Spirit of the Season: What liquor-buying trends say about a town
For liquor stores in Western North Carolina, the combination of Christmas and the New Year makes for the busiest time of the year. But with 1,800 different types of products to choose from — from the old standbys like Jim Beam to the novelty high-end liquors gift wrapped and paired with tumblers — selecting the right booze to stock their limited shelf space can be a science in itself.
Much of the preparation for the busy alcohol season come with a store manager’s years of experience and knowing what alcohol is popular with his or her customers and when: Canton’s favorite wintertime whiskey is different than Highlands favorite top-shelf summertime sipper.
Even though stores started planning for the holiday season way back in July, or earlier, the wintertime rush can be hard to gauge and a shortage of eggnog or the locals’ favorite whiskey can spell disaster for booze-fueled festivities, gift ideas or an evening of romancing next to the fireplace under the mistletoe.
The Smoky Mountain News interviewed a series of ABC store managers in the region to find what ranks among the most popular — and most novel — for the holidays. Just as it’s said that you can judge a man by the shoes he wears, you can also judge a lot about a place by the type of alcohol, especially hard liquor, it consumes.
Tequila and eggnog spell holidays in Franklin
During the holiday season, the ABC store in Franklin sets the gold standard for eggnog varieties and becomes the proverbial Mecca of WNC for the drink’s followers. Store manager Todd Mason takes pride in that.
“I probably carry the largest selection of eggnog in the west,” Mason bragged.
And he has the numbers to back it up. In preparation for the winter nog rush, Mason ordered 30 cases of Evan Williams Eggnog — known as the good stuff among connoisseurs. Most other stores in he area ordered a fraction of that, Mason estimates.
Other smooth drinks like Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlua tend to be popular in the wintertime, especially among women. The men in the area tend to drink bourbon, that is, of course, unless they speak Spanish.
Unlike many liquor drinkers whose purchases of gin, white rum and tequila — used for the crisper, lighter mixed drinks of summer — decrease with the mercury, Macon County’s Latino population does the opposite and keeps tequila flying off the shelves all the way through the Navidad (i.e., Spanish for Christmas).
Mason said he compensates for this and is sure to keep a deep selection of the agave liquor in his store over the holidays. And like any good whiskey drinker, the Franklin tequila drinkers know the good stuff.
“They just always ask, ‘where’s your tequila, where’s your tequila?’” Mason said. “If you try to show them something from the bottom shelf they just shake their heads.”
Mason made an observation that as of late, customers who are traditionally tequila buyers have been branching out and buying scotch on occasion. But he didn’t know if they were acquiring or only buying presents for friends.
Yet, in spite of his effort to offer Franklin customers a diversity of liquor brands and flavors during the holidays, Mason lamented the fact that no volume of sales can touch that of his 50 cases of half-gallon Burnett’s vodka bottles per week. Even the 25 cases of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels don’t come close.
“That’s my number one selling vodka, but that’s because it’s a cheap vodka,” Mason said. “That is what I call rot-gut vodka.”
Although overall sales at the ABC store in Franklin are up 70 percent during Christmas and New Years, just up the hill, the Highlands ABC store bucks the trend. There, The Fourth of July is the biggest holiday for booze and sales decline after Thanksgiving, a sign of the upscale resort community’s vast population swing between summer and winter.
Another unusual trend is that expensive scotch sales increase in the summer in Highlands, but decrease in the winter, leaving vodka, brandy and bourbon as the three kings of Christmas — another phenomenon possibly linked to vacation plans.
“In the winter we really don’t sell as much scotch as in the summer,” said one clerk working at the Highlands ABC store. “I’m guessing it’s because the high-end clientele come in the summer and in the winter just the bourbon drinkers are left.”
Jim Beam in Milltown and vodka in Maggie
In the papermill town of Canton, Jim Beam rules supreme as the number one selling brand of liquor. Canton ABC store manager Daryl Ganskopp explained, that for his customers, uncle Jim’s combination of affordable price and smooth taste is a clear and predictable winner.
“We’re a blue-collar town,” Ganskopp said. “We don’t have a lot of tourism, and people here know what they want and that’s generally what they get.”
