Doing booze business in a control state is no small feat.
Such is the challenge faced by Spencer Warren, beverage director of the new tequila and mezcal bar Tako, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It’s Only a Hurdle
“Imagine if the post office were in change of everything,” says Warren, referencing the bureaucratic, arguably inefficient mountain of paperwork he fills out to gather unusual product for his bars. Then there’s the pricing of comparatively esoteric, special-order spirits, which can skew up to 30-percent higher than normal.
While bar owners struggle to order boutique products, small distillers, according to Warren, have a hard time even being listed in the state. If they do, they have to “guarantee to the state to move a certain quantity of product and many can’t afford it.” Sometimes very little product is made available. For example, Warren snapped up two of the three bottles of the 38-year-old Chivas that came on the market. Plus, bars compete with individuals, and not just state residents, who often request those same limited number of bottles to be shipped to their Pennsylvania P.O. box.
The magic letters then for bar owners in Pennsylvania are “SLO,” which stands for Special Liquor Order. In the case of Tako, Warren is carrying rarer spirits, such as Xicaru Mezcal and 38-year-old Chivas, and the state has accommodated his request through the use of the SLO. Warren has even been able to source a handful of highly allocated bourbons from an Arkansas distillery.
The SLO is indispensable, as Tako carries 300 tequilas, 60 mezcals and 75 rums, all served in 1.5-ounce tastes and 3-ounce pours, as well as in cocktails. Server training is intense and a new spirit is reviewed and tasted every day. So far, 60 percent of drinks sales have been in cocktails and 30 percent in straight spirits, according to Warren, with the remaining 10 percent being poured in drinks like rum and Coke.
The Future Is Looking Bright
People are betting that Pennsylvania will likely privatize its liquor purchasing in the future. But Warren thinks it may take years and is likely to happen on the wine side first. In the meantime, Tako’s Spicy Cucumber Margarita and Ramon’s Fizz (a play on a Ramos Fizz, served with avocado) are welcome distractions.
214 6th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222