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.