The Bothell man found himself buying a fifth of a new coconut-flavored vodka Friday after tasting it at an unlikely place: a state-run liquor store.
"The wife is going to like that one," he said, after sipping from a tiny plastic cup.
The state Liquor Control Board just launched a year-long pilot project that allows distillery representatives to hold tastings at state-controlled liquor stores.
The tastings help liquor producers introduce products and give consumers a chance to sample unfamiliar spirits before committing.
It also may help the state's bottom line if consumers are willing to buy more expensive liquors.
The state selected 30 stores statewide to participate, including private stores that have a contract to sell liquor and a tribal store.
Just a third of those are giving tastings this month, including the state liquor store at 20617 Bothell-Everett Highway. Next month, stores in Lake Stevens, Silver Lake and Mountlake Terrace plan to offer tastings.
Friday afternoon, a small black bar lined with liquor bottles was cordoned off at the back of the Bothell store.
Bowls of chips and crackers waited while Matt McCarthy, who works for a company that represents well-known brands including Smirnoff, put a thimble of liquor in Lilliputian sampling cups.
Under the program, distillery representatives supply the product customers taste and also put on the tastings. At this one, McCarthy brought four new products, including a pre-mixed margarita and three flavored vodkas.
There are strict rules.
McCarthy has the same training and permit as a regular bartender. He carded everyone -- even folks who probably hadn't been in their 20s since World War II.
Customers can only be served a total of four, one-quarter-ounce tastes.
To give that perspective, a typical cocktail contains one and a half ounces.
"Just enough to get your lips wet," he said.
Just a few minutes after the tasting started, customers started wending their way back to the table for free samples.
Mangan, a construction worker, was one of the first.
"It's a great idea," Mangan said. "There's a lot of stuff I might buy but I'm not going to spend the money if I don't know what it tastes like."
It took an act by the Legislature to allow the pilot project. Washington is one of 18 states in which the state government controls the sale and distribution of hard liquor, said Jamie Storm, the pilot project's manager. Many already have moved to offering tastings in state liquor stores.
When the pilot project is finished next September, the state will evaluate its success based on factors such as sales, and feedback from distillery representatives and customers.
There's a chance it may not last that long.
A measure on this November's ballot aims to get the state out of the business of distributing and selling hard liquor.
If passed, Initiative 1183 requires all state-owned liquor stores be closed by June 2012 and allows booze to be sold in large supermarkets and warehouse retailers like Costco and Walmart. Costco is the primary force behind this measure. Last November, voters rejected a similar proposition also backed by the company.
By next month four liquor stores in Snohomish County plan to offer tastings to the public. Find out more at www.liq.wa.gov.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or email@example.com
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