Why Don't You Have This Whisky? Why Can't I Get It?

Hi David, I saw that there's a new whisky from Japanese distiller Nikka available in Japan. Can you order this for me?


David, can you guys get the Port Askaig whiskies? I saw them in the UK and was hoping to get a couple of bottles.


David, I live in Michigan. Can you guys ship spirits here?


What? Why not?

Ahhhhhh....the wonderful world of import and shipping laws. I've said repeatedly that any lawyer could make a fine career out of just dealing with interstate liquor commerce. There's so much room for interpretation and error. So nebulous, at times.

Here's the deal.

First off – the United States drinks its whiskey from 750ml bottles. The entire rest of the world (except for South Africa, I believe) does not. 700ml or 70cl is the global standard. The United States does not want its citizens to be confused between two different measurements, so they do not allow for 700ml bottles of booze to be sold domestically. That means that any liquor company that wants to sell its booze in the U.S. needs to put it in an entirely different bottle with a new label as well. All of their other booze can be shipped with ease to every other nation (except South Africa, I believe) around the world. Then a separate, special, time-consuming batch has to be made just for the Americans. That sounds annoying and it probably is annoying to many small companies in the whisky trade, so they say forget the Americans. It's too much extra trouble.

David, let's say they're willing to do it. Let's say they're willing to bottle in 750ml. Can you order it then?


What?! You still can't get it?

Nope. We are a retailer not an importer and it's illegal to hold both licenses (good ol' "tied house" laws). It first needs to be imported and someone else has to do that.

OK – let's say that it's imported. You can order it then right?

No, I can't. It then has to be distributed. If the importer is located in California they'll usually have the right to distribute here as well, but if they're on the East Coast they'll have to hire a CA distribution company. In order to sell in any U.S. state a company must use an in-state distributor. You want to be in all 50 states? You're going to need to pay 50 distributors (or be a part of one big one that has representation nationwide).

Let's take Bruichladdich as an example. It can take a while to get their stuff out west. Their importer is WineBow, which is located on the East Coast. Their distributor in California is Young's Market.

David, can you get me the new Bruichladdich Octomore 5?


Why not? Can't you call the distillery and order one?

No, first Bruichladdich has to decide that they want to go out of their way to make an entirely different batch for the U.S. market only. Then WineBow has to commit to importing it. Once it's imported to the U.S., WineBow has to decide who they're going to sell it to. They might have enough orders in New York alone to sell through their entire inventory and, believe me, they're going to take the easy money. Now they're sold out. We're still stuck. Bruichladdich now needs to make another batch for the U.S. only. WineBow still needs to get it. Once it's here, they still need to find a market for it. There's literally nothing I can do until Young's in California gets its allocation. Once Young's gets its share, then I can buy what I need from them, which might be as little as two cases by that point.

So you see, us retailers are simply the final link in a chain of many different businesses that must make proactive decisions before we're able to act. Unfortunately, I will not be able to order that bottle of Nikka or Port Askaig until those parties take the necessary actions (which will likely never happen).

Can't you just have them ship you some over in the mail? I did it once from the UK.

Shipping laws. What's legal and what isn't? In all honesty, it's really hard to know these days. First off, if a retailer sells a bottle that they didn't buy from an in-state distributor or certified auction house, they're in big, big trouble. If I paid cash to a customer and then sold that customer's Pappy Van Winkle at K&L we would be slapped with a big, fat fine and possibly have our license suspended. So we can't order anything directly from overseas.

Second of all, they can't ship it here either. Just because it gets done doesn't mean that it's legal. Every liquor shipment from outside the country is supposed to be declared and go through customs first. Again, we all know that doesn't always happen, but that doesn't mean it's OK.

David, I'm in Utah. I need booze. Why can't you ship to me?

Why? Because shipping liquor to Utah is a felony. No joke. A felony. Shipping liquor to Michigan is also a big no-no. They're the only state that actually tried to sting us, as in order booze from us in an attempt to document the process and prove we were transpiring in illegal business. I don't want to go into a big discussion about what is exactly legal and what isn't, but pretty much anything to do with putting booze in a box and taking it to your common carrier is a big grey area. As a private citizen, you cannot ship anything. Putting wine in the mail to send to your friends is not allowed, that's why you need us, but we can't ship everywhere. Some stores are willing to do it because they're small and no one is paying attention to them. Other stores move high volumes and do not want to jeopardize their business by drawing the wrath of any government agency. We have a lawsuit going with Texas. We've got all kinds of action going on. If K&L doesn't ship to your state, believe me, it's not because we don't want to.

Again, just because other people do it doesn't mean that it's legal. It just means they haven't been caught or a certain law isn't being enforced.

That's it, in a nutshell. That's why we don't have certain bottles that you see online elsewhere. That's why we can't get those bottles, and if we can, that's why we can't ship those bottles to you specifically.

It's a crazy business. Rooted in mafia protectionism with different groups trying to protect their territory after Prohibition. We don't need some out-of-state retailer ruining our little monopoly here! That history would make a good blog post.  That's a Chuck Cowdery topic if I've ever seen one.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll