Kyoto By Way Of Kansas CityMar 19, 2008 · peterb · 5 minute read
Food and Drink
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.