Washington Residents Have More Booze-Buying Options, But Are Paying More For It

Until now, buying liquor in Washington state had meant you needed to go to a state-operated store. But that monopoly has now ended after residents voted to open up liquor sales to a wide range of retailers. Unfortunately, this now means that some folks are now paying a lot more to get tipsy.

SeattlePI.com looks at the wildly varying prices that have popped up in the few hours since the new rules went into effect.

For instance, while the $20 bottle of Absolut at Fred Meyer has a sticker price $3 less than what people would have paid at a state-operated store, but at the cash register, taxes bring that price up to almost $27, significantly more expensive than before.

See, while the state store prices included all taxes, stores are leaving those out of their sticker prices. So consumers in Washington have to figure the additional cost of a $2.83/liter tax and a 20.5% spirits tax before they know what the end result will be.

Additionally, retailers are trying to find a profitable price point, which may be difficult when they have to pay a 10% distributor fee and a 17% retail fee to the state.

It’s hoped that once retailers start tracking what the others are charging for similar products, the prices will come down and people won’t be spending more just to have more options for where to by their booze.

Liquor sticker shock: Why is booze so expensive? [SeattlePI.com]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Grogey says:

    Yeah it sounds like it will be a bit of a price war until the market evens out. I’m not all that surprised.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Came to say this. Whenever something new comes out, you’re going to see some out-of-line pricing until a balance is created.

    • cowboyesfan says:

      Luckily, small retailers were not allowed to get liquor licenses.

  2. That guy. says:

    So the register doesn’t just add the 20.5% tax, they have to enter in how many liters the bottle is to add the $2.83/liter tax? Sounds like a pain.

    • Coffee says:

      I have a feeling that we have the technology to let the cash register do all the maths.

      • That guy. says:

        lol I didn’t mean that the cashier would be sitting there with a pad and pen calculating…but still, the registers may not have a field to enter how many liters, then it just adds on the amount. Like, they scan a bottle of vodka, then enter that it is 1.5 liters.

        • KyBash says:

          I’m sure the system uses the UPC code to determine that, just as cigs have both a price and a separate added tax.

        • stevenpdx says:

          Every different package size has a different UPC barcode. Kinda like how a dozen eggs has a different UPC than an 18-pack.

          • That guy. says:

            Ah, that makes sense. So when the retailer sets up their POS system, they have to enter in the price + the calculated tax on the number of liters as the price that comes up? Or the POS system stores the info on the number of liters and calculates it on the fly based on the tax at the moment?

            I know I’m over thinking this.

        • krom says:

          Different sized bottles have different UPCs. This is true not just of vodka but of ketchup and everything else.

          Otherwise the cashier would have to enter the size of every item that comes down the cart. Is that am 8oz, 12oz, or 16oz Red Bull? Is that a half gallon of milk or a quart of milk? Well, they don’t have to, they all have different UPCs just for such an occasion.

          • That guy. says:

            Right, so the UPCs are different, with different prices in the computer system…but just because the UPCs are different doesn’t mean a non-specialized register or POS system would know “oh, this UPC means there is X liters”. They would either have to calculate the liter/tax and include that in the price they enter, or enter the number of liters and the register calculates the tax. Unless the state provides them with a sales system that updates on some sort of network to know how many liters each UPC code indicates.

            And if the person entering the prices into their sales system has to calculate the pirce + liter tax, they should have that printed on the bottles, IMO.

        • briguy17 says:

          I work as a cashier at a grocery store in Washington–the size of the bottles is incorporated into the item’s UPC so that when we scan it, it knows what tax to add on.

  3. Coffee says:

    The liquor taxes in Washington are insane, and your write-up is wrong…the per litre tax is $3.77, not $2.83. So if I buy a 1.75L of something that costs $20, after tax, it will be about $31.

    • You Can Call Me Al(isa) says:

      When I go to a liquor store for a bottle that costs $20, i end up paying about $21.50.

      • Coffee says:

        This explains why you’re always posting pictures of yourself – passed out and face covered with permanent marker – on G+…I envy you.

