For quite some time I’ve noticed that there are limitations to buying spirits in Iowa. First, Iowa is among the worst states when it comes to taxing spirits. What drives this high tax is a levy of 50% on product sold through the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division wholesale liquor distribution system. This means that if the ABD buys a bottle wholesale for $20 it marks it up to $30 for distribution to an approved Iowa spirits retailer. The retailer must then add its own markup in order to recover its own costs. This means that the $20 bottle may be marked at $35. (a fairly tight markup). If we are talking about a $5.50 bottle of cheap booze, then the final price might be $8.25 before the retail profit is added. But look what happens when the original wholesale price is $100. That bottle will have a $50 markup moving the price to $150 before retailer profit. Some Iowa liquor stores try to be fair to their customers (and not fair to themselves) by adding as small a margin as they can. The rest just don’t bother ordering higher end whiskeys as they know that the resulting price will be ridiculously expensive. Now, to be fair, Iowa does handle the wholesale and distribution end as part of that price, so it isn’t apples to apples to compare Iowa’s levy with that of states where it is legal for distribution companies to handle those tasks.
Another limitation is selection. If you have ever gone to a liquor store in Kentucky then you know that what Iowa consumers see is but a small fraction of the brands that are out there. A related issue is that not all whiskeys and other spirits are distributed to Iowa. Some are only available in their home state or in other larger markets.
So what is an Iowan to do? Well, there are a number of choices. First, you can cross the state line into Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois or Missouri. Second, you could go even farther afield, or order online. The latter choice may not be legal, though.
For the first installment of my “Over the Border” series, I will talk about Spirit World in Omaha, Nebraska.
I first learned about Spirit World back in the late ’70s when a fellow who I think was named Denny Lewis came to a garment store in Omaha where I worked. Unimpressed with the quality of the clothing I had to offer, he started to tell me about his liquor store just down the road. He was quite excited and assured me that I would get the best price there. (the original store had been nearly leveled by the 1975 Omaha tornado). He handed me his business card and I promised to stop by. I didn’t tell him that I was too young to buy hard liquor in Nebraska. Perhaps his intent in giving me the card was to allow me to avoid that problem. Who knows. Its been a long time. Regardless, I kept that business card for a long time because it reminded me of the the promise I’d made to visit. Years later, and when I was more than old enough to drink, I stopped by and made my first purchase.
More time has passed and Spirit World is no longer at the same location. The company has been bought by a new owner, Laurie Wolford, and moved to Aksarben Village, the site of the old Aksarben horse race track. Aksarben Village is quite the development, similar in scope to Omaha’s Midtown Crossing and comparable to West Des Moines’ West Glen Town Center.
The new store is quite nice. It is probably the best-looking liquor store I’ve ever seen. There is plenty of space (the former tenant was a grocery and deli) and the store includes a cafe, a tasting room, a bar, and a wide selection of spirits, beer, and wine.
Even with Nebraska’s lower liquor taxes, the prices are not as low as what you might find in Missouri (the reigning champ in low liquor taxes). I did not compare prices on premium bottles, but you might have better luck with the higher-priced spirits as Nebraska imposes a flat tax of $3.75 per gallon in addition to the sales tax.Selection is well above-average.
I’ve picked up some whiskey at Spirit World both before and after the move that are just not available anywhere in Iowa. In the picture above you can see Michter’s Bourbon, Straight Rye, and American Whiskey. To the left is McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt, probably the best best single malt made in the USA and quite hard to find in Iowa (Central Cities Liquors is your best bet in Des Moines). You would also be hard pressed to find as nice a selection of bitters and other ingredients for top-end cocktails.
I managed to find some much-needed ingredients to finish off my collection of liqueurs. If you are serious about cocktails but cannot find what you need in Iowa then I can recommend Spirit World. Don’t expect to find much cheaper prices for low to mid-range products, but do expect to find a much larger selection than is available here in Iowa. If you go, be ready to find the parking garage that is in the middle of the commercial development if street parking or the dedicated slots are not available.
6680 Center Street
Omaha, NE 68106