Relaxed Va. ABC rules allowdistillery to offer peppermint spirit a year early
Success highlights producers’ ability to ship to consumers
In the days before Thanksgiving, Belle Isle Moonshine quietly released its newest concoction: Belle Isle Peppermint Patty — its unaged whiskey infused with mint and chocolate that’s made especially for holiday drinking.
It was the first seasonal product for Belle Isle, a 7-year-old craft spirit maker based in Richmond’s Manchester area. Within the first 10 days, Belle Isle had sold 1,000 bottles of Peppermint Patty, making it the company’s “most successful online launch to date,” according to the co-founder.
“We’ve been completely blown away from all the love and support this product has received. ... It has certainly exceeded our expectations,” said Vince Riggi, co-founder and co-owner of Belle Isle.
Was it the hit combination of chocolate and mint (and moonshine) that drove sales? Or the pre-Thanksgiving timing of the release? Or maybe the bottle’s relatively low $19.99 price tag?
Possibly all of the above, Riggi said. But part of the credit, he said, should also go to a change from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority amid
the coronavirus pandemic that let Belle Isle — and the rest of the more than 40 spirit makers in Virginia — to do something they’ve never done before: ship their product directly to consumers.
“The ability to ship direct-to-consumer is a complete game-changer for local Virginia distilleries,” Riggi said. “DTC has helped bridge the revenue gap for spirits makerswho rely so heavily on bar and restaurant sales.”
And not only did the direct sales help drive Peppermint Patty’s early success, Riggi said, but it also allowed Belle Isle to release it a year earlier than expected.
“Standard ABC listing usually takes six to 12 months from idea to shelf,” Riggi said.
With direct-to-consumer sales, Belle Isle was able to bypass some of the usual steps required when ABC is considering making shelf space for something new, which it does four times year. That process includes considerations such as the distillery providing proof that it can deliver enough product to ABC stores across the state. And, most importantly, Riggi said, direct sales have let Belle Isle build relationships and communicate directly with the consumer.
“These privileges have helped to open up sensible market access,” said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director of the Virginia Distillers Association, a nonprofit that assists the Virginia spirits industry. “They help our distilleries continue to sell their products while keeping their staff members safe, and equally important — these privileges help provide Virginia consumers with safe access to local craft spirits from the comfort of their home.”
Like many other small business sectors, Virginia distilleries have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Distillery tasting rooms, which Ciarametaro said are the primary place Virginia spirits are purchased, were required to close for months. And even though tasting rooms were allowed to reopen, many consumers have continued to stay away. Sales to local restaurants — another revenue stream for spirit makers— have dried up as that industry also suffers.
“When the pandemic set in, it was a devastating blow to our industry,” Ciarametaro said.
But the direct-to-consumer sales for Virginia distilleries have helped.
The rule went into effect in early April, at the same time Virginia ABC gave restaurants the OK to sell to-go cocktails. And like the cocktail sales, distillers’ privileges are temporarily in place for the pandemic, though restaurants and distilleries would like to see the changes made permanent during the next General Assembly session.
As the regulatory arm of booze, Virginia ABC doesn’t have the ability to make the change permanent, but it has been supportive of direct sales thus far.
“Virginia distilleries contribute to the economic vitality of the commonwealth and it’s important that they have some flexibility in how they are able to provide their products to Virginia consumers,” said Dawn Eischen, a spokeswoman for Virginia ABC.
That flexibility has allowed some local distillers to offer sales and other reduced pricing to Virginia consumers, such as Reservoir Distillery in Scott’s Addition. It can now ship any of its bottles anywhere in the state and has decreased the price on three of its whiskeys— the 375-milliliter bottles of wheat, bourbon and rye — to $39.99 for December.
“DTC has been a wonderful opportunity for Reservoir during this most unusual year. It took us a little while to figure out how to get shipping costs down, but we are thrilled to be able to offer $5 shipping to our customers within Virginia,” said Leslie Griles, a spokeswoman for Reservoir.
Virginia distillers are licensed and function like ABC stores for sales and tasting, so the state still gets a cut of every sale. And that means spirits ordered online also can be picked up in person at the distillery. Or you can just shop directly at Virginia ABC stores — but not for Belle Isle’s Peppermint Patty. That one is still an online-only exclusive, at least for 2020.
“Given the overwhelming response thus far, having Peppermint Patty available via DTC and at all VA ABC physical locations will be one of our goals for next year,” Riggi said.