    • nugatory says:

      Don’t go to Australia…
      24 pack of beer $14.44
      700ml bottle of spirits $19.02

      thats the TAX on top of the cost of the product. Those are the rates from Jan 2011, so I bet they are higher than that now.

    • rmorin says:

      That is awful. In MA they briefly charged a ~6% sales tax for beer/liquor a few years ago. It literally lasted 6 months before a voter referendum did away with it.

      When you pick up a bottle of vodka in the store in MA that says $15.99, that’s all you have to pay at the register. In my travels I have found MA, NH, NV, and AZ to have the cheapest liquor prices in the country. Sorta bizarre because those four states really represent the entire political spectrum.

      • blueman says:

        Washington doesn’t have a state income tax. So they find other ways to get us.

      • Coffee says:

        I mention this in a post below, but I’ll echo it here…I’m not really sure who it is who supports extremely high sin taxes like these. On the one hand you could argue that it’s liberals because they generally like taxes more, and the taxation kinda fits in line with “nanny state”. But on the other, it’s clear that high taxes on things like alcohol and cigarettes are regressive taxes in that they hit the poor much harder than they hit the wealthy. Personally, I would rather have a progressive state income tax and relax taxes like this one, but that’s just me. And no, outside of the occasional bottle of scotch – which takes a long period of time to consume – I don’t purchase much liquor at all, so this isn’t hurting me.

      • GrimJack says:

        Well, don’t forget to mention that there was already a built-in tax for alcohol ($x per liter of spirts, $y per liter of wine, etc – don’t recall the exact amounts) that had always been in place. What they tried to do was double-dip by applying the 6.25% MA sales tax in addition to the existing tax.

        • wrjohnston91283 says:

          I’m amazed we voted down the sales tax on booze, but voted against beer and wine in grocery stores.

          • rmorin says:

            Especially because the package store business in the state is so fragmented. It is not like you have huge businesses throwing money at giant ad campaigns, it is largely owner-operated stores liquor stores in MA.

  4. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    Still better than PA – when I have to visit there, the whole blue laws enterprise boggles my mind.

    “Wine & Spirits” stores can sell wine and liquor…but not beer. But they can sell premixed mixed drinks, like margaritas.

    “Beer distributors” can sell only beer, and only in quantities of 24 or more. They can’t sell 6-packs or 12-packs.

    “Beer stores” can sell beer only in packages less than 24…and they have to offer food too. So you see all these “delis” that have a small, fairly useless sandwich offering, just so they can sell beer. But on top of that, the price for a 6-pack in PA is about what a 12-pack costs everywhere else. You can get a 40, though, for less than $3 – which is about 3.5 beers.

    …all of which tends to drive a lot of people to go to NJ to buy their hooch.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Utah is worse.

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        I have only driven through Utah…stopped for lunch once or twice. Can’t say that there’s much of anything in Utah…liquor stores or otherwise.

      • finbar says:

        “you can take me to hell or salt lake city, it would about the same to me”

      • Buckus says:

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure liquor stores in Utah are state-operated and can’t have any exterior markings indicating they sell liquor and they can only sell those mini-bottles like you get on airplanes and you have consume them in the store and you get arrested for drunk driving if you get in your car less than 1 hour after consuming any liquor in the store.

        I could be wrong.

    • Alaric says:

      You missed a couple. At a place where you can buy six packs, you can only purchase and carry out two six packs at a time. You can, however, make as many trips as you want. Additionally, it’s not just that they have to serve food but they have to have a place on-site for you to consume the beer if you so choose.

      One that was new to me that I heard about only because they were actually looking at changing the law is: You can buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant. If you’ve had a few glasses of the wine but didn’t finish it, you can take the bottle with you. You cannot, however, take the bottle with you if you haven’t opened it yet.

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      wow, that beats NC
      you can get wine at a grocery store or a wine store 7 days a week
      beer at a grocery store or a convenience store 7 days a week
      liquor at a state liguor store from 9-9 mon-sat, closed sundays
      and you can get irish cream at all of the above because they haven’t really figured out how to classify it and apparently decided no one is going to get plastered on bailey’s on a sunday so it’s not important enough to mess with

    • soj4life says:

      If the PA GOP gets their way, more people will be going to jersey or delware because the prices are going to rise just as much as it is in washington. When you privatize a source of income, either you kiss that income goodbye or consumers kiss their money goodbye.

