Can’t find your favorite bourbon? There might be something better.

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/28/21

It’s been a boon year for ABC store sales since pandemic shutdowns shuttered regular drinking holes and haunts. In Chatham especially, North Carolinians come from far and wide to peruse the …

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It’s been a boon year for ABC store sales since pandemic shutdowns shuttered regular drinking holes and haunts. In Chatham especially, North Carolinians come from far and wide to peruse the county’s coveted selection.

“We’ve come to be known for having some special finds,” Matt Williams, general manager of Chatham County ABC, told me.

In the last fiscal year, which ended in June, Chatham ABC’s revenue exceeded the previous year’s by about 25% to 30%, Williams said. Between the four Chatham locations (Governor’s Club, Moncure, a new location in Wilsonville and a flagship on U.S. Hwy. 15-501), William’s 23 employees have stayed busy. Especially for bourbon lovers, Chatham’s stores are the place to go.

“We’re kind of a ‘bourbon store system,’ or whatever you want to call it,” Williams said. “People know that I go out of my way to reach out to the distillers and see if they have any barrels or harder-to-get bourbons, and customers have figured that out. So the bourbon folks really like coming to our locations.”

Still, many fan favorites are few and far between. Word of Buffalo Trace or Angel’s Envy in stock at a nearby store electrifies bourbon enthusiasts. They’re the sort of bottles ABC stores stash behind the counter. Demand for such liquors far exceeds available supply, so why don’t stores just order more inventory?

“It doesn’t work that way,” Williams said. “North Carolina doesn’t order products — the state doesn’t order the product from the suppliers. Suppliers ship in what they want to sell in North Carolina.”

North Carolina is one of 17 states in the country which authorizes a state agency with total control over the sale, purchase, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession of all alcoholic beverages, according to the ABC commission’s website. But in a reversal of traditional economics, distillers hold almost exclusive power over which of their products, and how many, North Carolina’s ABC commission purchases. Individual ABC boards then place orders to the state based on available supply. With more than 160 ABC boards and 430-plus locations around the state, competition for much-loved brands is fierce.

“Demand for those names is so huge in North Carolina,” Williams said. “The supply is not enough for the demand, and I can tell you as soon as they hit those shelves, it’s gone.”

Any bourbon lover can corroborate. But Williams has an alternative for the real devotees among us: barrel picks.

“So that’s where the suppliers will set up a tasting, and basically they’ll bring three to five different samples,” he said. “What those samples consist of is a pull from a particular barrel that the master distiller has set aside that he feels is above and beyond for their brand. They will offer them up and basically the county buys the entire barrel bottled. You’re the only one that’s ever going to get that barrel; nobody else is going to be able to sell that particular barrel. And we do a lot of those.”

To maintain consistency of flavor for a mass-produced bourbon, distillers will usually mix the product of several barrels. Individual barrels taste singularly different, however, and can make for exciting nonpareils.

“So I think that really sets us apart,” Williams said.

But ABC boards and locations are not allowed to promote any products. That means only the most vigilant consumers catch barrel picks before they sell out. Just this one time, though, I’ll tip you off to the inside track.

“I’ve actually got a few of them in the system right now that we’re going to be releasing next week,” Williams told me.

The barrels are coming from Wild Turkey distillery — a barrel of Russell’s Reserved Single Barrel and one of Kentucky Spirit.

“It’s something totally different, it’s not the same as your everyday purchase that’s sitting on the shelf in every other location,” Williams said. “It’s been in one barrel and never touched any other wood, so you know it will be distinctly different than the everyday shelf stuff, and people like that difference.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at and on Twitter @dldolder.


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