Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | February 28, 2009

NY Blue Laws

I’m in New York City for the weekend so I thought I’d swing by Astor Wine and Spirits Center, one of the east coast’s best liquor stores. I wasn’t really looking to get anything, but I thought that there was a good chance that I’d be able to find some interesting bitters. And after all, bringing a couple little bitters bottles back to DC is a whole lot easier than most anything else than you’d get in a liquor store.

I got to Astor and perused their impressive array of digestifs, liquours, bourbons, and gins (in that order). It’s a great selection, though I was expecting a big range of rare American whiskeys. Oh well. After geeking out over what they had (and didn’t have) I decided to do what I intended and track down some bad ass bitters. I hadn’t seen any to this point in the store, so I asked a clerk where they were located. He replied: “We don’t sell bitters.” His English wasn’t great so I wasn’t sure he understood me – I’d said “bitters” not “beer.” We went a couple rounds back and forth and at one point he said, “We don’t sell bitters because they don’t have any alcohol.” After picking my jaw up off of the floor, I explained to him that in fact bitters had a very high alcohol content, they just met a different standard with the government that allows them to be designated as a food and not a spirit.

That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t that Astor was making a snooty decision that bitters didn’t count as alcohol worthy of their attention – which the clerk had somewhat conveyed – but that New York state’s blue laws restricted what liquor stores can and cannot sell. Liquor stores can’t sell beer and apparently they can’t sell bitters either. What a disappointment! I’d expected a huge array of American and imported bitters, but the one store in the northeast most likely to be able to assemble a great collection of bitters is prohibited by law from selling them.

I don’t know the history of New York’s blue laws, particularly as they relate to the division of beer sales from liquor and wine sales. But it has always struck me as a particularly absurd law. Now that I know that it affects bitters, too, it is even more absurd.



  1. That’s a bit unexpected; I’ve definitely bought bitters at liquor stores before (I picked up orange bitters and peychaud’s at union square wines). I’ve never looked at Astor, but again, mrm. Strange.

  2. […] folks, we all like to play, My state’s booze laws are the stupidest. And truth to tell, competitive as I am […]

  3. I love your blog – from the style to the recipes to the insights and the introspection.

    As to the topic at hand, the best collection of bitters I have found in Manhattan is at Kalustyans market, on Lexington Ave. near E. 28th St. Nothing terribly exotic, but the full line of Fee Brothers, Regans orange, several versions of Peychaud’s. The oddity is they’re located on what’s known as one of the city’s great Indian and East Asian markets.

    Thanks again for a lovely journal.

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