To all outward appearances, the recently released statement sounded like an innocuous bureaucratic detail issued by one of the most bureaucratic organizations in the state of Ohio: the Division of Liquor Control.
"As part of the evolving liquor enterprise in Ohio, it is necessary to perform a warehouse inventory reduction and optimize the inventory available within the Contract Liquor Agencies. We have identified 1,000 SKUs that will be removed from the warehouses and will no longer be available for ordering. These slow-moving products represent only 4% of sales in Ohio."
The list contains 705 items that Liquor Control argues have "very low consumer demand." The reductions are intended to better align the product inventory with modern consumer preferences while stripping countless outdated and redundant duds from liquor store shelves.
"In the last three years, we've added nearly 1,000 new products without removing any," explains Kerry Francis, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Commerce.
While it's absolutely true that the Great Purge will spare future imbibers from the horrors of whipped orange, cinnamon roll and cilantro flavored vodkas, dozens of which will be removed from the rolls, not everything that is going the way of the dodo is revolting swill.
"A lot of it needed to be done, but the collateral damage is losing some of the boutique stuff we get into," says Stefan Was, whose staff at Porco Lounge and Tiki Bar relies on so-called "slow-moving" products to properly do its job. "You go to a tiki bar in Chicago and they have 400 different rums on their shelf. As bartenders, we want to have options. Everything has its nuances to it and everybody has their favorites."
This whole notion of basing inventory decisions solely on sales is both disheartening and wrong-headed, argues Adam Roelle, a Columbus-based spirits rep with Cavalier Distributing. It was Roelle himself who over the past few years managed to work hand-in-hand with the Division of Liquor Control to increase the availability of high-quality bitters, vermouths, amaros and spirits like rum, genever-style gin, mezcal and cachaça. Many of those bottles that bartenders statewide are enjoying now are at risk of being permanently delisted.
"The system is not set up for the current market," he asserts. "Basing the success of certain items against volume is not how it should work. People are interested in more than just Bacardi and Jack Daniels. Bartenders want Ohio to be on par with the big cities and we were becoming able to do it. A lot these items are the kind of stuff that bartenders want — and deserve — to have in their tool belt."
Roelle says that it's just the aggravating nature of trying to conduct business in a control state, one in which the state controls the distribution and sale of some or all alcoholic beverages.
"It is illegal for bar and restaurant owners to get what they want without risk of putting their permits in jeopardy," he explains. "We've had no prohibition on liquor since 1933, yet that is the way the state still runs things."
As part of the warehouse inventory reduction, Will Hollingsworth will be losing his beloved St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, one of four ingredients in the Spotted Owl's signature cocktail, And Fire Green as Grass. As painful as that loss will be, it is just the latest in a long line of state-sponsored indignities that feel like death by a thousand cuts. Already Hollingsworth and his staff waste countless hours per week dealing with bureaucratic red tape simply to legally secure the products they need to serve their customers.
"The system is so dysfunctional from nose to tail that adding one more layer of complexity to it is adding one more opportunity for things to get screwed up," he says. "It's tragic to think about the opportunity costs given how much we deal with this incredibly inefficient system that not only seems disinterested in putting out a good product, but being actively opposed to doing so. People need to understand that bars like Stefan's and mine are being hamstrung at every step simply for trying to put out the great products for which we are known."
Never one to mince words, Hollingsworth accurately describes the frustration felt by hospitality professionals across the state. But resigning themselves to the likelihood that things will never change, most simply resolve to do the best they can with what they have.
"It's a stupid system," notes Was. "It's archaic and it doesn't help expose the consumer to different things. But it's also our job to use these things. It's not just a matter of getting it in; you have to do something with it. I also think not having unlimited access to some of these products can make you a better operator. It forces everybody to get more creative with limited resources."