  5. The Brad says:

    So did the State run store close down? If the state sponsored option is cheaper, people will still go there.

    • Lydecker says:

      The state run stores are being sold off, or shut down if no buyers are interested, per a Washington Voter passed referendum

    • krom says:

      The people, in their infinite wisdom…. mostly gotten from million-dollar commercial-backed campaigns… voted last year to shutter the state store system and move hard liquor sales into the supermarkets.

      Before today, private stores only could sell beer and wine and the like.

    • repeater says:

      The main issue is that our state-run stores were AWFUL. Inconvenient locations, horrible business hours, surly employees who had free reign to hassle and be rude to everyone.

      On the occasion where I’d get the idea to go buy a nice bottle of scotch or something, I’d remember what a pain it would be and just didn’t bother.

      So yea, I can understand that people who drink a ton of booze every day might be a little miffed at the price increase. But I think most people in the state are more like me – willing to pay a few extra bucks on the rare occasion we want booze to not have to deal with the state stores.

      It also opens up the opportunity for boutique specialty stores. If I’m gonna make a special trip somewhere, I’d rather it be to a place with a unique selection and helpful/knowledgeable employees.

      Someone over at The Stranger posted this comment, which is perfect:

      “I sure won’t miss shopping in those grim, unpleasant stores. Someone once compared shopping there to buying pornography at the post office, and it always seemed apt.”

      • Coffee says:

        I agree with almost everything you say, with one caveat. You mention that you would like to shop at boutique stores that offer interesting selections. IIRC, the bill that passed limits the size of stores able to sell liquor to at least 10,000 square feet in size.

        • repeater says:

          Yea sorta, I’ll admit that the “smaller stores” part of the initiative is a little confusing to me.

          I think the current interpretation is that if you have a 10,000 foot retail location, it’s basically a rubber stamp process to get your license to sell spirits.

          If you buy one of the existing state liquor stores that is closing down, you also get the spirits license without question.

          If you have a smaller place, they examine how many other stores in the nearby area already have a license before deciding if you get yours.

          So, it would be hard to open up a boutique shop near a grocery store, but easier to open a small one in a more dense urban area that doesn’t have a lot of 10,000 sq ft stores nearby. Which is kinda the area I would expect those smaller places to pop up anyhow.

          Which is weird. I’m kinda curious if that part is a costo-ism or something needed to ease the concerns of the liquor board.

          There already are a few small boutique distilleries in Seattle that have their license, and started selling retail out of their existing storefronts.

          • SKChance says:

            The 10K square foot thing was put into the successful version of the initiative when the first version was shot down due to fear-mongering about “being able to buy booze at every corner convenience store!”

            A lot of the stuff in the initiative that passed was put there to answer the tactics used to defeat the first version.

      • repeater says:

        It should also be noted that our liquor control board here in Washington has a history of over-reaching and is very adversarial to the public and local businesses. This new initiative is a pretty big step in yanking a lot of their power away.

        It’s only the past decade or so that we have been able to chip away at some of the bizzaro rules and laws we have here. A lot of local clubs are constantly in fear of getting their businesses closed down for some minor violation that shouldn’t be on the books in the first place.

        For example, up until recently a club could lose it’s license if a musician brought a drink onstage. Image being the owner of a venue and having to walk onstage in the middle of a touring band’s set, stop the show for a bit and explain why their beer has to be set down HERE instead of over HERE – or risk losing your business.

        Before that, we weren’t allowed to have shows with a 21+ only area. Clubs had to choose between losing business by having an all-ages show (and thus zero liquor sales) or going 21+ only (and thus losing a huge chunk of the crowd). It was a pain to get smaller, more risky touring acts to come to seattle because of that.

