like this, where it pretty obviously is better for the average New Yorker to have more options when it comes to buying beer, wine, spirits. More competition is unquestionably better for consumers in this space. Yet, you have these powerful lobbies working to entrench these, if not monopolies, limited-access points that can be more easily controlled.
A: We see this all the time. Especially for the middle tier, the lobby is going to get involved. We’re seeing this as well with the Pro-V lawsuit, those are the two largest distributors. The middle tier is trying very hard to stop any other platform from being able to come into the market and allow wine shops and liquor stores and restaurants ease of ordering. I think you put it perfectly, Zach. We don’t want to work to get these sales. We’d rather work on the lobbying front than work to convince consumers. It’s just such utter bullsh*t. I do think that the culture of drinks is so much for the better if we would allow for these things. It’s so silly that we can’t just be treated like adults. I get that there are always going to be bad actors, but it’s also just so interesting to me when you view this against what’s happening with marijuana. And I know that there’s regulation coming, right, but especially with you in certain states. Especially in New York state, it’s legal anywhere that you can legally smoke. We’re going to see shops pop up everywhere and we don’t have the technology to catch people smoking and driving, which is just as bad as drinking and driving. You’re going to have so many people smoking and driving. And yet, alcohol is this thing that we say is going to always have people doing the worst things ever. I think that that then goes into the case that these lobbies are able to make that says, “We’re going to make it so much easier for someone to get alcohol, so we shouldn’t allow them to sell bottles or they must have food.” Why can’t I have a bag of chips and a cocktail? It’s just ridiculous.
Z: Especially because you could very well do that at a bar. No one’s telling you when you walk into a bar that if you order a cocktail at that place, you have to eat an entree. That’s not how things work. And again, it comes back to this. You brought up marijuana, and I think that’s actually a really good point because it shows how completely ensnared we are within the framework of the post-Prohibition laws for alcohol. Because these marijuana laws have been written in this f*ckin’ century, they actually reflect modern reality. We want there to be some controls for access to marijuana. There are age restrictions. But we also recognize that, generally speaking, the government probably should not be super involved in the minutiae of who sells this. They should license and regulate, but they should not pick sides in this industry. That, I think, is the part that I find very frustrating because of the way that Prohibition was repealed and that creation of this three-tier system, which was maybe well intentioned when it was created, but is 70 years out of date. It’s ridiculous to me that the only consumable that I purchase these days, that I have to go through the government mandated middlemen to get, is alcohol. Almost anything else I buy, I can buy direct from wherever the f*ck I want. I can buy tomatoes from New Jersey and peaches from South Carolina. If I want eggs from Wisconsin or cheese from Wisconsin, as we actually get, the dairy in Wisconsin doesn’t have to sell the cheese to a wholesaler who f*cking imports it into the same country, into the state of Washington so I can buy it.
A: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Z: It’s insane. It’s just a stupid, antiquated system. But because it’s created these incredibly powerful wholesale companies where it’s existential for them that these laws remain in place, they’re so much more powerful than than anyone else. Even the producers, to say nothing of us consumers. This whole thing is just a microcosm of the extent to which this parasitic part of the industry is so powerful.
A: With that, I’m going to go get a cocktail.
Z: Yeah, I got angry.
A: This has just been a lot. But I am happy, at least in some form, that to-go cocktails are back in New York. I’m hoping that this can be a thing that exists in the entire country. And with that, I hope you guys have a great weekend. I won’t see you on Monday because I’ll be on vacation.
J: Who is on vacation now?
A: I am.
Z: Not me.
J: Well, we’ll see you when we see you, Adam.
A: I will see y’all later. Peace out.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.