Big Stores, Little Stores: Exploring Seattle's New Liquor Landscape

By: 
A.J. Rathbun
Inside Total Wine & More's Bellevue location

As you may know, Washington State liquor laws have changed dramatically this year. I talked about it here back in June, which doesn’t seem that long ago. But in the rapidly changing liquor landscape, that’s much longer than it seems. Since then, we've heard about spirit and booze sales plunging, people moon-shining bottles across the Oregon border, and everything was breaking like a dropped glass. However, more recently the river of spirits has started to flow in the other direction. Sales are up, and the ease of shopping for spirits and other alcoholic imbibables is expanding at a rapid pace.

One contributing factor is the expansion of liquor chain Total Wine & More. With one store already open in Bellevue, Total Wine & More is opening a new store in Tukwila Thursday, and has plans to open other state stores in Spokane (later in the year), Alderwood, Federal Way, Olympia, Silverdale, and Vancouver.

Opening a lot of stores isn’t all that sets Total Wine & More apart. As spokesperson Edward Cooper says, the company wants “to offer an unparalleled selection of wine, beer and spirits.” To that end, they currently have more than 8,000 wine, 3,000 spirit, and 2,500 beer choices, with a vast array of locally distilled and brewed favorites, including top numbers like Voyager gin and lesser-known ones like Golden Distillery’s Samish Bay whiskey. The staff is an important feature too, as “all employees go through an extensive three-week training program covering the various regions, production methods, varietals, brew styles, and tasting analysis before stepping onto the sales floor.” They also offer information centers in store, tasting stations, special events,and more to educate and help the consumer.

While the square footage of Ballard Liquor (2480 NW Market Street) isn’t as expansive as Total Wine & More, the focus on selection and customer service still resonates loudly. The store was bought at auction by two partners, Ablom Mengstu (shown here) and Biniam Habte, when the state unloaded their stores (the pair also picked up University Liquor Store, 5105 25th Ave NW). They re-opened on June 2nd and have already implemented many changes. They increased selection of spirits and expanded by bringing in beer, ice, mixers and snacks to become more of a one-stop shop.

The impressive combination of a wide selection and reasonable pricing at Ballard Liquor is made even better by Ablom’s incredibly friendly manner. He wants to make sure that “the neighbors are excited to come to us,” and wants to continue expanding his selection. He’s talking to large and smaller distributors to make sure he can get anything a customer wants, whether it’s an Italian amaro like Averna or locally-made favorites like Woodinville Whiskey Company rye or Evenstar shochu (and soon a larger selection of international wines and beers, too).

His philosophy is, when customers hear about something exotic they might like, “they don’t have to dream about it. They can get it.” He’s also all about community. However, the fact that he graduated from Ballard High makes his desire to stay and serve local even stronger.

All this expansion of selection and a fabulous focus on customer service has to please anyone who likes a good spirit sipped solo or mixed into cocktails. While the landscape is still rapidly changing, I’m excited that it’s moving in the right direction. Of course, my bar shelves may have to be reinforced soon.

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