        Right now the fight is over our strict 2pm bar closing time (usually more like 1:30pm since most bars are afraid to risk it), which is awful. It guarantees that at exactly that time every night, the streets are flooded with drunks who just chugged their drinks as fast as possible and got pushed outside. The streets get crazy, the roads are frightening to drive on, and there are more drunks than there are cops to handle it. The liquor control board says “absolutely not” on fixing that, even though the city government, the people and even most of the police force are totally behind it.

        I should note here that I *rarely* drink. It’s just insane how much control the liquor board has over every entertainment event in the city/state, to the point where it impacts someone who really isn’t in to drinking.

      • Cacao says:

        I don’t know where you were shopping. How hard can it be to grab a bottle off the shelf, bring it to the cashier and have them ring you up? How would they hassle you?

        I found all the WA liquor stores [I ever went to] to be great. One time I went in looking for Strega. That particular store didn’t carry it, but the cashier was nice enough to take the time to print out a list of all the stores that did. Customer Service anyone?

        • repeater says:

          It’s cool that you have had good experiences, I wonder if my stance on it would be different if my experiences had been like that?

          I feel like it’s kind of a DMV / Post Office thing here. Once and a while you get someone really nice or chatty, and you walk out with a smile on your face. But 99% of the time you walk in and get treated horribly because hey, it’s not like they are gonna get fired.

          This might also be due to using the Seattle stores more in the past 10 years, where the clerks are very adversarial. If they don’t recognize you as a “regular”, they assume you are up to no good and treat to you as such before you can even smile and ask them how their day is.

          I’ve been yanked out of line and given the “I dunno, this ID might be fake and we might call the cops” routine several times (NOTE: I’m in my 30s and bald). I’ve had clerks tell me what I was buying was stupid. I’ve had the clerks grab my debit card and swipe it for me because I wasn’t doing it “fast enough” (the store was empty with no line behind me). Etc etc. Most people I’ve talked to have similar complaints and hate having to go in there.

          So you can probably see why, on the 1-2x per year I actually go to the liquor store, I’d walk out each time going “yeesh, I wish there was a way I could grab something without having to deal with this place”.

          (I also don’t feel like the state should be running liquor stores just on principle, and I’m not really a “privatize it!” guy overall. But again, I can’t totally say for sure whether that is based on a logical stance or just due to the bad experiences I’ve had at the stores.)

  6. krom says:

    “once retailers start tracking what the others are charging for similar products”

    Yeah, because they bothered to track what every single state store was charging for them yesterday! Not.

    I’m starting to side with those who think the initiative process is no good. It’s great on paper, but it has only resulted in very bad laws.

  7. longfeltwant says:

    Private enterprise is always cheaper and more efficient than government, therefore this story is an obvious lie, propaganda from communists.

    • Coffee says:

      I typically agree with most of what you say, but in the case of Washington State, you can pretty much draw a direct line between liquor prices and the exorbitant tax rate. In states like California, where there is less regulation and there are fewer taxes, liquor is a lot cheaper.

    • jrs45 says:

      It would be if they hadn’t be so heavily taxed.

    • soj4life says:

      When you privatize a source of income, prices are going to increase or the state loses revenue. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, which is what the gop wants.

  8. zigziggityzoo says:

    So there’s a 20.5% tax on top of the 27% distributor/retail tax, Plus a per liter tax on top of that.

    So roughly 50-60% of the total cost of your alcohol goes to the state in tax form. All because alcohol is evil.

    • TheMansfieldMauler says:

      All because alcohol is evil.

      Or because it’s profitable, and therefore [some] politicians can’t wait to tax tax tax it and tax it some more.

    • Coffee says:

      I’m pretty liberal in my belief about taxes, but I have a hard time reconciling sin taxes with my belief system and am very ambivalent about them. On the one hand, I think things that are bad for you – and are going to cost taxpayers money because of future health issues – should be taxed to a higher degree to curb the behavior and/or fund healthcare down the road. On the other, these are regressive taxes that disproportionately affect the poor, who spend a greater portion of there income (taken as a percentage) than wealthier people do on alcohol.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        Alcohol isn’t evil, it’s good for you.

