Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Where I Buy My Booze

One of the things you realize fairly quickly after becoming interested in cocktails and spirits is that it can be rather frustrating to find everything you're interested in. Almost every country on earth seems to have some maddening law that makes getting your hands on that one last piece you need for the cocktail you read about or the latest fantastic spirit release. While Oregon liquor stores have a fairly good selection for being in a pseudo-control state (and have the small advantage of being able to view almost all of the stock within the state via Oregon Liquor Search), I'm not willing to buy an entire case whenever I want to special order something.

So what are you going to do? Personally, I often turn to ordering online. Sadly liquor laws are absurd and that's not possible in every state in the U.S., but a decent chunk of the country is safe.

Here are the online liquor stores that I have personally dealt with and can vouch for having good customer service. Note, I have not received any compensation for promoting these stores, I just want to bring more business to people who have treated me well.

Hi-Time Wine - based out of Costa Mesa, CA, this was the first place I ever ordered from online. They have an enormous selection and often rather good deals. Shipping isn't too bad (at least if you're on the west coast) if you're ordering a few things at a time, usually run me $4-5 a bottle for a 4-5 item order. Service has been extremely prompt and nothing has ever been damaged in shipping, even when I ordered an entire handle of rum.

DrinkUpNY - based out of Brooklyn, NY, I was initially drawn by the fact that the store had a deal where shipping was free on orders over $100. This helped to balance out slightly higher NYC liquor prices, so I was able to get some good bargains. However, that deal is no longer in effect, so shipping prices are now the standard UPS/FedEx rates unless you live inside the city. However, I can vouch for their extremely thorough shipping methods, which more or less guaranteed that nothing was going to break. As a nice bonus, they tossed in an issue of Imbibe for free. So while I'm extremely satisfied with the service I received from them, I have a feeling that the shipping costs will wipe out any savings I could get. However, if you live on the east coast, they're probably still a good source.

The Party Source - based out of Bellevue, KY, this store is one of the few I've seen in the U.S. that regularly brings in lots of independent bottlings and its own private selection bottlings. They also have a vast selection of minis, which can be a good way to sample new spirits. They also sometimes have extremely good discounts on spirits, but you often have to act quickly as stock can be run down with surprising speed. I actually got pipped on one bottle in my last order, which must have been pulled off the shelf by someone before the staff could grab it for me. However, they did act very quickly to refund both the purchase price and the shipping costs. With all of that said, their shipping prices are, at least to me, very high. If you live closer it'll probably be a better deal, but it's difficult for me to get the price down much below $10 a bottle. Sometimes the deals are good enough that it doesn't matter, but it is a little hard for me to swallow when I can potentially get liquor from the UK shipped to me for roughly the same price. So while I heartily recommend them and have had nothing but good experiences ordering from TPS, be sure to pay attention to the shipping before you hit 'confirm' on your order.

City Wine Cellar - based out of Staten Island, Ny, I bought whisky from this store for exactly one reason. They're the only place in the U.S. I've ever seen selling any of Diageo's 3x200 mL Classic Malts packs. As the alternative was buying them from the UK, I jumped on the opportunity. As they're in NYC, shipping was definitely a bit tricky to finesse, but I was able to find enough deals to make the numbers work out. Customer service was rather good, even when I was told that they were out of one of the whiskies I had ordered. I was able to make a substitution and everything ran smoothly from there. Packing was good and they were even nice enough to include the boxes that the scotch came in, which some stores won't do without any extra fee. Overall a good experience and if you're in the NYC area, it's probably worth taking a peek. They do have some deals that would be pretty good with minimal or no shipping and also a slightly surprising variety of older Diageo releases (Rosebank 21, anybody?).

Astor Wines & Spirits - based out of Manhattan, NY, this is where my most recent order came from. While they have a great selection and some decent prices, the shipping had always deterred me. However, they currently have a deal where shipping is free for first-time customers who sign up for an online account, so I was able to get some very nice prices without having to worry about any extra costs. Admittedly, this may be the only time I ever order from them unless their standard shipping ends up being not too bad, but it's worth taking a peek around their website right now to see if the free shipping is worth it to you. Much like TPS, their shipping on my order was impeccable, with the original packaging for all of my scotch included, plus individually wrapping both the bottles and boxes. Overall a very good experience.