However, during Christmas and New Years, Ganskopp notices slight changes in the preferences of the ABC store’s clientele, not extreme deviations from typical purchases but rather an upgrade. To put it plainly: a Beam drinking man 11 months out of the year will become a Knob Creek drinking man in late December — the same for Schmirnoff vodka drinkers who jump up to Grey Goose.
Ganskopp said the pattern traces its roots to the 2007 recession.
“In this economy, generally, people have dropped at least one level in their liquor purchases,” he said. “Then, for Christmas, they go back to what they really want.”
Nonetheless, comparing the pre-recession Christmas of 2006 to subsequent ones, the Canton store has been down about 14 percent in sales.
Ganskopp said this year has shown a slight improvement in sales, but top-of-the-line items, such as the $220-bottle of Johnny Walker, of which he used to sell about one per month, are still languishing on the shelves, collecting dust. A few days before Christmas, he hadn’t been able to sell even one as a gift.
“People are buying the same number of bottles, but not the high-price items,” Ganskopp said. “They’re still drinking, just not spending as much — that’s the way the world works.”
Although Franklin and Canton follow the same seasonal liquor trends — clear in the summer and dark in the winter — the managers disagree on the merits of eggnog. Ganskopp is soon to run out of the Evan Williams brand of drink, but he’s not losing any sleep over it — and thinks Canton will get along just fine without.
“I’ll have my eggs and cream for breakfast, thank you,” he said.
On the other side of the county in Maggie Valley, Gary Lewis drew on his 14 years as a clerk at the ABC store to offer up advice for people planning a New Year’s Eve party.
“If you’re having some people over for a party: vodka, a blended whiskey and rum —those would be the most popular,” Lewis said. “Oh, and a couple of cordials and liqueurs for the girls.”
But of Lewis’ list of party must-haves, he was most impressed with vodka’s ability to compete with the other holiday heavy-hitters this winter. He expects the clear liquor to be the most popular year-round, but the grain and potato punch is now edging out its rivals on all fronts as the best selling.
“I would have thought it would be whiskey with temperature change, it did increase somewhat,” Lewis said. “But vodka is our number one seller.”
And the momentum is only building. Vodka’s strong following among the youth and females, and its dizzying number of flavors has now put it in a league of its own in the build up to New Year’s. The Maggie Valley store alone offers up to 150 varieties.
“We’ve got everything from cotton candy to whipped cream, cherry, raspberry, grape, vanilla, you name it,” Lewis said.
Yet customers still come to the store specifically asking for special flavors it doesn’t have in stock. During the holidays expensive brands like Grey Goose and movie actor Dan Akroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka brand see boosts in sales.
What’s in Waynesville’s Liquor Cabinet?
We checked in with customers coming and going from the Waynesville ABC store Saturday to see what they were stocking up on ahead of the holidays.
Megan Brown bought liquor as presents for Christmas, including a bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey and an array of airplane bottle sized stocking stuffers of vodka. She explained why vodka was such a popular drink in the region.
“There’s a lot of rich old ladies and vodka doesn’t have as many calories,” she said.
Bob Vogt bought Macallan 12, a single malt scotch, because he prefers scotch in the winter and gin and tequila in the summer. But he also purchased the scotch to replenish supplies his holiday guests got into.
“We’ve got people in town and they started drinking too much yesterday,” he said.
William Martin bought small bottles of Absolut Citron, a citrus vodka, as holiday gifts. It was his first time giving the vodka as a gift but after discovering the flavor while in Washington he wanted to share with friends and family.
“It’s terribly smooth for vodka,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s legal for vodka to be that tasty.”
Don Kreider purchased a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, for no special occasion or gift-giving purpose. When asked why he picked that type he wasn’t exactly sure.
“I can’t remember,” he said. “It was 30 years ago… I’m still drinking it.”
Patrick Nassis left the store with a bottle of Jim Beam, describing the whiskey as one he was partial to. The liquor’s versatility also played to his favor — Nassis was planning on using the whiskey for his special recipe of holiday hot toddies, made with honey and green tea, as well as a home remedy for winter’s afflictions.
“It cures any ailment,” he said.