“I deal with manufacturers, and I deal with license holders. Now, I’m opening Pandora’s Box to the public.”
Christian Simmons is a Pittsburgh entrepreneur and owner of Pennsylvania Libations — the state’s first privately owned liquor store since Prohibition that will be opening in the Steel City shortly.
If you’ve stopped to pick up drinks in the state of Pennsylvania before, you’ve no doubt felt disappointed. Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the country with near prohibition-era liquor laws, alongside Utah.
The state government almost entirely owns the libations industry. Hard alcohol and wine are sold at Fine Wine & Good Spirits — the government-owned chain of omnipresent liquor stores. All prices are required to be identical throughout Pennsylvania, differing only in county sales taxes. Only minor loopholes and exceptions exist, and it is within these grey areas that Christian Simmons has carved out his answer to the government’s monopoly.
In the state of Pennsylvania, producers of alcoholic beverages have certain rights to sell their products. Locations such as main production buildings, places of operation, and a limited amount of “satellite facilities” are allowed to business owners as places to sell their wares, and it’s that last distinction that allows Simmons to operate outside the government’s direct control.
Simmons can get away with running his store because Pennsylvania Libations isn’t exactly selling their own products. They’re the middleman for the state’s many small business producers of hard alcohol and wines. The “store” is a satellite facility for producers across the state — a single, shared building serving as an offshoot of many different companies.
Simmons first began to conceive this idea while in sales for small producers. Selling the Wilds brand of vodka, he began to see that there was a massive barrier to entry for smaller producers who were new and not in demand yet. Without explicit customer demand, Fine Wine & Good Spirits ignores them. He began a mission to put himself out in the field, form relationships and truly get to know the Pittsburgh and larger Pennsylvania bar and alcohol production community. This integration was what allowed him to pull together support and trust from across the state. “That’s what I built my business on — relationships,” he said.
Simmons’ sister and business partner, Faith George, is just as involved in the business. An established nutritionist, she joined into Christian’s endeavor after seeing the potential early in the planning stages.
“We’re the little guy, and this is a family-owned business. We’re just trying to make sure that family-owned businesses get a chance,” Simmons said.
With the unique method for supply and sale, the store is not making money in the conventional way. Acting almost as curators, Simmons and his team make commissions, not direct sales profit. That is to say, the liquor is being sold by the manufacturers, and they, in turn, reward Pennsylvania Libations for moving the product.
The state’s Liquor Control Board is notoriously strict, only in recent years allowing grocery stores to sell beer. Additionally, these grocery store sales are only legal if it’s sold from a separate, barriered portion of the store. While the LCB’s true feelings are hard to to imagine, they have conceded to Simmons the green light for his business. He explained that he has “a written letter from the LCB” saying he can go forward with this concept.
Due to a mixture of legal limitations, passion and loyalty, Simmons’ store is a sales point exclusive to Pennsylvania producers, and the name says it all. Products set for sale are all artisan in creation and quality. Simmons jokes, “We’re not selling Vlad [vodka].” Cream bourbons, coconut rums and specialty whiskeys are already lining shelves at the store, which is still in the process of setting up its product floor.
When asked, George was quick to point out more exotic and intriguing bottles, including ice wine and cider from a variety of producers. “[It’s] one of the hardest alcohols to produce,” she explained, carefully holding up several slim, corked bottles. “They’re our most expensive products.”
While they continue to stock shelves with newly acquired product and tend to the final touches that are still ahead of them, the brother-sister business duo are rapidly working towards opening day, which the owners have yet to determine.
In the meantime, Simmons and George will continue to try and win over the trust of Pennsylvania distillers so they can bring the best of the state’s craft beverages to Pittsburgh’s drinking community.