There are also a number if stores that I've had my eye on, but haven't purchased from before. I'd love to hear whether any of you have dealt with them before and what your experiences were like.

Ludwig's Fine Wine - located north of San Francisco in San Anselmo, CA

Riverside Wine Merchants - located just outside of NYC in North Bergen, NJ

Master of Malt - located in Royal Tunbridge Wells, UK, MoM is famous among scotch aficionados, especially for their Drinks by the Dram sample program. I'm particularly interested in them because of their reasonable shipping rates.

The Whisky Exchange - located in London, UK, TWE has quite a number of the 3x200 mL Classic Malts packs that I covet, as well as one from Bowmore. Shipping prices seem to be a little high, but I might be able to justify an order.

Are there any other stores you've had good experiences with? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter as I'm always on the lookout for new places that might have good deals or items I can't get elsewhere.


  1. Great overview. I'll testify to The Whisky Exchange. Shipping isn't cheap but they do a great job and have one of the finest collections out there. I have only had great experiences with them. The Bonding Dram in Belgium has good prices and an amazing selection too. They have one of the premier sample shops - Whisky Samples. I have many successes with them. Master of Malt is a superb experience all around. Their private cask offerings are almost universally top notch. They have samples - which aren't cheap but most are available nowhere else. Their shipping isn't cheap but their level of service and the quality of the experience is top notch. I concur about The Party Source. High shipping but amazing selection and the best group of bourbon miniatures. I've successfully ordered a bunch of times.

    There are host of other Dutch sample sites, and British and European merchants I've considered - including The Whisky Shop, UK (as opposed to the unrelated one in Brooklyn mentioned below), Royal Mile, The Green Welly Shop's whisky department (as opposed to their "outdoor" store where you buy boots), etc...

    All that being said for mail order, I work in NYC and live in North New Jersey. At home Shopper's Vineyard in Clifton, NJ has a very credible selection and very good pricing. In New York City stand outs include Astor Liquors - best in the city, Park Avenue Liquors, higher prices but incredible selection and literally 4 blocks from my office, Le Du's Wines in the West Village - a jewel-like collection, Drink Up NY & another jewel-like little store worth a special shout out: The Whisky Shop, Brooklyn. http://whiskeyshopbrooklyn.com/

    They don't ship at all, but my home town of Berkeley, CA houses a world class whisky shop in a marginal part of town: Ledger's Liquors. When in Berkeley whisky geeks must visit.

    Next stop, the best auction houses!

  2. Will any of these (other than the UK ones, I know Whiskey exchange does) have Ceylon Arrack, I wonder.

    1. It's not the same stuff, but there is a coconut-based spirit from Sri Lanka coming to the U.S.


  3. Jordan, if you're ever travelling down the coast, you should stop by Hi Time. I think their in-store whisky selection might even be better than what they're showing on their site. Their spirits buyer, Forrest, is a serious rum man.

    I can also vouch for Master of Malt. I've purchased bottles from them at much-better-than-US prices (even including int'l shipping). They ship quick and safely, and I've always gotten the whisky boxes. I am madly addicted to their Drinks by the Drams.

    I concur with all your points regarding DrinkUpNY. They had Absinthe before California did, so I used to buy through them. But without the free shipping, it's no longer cost effective.

    Party Source's shipping $$$ has kept me from ordering through them, but I'm hoping to make a pilgrimage to their shop this winter.

    Great post!

  4. Hi Jordan, I drink mostly from the same watering holes. TWE works best for expensive bottles, since you aren't paying VAT (about 20% of the cost). On occasion I had friends interested in buying a bottle and sharing shipping costs. Too bad you live far away... :) The one other source I'd mention is Merwin Liquors in MN.

  5. I think the only store I'd add to your list is K&L. Their spirits program is legit, and the two Davids are both very nice too.