        You see, your brains cells are like a herd of buffalo, and alcohol is like a pack of wolves. When you drink, the wolf pack hunts the buffalo. But wolves only go after the sick and injured buffalo. So by drinking, you are culling your brain cell herd so that only the strongest brain cells remain.

        So drink up!

        • Coffee says:

          Delicious, delicious Darwinism in my brain. I’m gonna have the biggest, baddest brain cells ever!

    • cowboyesfan says:

      Makes Mary Jane seem down right affordable.

  9. mister_roboto says:

    I live in Washington- and Costco backed the hell out of that initiative. I could see why people would think it would make it all cheaper.

    Thing is- it’s not supposed to make booze cheaper, it was to make it more available. Instead of driving to that one liquor store, you now can go anywhere.

    All of the state store before and after the vote, had posters up showing the state mark up (tax rate) and the tax rate of what it would be if the initiative passed- hardly any difference.

  10. rlmiller007 says:

    Yes..our legislature added the new taxes. They don’t understand that more distribution= more tax dollars. I’m betting prices will come down.

  11. MathMan aka Random Talker says:

    Damn I hope they don’t do the same thing in NH. I don’t live there anymore but there’s a reason why they have liquor stores on both sides of the 95 on the Mass border and another at the Maine border. NH is known for the low liquor prices because it’s not privatized. … I know it seems counter-intuitive but it’s true!

    • Chmeeee says:

      I try and plan my alcohol purchasing needs around my 4-5 yearly trips to NH.

      • MathMan aka Random Talker says:

        Governor Lynch knows what he’s doing.


        There’s a reson he’s been re-elected for four terms. It’s a shame he’s decided not to run again.

        “Under Governor Lynch, New Hampshire was named the “Most Livable State” in the nation, as well as the “Safest State” for three years in a row. New Hampshire has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, the lowest states taxes, and fourth lowest government spending per capita. Under Governor Lynch it has been named one of the most business-friendly and best-managed states in the nation.”

        Damn I miss NH so much…..

        • pgr says:

          I live in NH and as far as I’m concerned it’s hell on earth! I’d move back to MA in a second if I didn’t own 2 houses here! As for low taxes, that’s another pile of ill crap. NH gets you every time you turn around. NO sales tax or income tax doesn’t mean NO TAXES! My real state tax bill on my house is double what it would be in MA (that alone is $5000 extra a year to live in this “paradise”), 9% tax on eating out, Capital gains tax on everything and high taxes when yo register your car every year. The grass is always greener in the other state! The quality of life is worth something also and it ain’t such high quality in the Granite State unless you like to live amongst some of the dirtiest, poorest educated and ignorant people in New England, after Maine, of course!

          And… I’ve discovered wine is usually cheaper in MA than at any NH store, state or otherwise. I buy all my wine in MA now. Competition is all it’s made up to be! Beer, on the other hand is usual bait cheaper in NH and you can buy it anywhere anytime. Hard stuff, I don’t know, I don’t touch it.

        • pgr says:

          I live in NH and as far as I’m concerned it’s hell on earth! I’d move back to MA in a second if I didn’t own 2 houses here! As for low taxes, that’s another pile of ill crap. NH gets you every time you turn around. NO sales tax or income tax doesn’t mean NO TAXES! My real state tax bill on my house is double what it would be in MA (that alone is $5000 extra a year to live in this “paradise”), 9% tax on eating out, Capital gains tax on everything and high taxes when yo register your car every year. The grass is always greener in the other state! The quality of life is worth something also and it ain’t such high quality in the Granite State unless you like to live amongst some of the dirtiest, poorest educated and ignorant people in New England, after Maine, of course!

          And… I’ve discovered wine is usually cheaper in MA than at any NH store, state or otherwise. I buy all my wine in MA now. Competition is all it’s made up to be! Beer, on the other hand is usual bait cheaper in NH and you can buy it anywhere anytime. Hard stuff, I don’t know, I don’t touch it.

  12. MaytagRepairman says:

    I would like to add that a similar bill was previously voted down. The bill that passed was heavily campaigned for by Costco. The taxes may seem high but Washington state has no income tax and numerous budget woes.

