Melissa Katrincic was at a Durham Bulls game when she got a text that pushed her to make a public plea to help return her made-in- Durham gin back to local ABC store shelves.
The text was from a friend who had tried to order a cocktail at Counting House, the restaurant and bar at the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Durham.
The restaurant had taken the requested cocktail, which included one of the Durham Distillery’s Conniption gins, off the menu because the business couldn’t obtain the gin from the Durham County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Then the friend went to the Durham County ABC store on N.C. 55, where he was told it had been out of the gin for a month.
So, while attending the Bulls’ Star Wars night with her husband and two children, Katrincic got on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“Durham – we need your help. Durham ABC has let our Conniption gins go out of stock, basically everywhere,” read the May 7 post, which was shared more than 80 times. “Let us be clear – we are not out of stock, but Durham ABC needs to order. Call or email them and ask them to support your home distillery.”
The comments that followed on Facebook included the beverage director at Mateo and Vin Rouge indicating he couldn’t get the gins either, questions about why the Durham County ABC Board wouldn’t support the local company and statements about how alcohol sales should be privatized.
“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for a new distillery, it really hurts,” said Katrincic, who started the Durham Distillery with her husband in 2013. The company’s award winning Conniption gins, American Dry and Navy Strength, landed on local ABC store shelves in August.
Conniption returned to shelves the next week, but Durham Distillery felt the lag with a 15 percent drop in sales over the past couple of months, Katrincic said.
Rufus Sales, Durham County ABC’s interim general manager, referred all questions to Durham County ABC Chairman Wayland Burton, who didn’t return multiple telephone messages.
Joe Wall, executive director of the N.C. Association of ABC Boards, said generally the commission suggests that local boards stock locally produced products and respond to customer requests.
Wall, who sought out some information after speaking with The Durham News, said Durham Distillery’s products have been on the market for less than a year and the automated system didn’t have the historical information that helps manage the county’s inventory.
He also said that a restaurant requested the product and was given all that was in stock and the board ordered some more.
“So it was available as soon as it could be delivered or obtained,” he said
That description doesn’t appear to match Katrincic’s account of events.
“I think it is a perfect storm that has happened,” she said. The circumstances included an increased demand for the product, no record of past product performance and the recent departure of the ABC Board’s general manager, she said.
The gins started showing back up on Durham County shelves by May 10, but the challenge isn’t unique to that one time or the one company, said Scott Maitland, president of the 29-member N.C. Distillers Association and proprietor of TOPO Distillery and Top of the Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Chapel Hill.
“It highlights the challenge that North Carolina distilleries face,” Maitland said.
Initially, North Carolina distilleries struggled with getting into local ABC stores, he said. The current challenge is distilleries have to depend on a variety of Alcoholic Beverage Control Boards to re-order in an efficient manner.
“Operational issues,” Maitland said.
In general, the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission serves as a gatekeeper, approving a master list of what is available to the state’s about 166 individual county and municipal ABC boards.
Those boards, including the Durham County ABC Board, determine what products are sold within those stores and when to re-order.
Meanwhile, liquor companies such as Durham Distillery, send their products to a warehouse in Raleigh, where they await orders from local boards. In general, restaurants have to buy their liquor from the ABC Board in their area.
It was under those circumstances that Durham Distillery had cases sitting in the Raleigh warehouse, while Durham customers were calling, email and texting for weeks asking for it as big weekends that included UNC graduation, the Kentucky Derby, Art of Cool and Mother’s Day passed.
Before the recent restocking, Durham County ABC’s last order was in February, while Wake and Orange counties continued to order three to four times a month, Katrincic said.
In April, Katrincic left a message with Durham County ABC board about the reports of empty shelves and restaurants and bars not being able to pick up their supplies. When they didn’t call her back, she sent an email on May 2. The response was positive, she said. Still, Conniption didn’t return to the shelves.
That’s when Katrincic asked for more help.
Rim Vilgalys, owner of The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits, has had similar challenges with North Carolina boards and private companies in other states.
The Durham-based spirits company has had products, including its spiced-honey liqueur Krupnikas, on ABC store shelves since 2013. The company also sells in seven other states.
“This situation that we are seeing here is not something that is exclusive to North Carolina,” Vigalys said. “The liquor stream is low tech. There isn’t a lot of information that people get. It is not always responsive as you would like as someone is marketing and starting a brand.”
Jonathan Blitz, co-founder of the Durham-based Mystic Bourbon, which has had products on ABC store shelves since November 2013, said they haven’t faced similar challenges working with ABC. If a retailer is low on stock, a call to the store manager or a visit to the board solves the issue, Blitz said.
“For us, we have had good partnership with them,” Blitz said.