Liquor in Ohio is a Game of Relationships: How the Winking Lizard Group of Companies Wins by Providing Value for Its Customers, Its Partners and the System

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Through the magic of supplier allocation and special purchase orders, almost every rare or limited-release whiskey that makes its way into Ohio eventually finds its way onto the back bar at a Lizardville location in Bedford Heights, Copley or Rocky River. This past month, bottles of George T. Stagg Bourbon, Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye, Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Bourbon and Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon all have made appearances there, despite the fact that only a few hundred bottles combined made it into the state. Truth is, it's not a question of if Lizardville will get these limited releases in any given year, but a question of when and how many bottles. And that rubs some competitors the wrong way.

"I look at these limited releases like Great Lakes Christmas Ale," explains John Lane, partner of the Winking Lizard, Lizardville's parent company. "A couple of years ago when there wasn't very much Christmas Ale to go around, we always seemed to have it. People would bash us left and right. They didn't understand that (a), we have two handles on year-round and (b), we sell a butt-load of their beer all year-round. In turn, a lot of these suppliers want to make sure that we're taken care of because we wield a pretty big stick. That's just capitalism in action."

As with beer, the whiskey business is all about relationships. The distillers? Lane knows all of them. The brokers? Knows them too. Lane even knows Bruce Stevenson, the superintendent of liquor control in Ohio. Stevenson is the sole person responsible for bringing booze into the state, a good person to know for obvious reasons.

"A few years ago we bought a barrel of bourbon from Buffalo Trace, and you don't buy a barrel without getting to know some of the people involved," Lane adds. A barrel is a big investment that yields 250 bottles, but it also yields good will from the state of Ohio. Each and every one of those bottles is taxed when it comes into the state and again when it's sold at the bar. Even the liquor agencies make a 3-percent margin on the transaction without having to sacrifice an inch of shelf space. "If it benefits the system, people will get out of your way," asserts Lane.

He's talking, of course, about the state-controlled system of liquor distribution in Ohio — what Scene dubbed last month the "bureaucratic human centipede" — which seeks to separate distillers from distributors from sellers from buyers. "This year it put $634 million towards the state's general fund. No politician in the world is going to say, 'If we put this on the free market, we'll make more money,'" he says. 

And so it follows that the easiest way to win in the system in place is to make more money for the system. And the easiest way to do that is to build and maintain relationships and buy and sell the most booze, which is exactly what the Winking Lizard Group of companies does so well. "We've had to learn to work within the system because the system is what it is," Lane said. "We're not going to change it in our lifetime."

Not every bar or restaurant benefits from the economies of scale that Lizardville enjoys, and it's to Lane's credit that they don't get left in the dust. This year, Lizardville accepted only half of their allocation of some of the aforementioned limited releases to make sure there was enough to go around for others in the market.

And when it came time to sell that George T. Stagg at the bar, Lane made sure his customers were taken care of as well: A long pour of the precious hooch went for just $10.50, even though the same pour fetches up to $45 in other markets. 

"We've been in business for almost 30 years," says Lane. "Gouging on whiskey isn't going to make or break our bottom line. Sure, we could charge that much — one time. But is that the customer we want? Or do we want the customer who comes in every day and knows they'll be rewarded with value and fairness?"

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