    • El_Fez says:

      Yea, but our sales tax is in the 9-12 percent range, AKA the reason I buy everything I can online.

  13. El_Fez says:

    A) I voted against this stupid initiative.
    B) I stocked up last week before they shut down the state stores.
    C) Looks like it’s a road trip to Oregon for my hooch now!

  14. Vox Republica says:

    I just want to buy those delicious boozy chocolates featured in the picture. By the bag, preferably, a la Cadbury Mini-Eggs.

  15. Hartwig says:

    But the Oregon residents who show their ID don’t have to pay the taxes, so they will save some money. Too bad for that $4.50 gas keeping me from driving across the border.

    • Cacao says:

      Bolt Bus. Fares as low as $1!

    • kelcema says:

      Two things on that– 1) retailers are never required to offer tax-free status on any purchase — So it’s not like “I’m from Oregon, I don’t have to pay your taxes!” but more of “Would you please not charge me sales tax, since I am from Oregon?” and 2) The Washington State DOR has ruled that tax-exempt status cannot be applied to alcohol purchases.

      Either way, the tax burden is just about within 1% between Oregon and Washington, so people from Oregon who insist on tax-free shopping in Washington annoy me. If they can flash their ID to avoid sales tax, why can’t I flash my ID to not pay bottle deposit in Oregon?!? :)

      … as for other comments regarding internet purchases, etc, in Washington, by the law, you are required to report those purchases (and ones made in Oregon, across the border) and pay the 6.5% state Use Tax on them. Of course, no one ever does… and we wonder why the state’s budget is shot to hell.

      I MUCH prefer high sales/liquor taxes as opposed to a state income tax of any kind– I can’t avoid income tax, but I can (based on my decisions of what to purchase) reduce my sales tax liability. This year to date, I have spent an entire $269.04 on sales tax (average 9.5%) — which comes out to less then $3,000 of taxable items. And this is a bit of a high year, since I just had to drop almost $1,600 on car repairs. =

  16. gman863 says:

    This sounds like the Spirit Airlines strategy of pricing: Post a lowball sucker price and shock the crap out of the customer when it’s time to pull out the credit card.

    The law should state that the posted price should reflect the total cost except for standard state sales tax if applicable.

  17. 2 Replies says:

    “For instance, while the $20 bottle of Absolut at Fred Meyer has a sticker price $3 less than what people would have paid at a state-operated store, but at the cash register, taxes bring that price up to almost $27, significantly more expensive than before.”

    Taxes applied at the state stores too. Your statement implies otherwise.

    • smarty-pants44 says:

      According to the article the state stores included the taxes in their shelf pricing…

  18. q`Tzal says:

    OK, I’m going to be the wet blanket.
    And I’m 100% – not tr0lln.

    It is a recreational item at best and not necessary.
    Those people who THINK it is necessary are commonly referred to as alcoholics.
    I have as much sympathy for the “SUFFERERS” this change as I would off a 200% diamond tax.

    • Senator says:

      By your logic then the only thing necessary is water and basic raw foods. Everything else is a luxury since it’s not necessary.

  19. Bad_Brad says:

    It shouldn’t be a big surprise that different price points have emerged in a free market. Depending on location and convenience, different retailers may be able to support a different price, and consumers may be willing to pay it. A consumer who wants a quick shopping trip can fork over a bunch of money at a convenience store, while a consumer who has more time and is more price sensitive can head to Costco or comparison shop for prices. More choice is good, not bad.

  20. Yeah Right says:

    Woman on the radion bought a $28 bottle of vodka and said she paid nearly $13 in tax. It’s nuts. We may have to give up drinking.

  21. FiorellaMajumdar says:

    Good to see capitalism at work, giving consumers more efficient and affordable options. Oh, wait, that never happens…

  22. DragonThermo says:

    Wait, what? You had to go to a government storefront to buy booze? Like going to the DMV? Okay, maybe it would look bad to sell booze AT the DMV, but the same kind of government employees at the DMV also work at the liquor store?

    Considering how quick and efficient things are at the DMV and the TSA, I can only imagine what a nightmare it is to buy booze from a government employee.