Making a liquor store run isn’t always as straightforward as picking up groceries. With shelves upon shelves of options, mysterious pricing and flashy labels, you might worry you’re making mistakes, and—sorry to say it—you probably are. But don’t worry; we’re here to help, and we got an expert to set you straight.
Trevor Lancaster, a store manager at liquor superstore BevMo!, has a thing or two to teach even the wisest liquor buying wiz who mansplains to store employees on the finer nuances of bourbon (stop doing that). Here, Lancaster reveals the mistakes you’re probably making at the liquor store (and how to fix them).
Overestimating Your Needs
Planning for a party is tricky, especially when it comes to guessing how much alcohol you’ll need to put everyone in the festive spirit. Overbuy, and your living room will be packed with cases for weeks. Underbuy, and watch your party become a wasteland as guests head for the door an hour and one measly drink in.
Lancaster says people tend to buy way too much—especially for weddings. “The last thing a couple getting married wants is to not have enough alcohol for their guests,” he says. “But in the last five years, the trend is people are drinking less at those.” While we can’t help with other pre-wedding jitters, our boozy party math can at least take beverage supply off your mind.
Trying to Return Booze
Internet shopping and extremely lax return policies have led people to believe you can return anything these days. Not so with booze. “It’s illegal, due to federal racketeering laws—you can thank the mob for that,” Lancaster says. “Most retailers will not return alcohol period, but those that do, usually [it’s only allowed] if [the alcohol] is spoiled or nonconsumable. People consciously over-purchase with the thought that they can return it. You can’t do that.” While laws vary on returns of unopened items, it’s better to assume all purchases are final.
Forgetting About Flavor
It seems like the most obvious factor in choosing what to drink, but customers often forget to ask store clerks about the flavor of a spirit, focusing instead on price or age. “I’m often asked for clarification between the differences in age ranges or varietals, but I don’t hear too much about flavor descriptions or detail,” Lancaster says. If you’re going to be drinking it, you should probably find out what that’ll actually be like.
Not Asking for Samples
Many liquor stores don’t have the legal ability to serve pours from bottles on the regular, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a sip if you ask very nicely. It’s not uncommon for liquor store employees to crack open a bottle for a justified inquiry—i.e., you better be serious about buying before you ask an attendant to break into their stock just for you. According to Lancaster, it really comes down to the specific location and employee, but he says it never hurts to ask.
Ignoring Mini Bottles
While BevMo! does offer sample tastings of beer and wine, Lancaster points to mini 50-milliliter bottles as another great way for customers to try new spirits they’re interested in. They may not have every brand in the tiny, airplane-ready size, but Lancaster is confident they can get you pretty close to the brand you’d like to try.
Buying the Same Stuff, Over and Over
According the Lancaster, the single biggest mistake customers make is buying the same bottle over and over again. He says the same 20 to 30 bottles get gobbled up all the time, thanks to the “as seen on TV” mentality, with customers reaching only for brands they recognize instead of trying anything new. “The only way to develop your palate or your interests is by trying new things,” Lancaster points out. “Maybe you can find something less expensive that’s just as good, or something that’s even better for just a few dollars more.”
Sticking to a Strict Price Range
“Throw the price thing out of your mind,” Lancaster says. “I don’t mean don’t set a cap. We want everyone to make rent. But there can be a big difference for only $5 or $10.”
Disregarding the Bottom Shelf
Everyone knows the good, expensive stuff is on the top shelf, the swill is on the bottom, and the affordable stuff is in the middle, right? Wrong. The bottom shelf is cheap, Lancaster admits, “but it’s cheap from a cost perspective, not necessarily from a quality or taste perspective,” he clarifies. “Sometimes things are a lower price simply because they’re easier [for the liquor store] to buy or are more mass produced.” So look down every now and then, and you might just discover a bottom shelf diamond.
Getting Duped by Packaging
Branding isn’t stagnant. Liquor companies are constantly changing their labels and logos, so maybe learn to recognize your favorite bottle by more than the picture on the label alone. “Every five years or so, everyone updates their packaging and labels to become more appealing,” Lancaster says, adding that customers are “absolutely” misled by flashy images on bottles. “There are some wines that are so good or established, they haven’t updated their labels in years and years,” he says. “So if you’re drawn to newer or more flashy labels, you might miss out on these old-fashioned wines that don’t stand out as much.”
Taking Price for Granted
The price of liquor at any given store is dependant on a lot of factors. According to Lancaster, many BevMo! shoppers are longtime customers, so they could conceivably track the ups and downs of pricing on a favorite brand from visit to visit to get a sense of price patterns. But failing that, he suggests asking a store employee if they have seen prices shifting at all. His team has seen countless new products hit shelves, so they know the price might drop after a few months, or they might know when sales on budget items will go deeper in the future.
In rare cases, the price might seem arbitrary or even mistaken. “For instance, the Smirnoff 1.75 liter is actually cheaper right now than buying a Smirnoff liter,” Lancaster says. “It’s almost double the size and it’s actually cheaper in price. That’s because liters are what they have to use at restaurants and bars, so the distributors can garner more money that way. That’s a situation where you might look at the price and think it’s a mistake, and without talking to an associate you might not buy that item.”
Falling for Liquor Stereotypes
Lancaster says a lot of customers come in with misconceptions about certain categories of alcohol altogether. For instance, shoppers might think all tequila is the same, not realizing there’s a difference between blanco, añejo and reposado. Even whiskey isn’t safe from shopper ignorance, with drinkers failing to recognize the difference between a heavy peated scotch and a sweet sipping bourbon. Doing a bit of research before you walk into the store can make your shopping experience a whole lot better.