Kyoto By Way Of Kansas City

On March 19, 2008, in Food and Drink, by peterb

Those of you following me on Twitter know that I managed to find not just one, but three of the types of booze I’ve been looking for last night. This is one of the nice things about travelling out of state: I get to shop at liquor stores that aren’t run by people who are profoundly uninterested in selling liquor.

Here in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, there are at least two local chains that are worth visiting: the larger Berbiglia, and, my new favorite, Gomer’s. Why I like Gomer’s so much can best be illustrated by a short story.

A couple of months ago, I went into a PLCB store — one of their “premier” locations — and asked for a bottle of maraschino liqueur. I needed maraschino in order to make some of the drinks in the Savoy cocktail book, because I was following along with the (somewhat train-wreck-like) Stomping Through The Savoy “make one of every drink” discussion at eGullet. There are a couple of brands of this type of liqueur. There’s Luxardo, and Maraska, and probably a few others. When I asked the clerk for some help, her response was to simply look up and say “There’s no such thing.”

“There’s no such thing.” It’s hard to capture the wrongheadedness of this response to a customer. First, it’s inaccurate. Second, it’s insulting. Third, it evinces an almost pathological fear of improving your inventory. Now, one could be generous and assume that what she really meant was “We don’t have it,” but you know what? I am completely done being generous to the PLCB. When a customer walks in to your store and asks for a product you don’t have, you should find out what the product is so that you can obtain it (or, at least, consciously decide not to obtain it). Somewhere deep in the bowels of a building in Harrisburg the PLCB has a buyer, who is probably a very nice person, who has to decide what spirits they carry. That person, unfortunately, has no goddamn idea what their customers want, because when customers walk into stores and ask for a product, the idiots at the counter tell them “Sorry, it doesn’t exist,” and then never mention it to the store manager or the buyers in Harrisburg.

The PLCB is a large retail operation. Large retail operations succeed or fail by creating processes that their employees must follow to remove uncertainty from the transaction. When I walk into a PLCB and ask for something they don’t have, I always get a different response. Sometimes I get the unhelpful brush off. But not always. Sometimes I get well-meaning but ineffectual assistance from some nice employee who spends 15 minutes trying to look up the product in a huge book that doesn’t have it. Sometimes I encounter someone who knows what the product is, but not how to obtain it. And then, the best case is that I encounter someone who knows what the product is and can help me special order it, which means I only have to spend 15 minutes at the store helping him fill out a form and giving them money, and then coming back later in the week to pick up my product. The point here is that the very uncertainly in how my requests are going to be processed creates a huge disincentive for me, the customer, to even bother asking. I start from the assumption that it’s going to be too painful to get a bottle of liquor from the store that sells liquor.

Here’s what happened when I asked for the Luxardo Maraschino at Gomer’s: the clerk said “Oh, are you making Aviations?” Then he asked for my phone number, scribbled it down, and said “OK. We’ll have it here by Friday. We’ll call you. Bye!”

Feeling lucky, I then asked “Do you have any creme de violette?” The clerk said “Well, there are a few brands of that, but most are pretty bad. I think we can get you the Marie Brizard, though. Let me check.” He spent about a minute typing into a computer, and confirmed that he could get it. I added 2 bottles of that to the order. All of this took less time than it took me to explain to a clerk at a PLCB “Premium Spirits” store what Armagnac was.

In summary: the next time you need to buy liquor, you may find it more convenient to drive 15 hours to Gomer’s in Kansas City than to go to your local PLCB store.

Gomer’s also had a bottle of the Suntory Yamazaki single malt whisky. I’ve been a bit obsessed with Japanese whisky ever since I started reading Nonjatta, but this is the first time I’ve managed to taste any. The Yamazaki is a product that the PLCB does actually carry, but only as a special order, and as I’ve detailed before, placing special orders with the PLCB is too inconvenient to bother with.

I expected that, in the name of experience, I was simply paying too much money for a bottle of whisky that was going to taste like a mid-tier blended scotch. I was wrong. The Yamazaki is absolutely fascinating, and I highly recommend it to fans of single malt. It has a clean, almost aggressively clean highland-like taste, fresh malt and just a hint of peat. The strangest thing about it is the body; most Scottish single malts I’m familiar with have a certain weighty mouthfeel. “Oily” isn’t quite the right word, but they definitely have a heft and presence that is distinctive. The Yamazaki was feather-light and delicate. Normally it’s a mouthfeel I’d associate with liquors that are overly attenuated, but attenuation carries a host of unpleasant flavors with it, and this had none. It is, truly, a superb whisky, and one that I will buy again, even at its given price, which compares to that of mid-range Scottish single malts. It also makes me regret that more Japanese whiskys aren’t imported into the US: it’s clear to me that we’re missing out on quite a phenomenon here.


12 Responses to “Kyoto By Way Of Kansas City”

  1. I should have asked you to pick up Maraschino for me too. Damn.

  2. peterb says:

    They had a bottle of off-brand “Maraska” in-stock on the shelf; I only special ordered because I wanted the Luxardo. Want me to grab the Maraska for you? Then we can compare.


  3. peterb says:

    PS: Also, they have Peychaud’s bitters, too.

  4. peterb says:

    PPS: And Lucid Absinthe.

  5. Beggars can’t be choosers, so the Maraska will do. Comparing will be fun as well.

    I am fully stocked on Peychaud’s bitters — ordered some online, and also picked some up last trip to Cincinnati/Kentucky. I feel sure I’d like some other bitters but don’t know what to request.

    I totally want some Lucid. I can SLO that but the minimum order is two bottles, and I couldn’t justify ordering $130 of one kind of booze. But if you’re not too overloaded, a bottle of absinthe would completely turn my year around for the better.

    This is all so thrilling. Whee!

  6. Nat says:

    Oh man, I’ve been meaning to pick up some Lucid for a long time. I thought about picking some up in MA last week, but didn’t want to deal with making sure it didn’t break on the plane.

    Stupid PLCB.

    Really I need to head west until I find crème de violette, decent absinthe, and a ready supply of Maraschino and stock up.

  7. Susan says:

    You don’t need to set foot in the PLCB store to spend the 15 mintues helping them fill out the form. You can make special orders with an e-mail to or call 1-800-332-7522.

    If you do go into the store and they don’t offer to take your number and call you when it gets in, complain to

  8. I actually am confused by Susan’s comment. Even though their web site says you can email your orders to ra-lbslo, every time I’ve emailed they tell me to call them: “You may place an order at any Wines & Spirits Shoppe or through our Hotline @ 800-332-7522.” (It’s just as well, since you’d have probably have to write your credit card information in an unencrypted email sent to the PLCB).

  9. peterb says:

    I thought about addressing Susan’s point before she made it, but I didn’t get around to it. My issue is this: the only hope for the PLCB to provide good customer service is to have an ordering system that does not require me to interact with an actual human being.

    It absolutely kills me that the PLCB’s real product catalog is online and searchable, but that their “online consumer store” only has the merest fraction of their inventory online for purchase. If I could have pointed-and-clicked my way to special ordering the Suntory Yamazaki, instead of having to visit, call, or email, I’d have bought it — from the PLCB, not Gomer’s — months ago.

  10. Christian says:

    Your PLCB stories are a kind of horror story for me every time you post one. Fortunately for me, it’s a chill I only experience vicariously.

    Where I live may be bad in certain ways, but alcohol selection and price isn’t one of them. Here’s an easy way for you to see what a liquor store that cares in a state that loves regulating, but not directly interacting with alcohol does.

    A circa 1998 site, but all inventory is searchable, with prices.

    Luxardo maraschino? Check.
    Peychaud’s bitters? Check.
    Suntory Yamazaki? Check.
    All on the shelves, ready to buy.
    Brizard Creme de Violette by special order, sadly. 1 week. I called and asked.

    If your travels bring you to Houston, put Spec’s on Smith Street on your agenda. (God knows there aren’t many other things for a visitor to do.) 80,000 square feet of wine, liquor, coffee roasting, cigars and gourmet foods. It’s in the running for the biggest liquor store anywhere.

  11. Lew Bryson says:

    Just came across your blog while looking up something for a post I’m writing on mine (“Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished”). I had an exact replica of your experience with Luxardo in 2006. I wanted to get a bottle for my sister for Christmas. First response was “We don’t sell grenadine.” No, I said, it’s not syrup, it’s a spirit. “There’s no such thing,” was the second response. I didn’t bother SLO’ing. I walked out the door.

    Later that day, though, I had to go to New Jersey for a tasting, and on a whim, stopped in the first Joe Canal’s Discount Liquors I saw. I walked over to the liqueurs section, grabbed a bottle of Luxardo, paid for it, and walked out: under three minutes.

    I frickin’ hate the PLCB. So…mind if I put a link up on my blog to a Google compilation of your PLCB posts?