By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
We’ve all walked into a state store and gazed without purpose at bottle after bottle on shelf after shelf, not sure what we want or what’s even good. You can try asking a salesperson, but the odds they’ve tasted even a quarter of the products in the store seem slim and a nuanced knowledge of spirits probably isn’t one of the main hiring criteria.
So, in the end, you pick up the same generic bottle of booze you got last time and the time before, knowing you’re not really in love with it, but hey, it gets the job done.
Now say you’re walking through the Strip, by the corner of Penn and 21st. There you’ll find Pennsylvania Libations—a different kind of liquor store. You won’t find Tito’s or Seagrams or Bacardi. For the most part, you’ll probably see a lot of bottles you’ve never seen before. But it’s okay, because you won’t be left to your own devices.
“We get a lot of people that come in and think it’s just a regular liquor store,” Jeremy Noah, director of operations, says. “We’re the only privately owned liquor store in the state.”
If you ask Dana Dolney, a sales representative and consultant, what her favorite liquor Pennsylvania Libations carries is, she’ll say “that doesn’t matter unless you’re buying me a bottle.” And then she’ll ask you questions about what you like, give you samples and tell you stories until you’ve found something you love.
If you’re shopping at Pennsylvania Libations, you’re buying local. According to store-owner Christian Simmons, in 2012 there were seven distilleries in Pennsylvania and now there are more than a hundred.
At their 650 square-foot shop, 16 Pennsylvania distilleries sell more than 120 products.
Each distillery’s story is as unique as the spirits they’re making, and Pennsylvania Libations wants to share all of it with as many people as possible.
“It’s the stories, honestly—it’s what captivates everybody at the store,” Noah says. “It’s what Dana is doing right now with this couple over here: she’s talking about everyone’s story, everyone’s journey. Why are they doing what they’re doing?”
But it isn’t only the distillers that have a story to tell. Opening the first craft liquor store that’s anywhere close to this scale was a journey for Simmons. As the cofounder of Four Seasons Brewing in Latrobe, Simmons was familiar with the production side things. Then he wanted to move more into sales.
“One brand isn’t enough for me,” Simmons says. “I love that I don’t have to worry about making anything, because everybody in this store makes amazing spirits, so it allows me to do what I love to do best which is sell, market and represent the best of the best in the state and the country.”
But Simmons knew that he couldn’t just call up distillers and ask them to be in his store. He had to earn their trust and prove he knew what he was doing. He started working with local distillers to sell their products to restaurants and bars.
“Just because you have a location and an idea, it doesn’t mean the distilleries are going to trust you, because they only get five of these [satellite] licenses, so they want to see the highest volume in sales out of all five of those locations,” Simmons says.
It took these relationships plus tons of research, large costs in lawyer’s fees, seven months of paying rent on a leased space for a business that couldn’t open yet, working with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) and a whole lot of politics to make this idea a reality.
“All of the distilleries wrote to their local [congress]people and said ‘hey you need to tell the PLCB this is going to be nothing but good for so many people,’ and that really helped,” Simmons says. “So it wasn’t just me, it was everybody working together to see this happen.”
In the end, even though many people told him his store would never be approved, Simmons says the PLCB was open-minded and worked with him to make it all happen. Originally, he wanted to sell local wine and spirits in the same store, but that application was rejected because of certain physical requirements for the retail space.
His second application was approved, in large part because the benefits to local small businesses are undeniable. The local liquor industry affects so many others, all the way from farmers to graphic designers and label-makers.
The store opened in June of 2017. Through a consignment system, they’re already selling the products of 16 distillers, from the hyper-local Maggie’s Farm, to Lancaster’s Stoll and Wolfe, to Philadelphia Distilling. Including non-alcoholic brands like Red Ribbon Soda, 22 small businesses are represented at Pennsylvania Libations.
And now Pennsylvania Libations sits, the only business of its kind, poised for success at the beginning of Pennsylvania’s craft liquor boom. Noah says most of the distilleries selling product in the store are less than five years old.
“We’re in its infancy,” Noah says. “Five, six, seven years from now when these guys start pumping out six year aged bourbons and eight year ryes and add it to the years they’ve already been open, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Simmons is looking at a lot of options for the future: expand, open up another location across the state, bring in wine, offer onsite consumption. And all of those things may be in the cards,but Simmons is happy with what he’s got going on now while he still calculates his next moves.
One of the main things he’s watching out for is the continuation of the 2017 Craft Modernization and Tax Reform Act that extended a tax break, similar to the ones that craft breweries and wineries already had, to distillers. The break really made a difference for small distilleries, whose spirits are taxed at an average of about 54 percent of their purchase price, according to Forbes.
“It really helped the boom and now they’re thinking about not extending that tax break which would be detrimental to probably one sixth of the distilleries in the country to the point of actually killing them,” Simmons says. “So we’re hoping that the federal government listens and works with us.”