City of Spirits
Austin is a town for the liquor-store sophisticate
Austin is blessed with a multitude of high-quality liquor stores. From virtually anywhere in the metro area, you are only minutes away from a good selection and fair prices. One of the reasons is that we seem to be good consumers. Nationally, liquor sales have dropped an average of 2% per year for 15 years. Not in Austin. Our little city by the river has an international reputation as a party town with a taste for sophisticated beverages. Even the dot-com debacle has only slowed the dollar volume, not the number of bottles sold. Add to that a vibrant wine market, and -- no matter how poorly the Dow Jones industrials perform -- these storeowners are doing just fine.
At the Chronicle, we love to do the occasional consumer guide, taking our time to try all the various options to help you save time and spend wisely. During the past few weeks, we have visited dozens of liquor stores in and around Austin. We checked prices, selection, and how knowledgeable and friendly the staff was. We used a pricing benchmark of a big bottle of Sauza Tequila (something every store should have), asked lots of questions, and rummaged around the shelves. Listed below, in reverse alphabetical order, are our favorites.
Wiggy's Wine and Spirits1130 W. Sixth, 474-9463;
1104 N. Lamar, 479-0045
There are two Wiggy's locations, but everyone who votes in the "Best of Austin" awards picks the best as the one guarded by the cigar-store Indian. Wiggy's on Sixth has won the Chronicle Reader's Poll seven times, and it's easy to see why. Everyone loves the neighborhood-store vibe, the creaky floors, excellent selection, and funky feel. The prices are a little high, but not disturbingly. They also have a great selection of wild wines. Store No. 2 on North Lamar is comparatively sleepy, seems to have a smaller stock, and is a little more expensive. Our benchmark 1.75 liter Sauza Tequila costs $38.19 on Sixth Street and $39.99 on Lamar.
Twin Liquors3652 Bee Caves Rd., 327-0315;
5408 Balcones Dr., 323-2775;
2303 RR 620 S. (Lakeway), 263-1810;
505 E. Seventh, 476-9982; and 12 more locations
Twin Liquors was founded almost 70 years ago by twins Theodore and Arthur Jabour. For the past 30 years, Theodore's family has had control, and they have grown the family business to the largest liquor enterprise in Central Texas. Many businesses this big might rest on their laurels and just enjoy dominating the market. Instead, Twin is constantly trying harder. They hire great managers and allow them to inject a little personality (or a lot of personality in the case of the Seventh Street location) into each store. Although all 16 Twin stores offer consistent size and pricing, we want to bring the four stores listed above to your attention.
The Bee Caves store in West Lake has one of the best wine people in town -- manager Russell Smith. No matter what your budget or taste, he can always find a bottle to surprise you. The Twin on Balcones is heaven for single-malt Scotch drinkers, with more than 300 labels and a listing as one of the top 10 Scotch stores in the U.S. by The Malt Advocate. The manager at the Lakeway store, Sandra Spalding, is devoted to her customers, knows her wines, and has a stunning collection of imported wine. Finally, the manager at the historic Seventh Street location, Antoinette, is something of a legend for her up-to-date knowledge and perfect memory for names.
All the Twin Liquors are pleasant places to shop: clean, well lit, and filled with interesting drinks. The pricing is average, with the benchmark 1.75 liter Sauza Tequila going for $36.99. We think middle-of-the-market prices with excellent selection and knowledgeable service adds up to a bargain. But don't just ask us. For the past three years, Twin has topped the Reader's Poll in the "Best of Austin" competition.
Reuben's Emporium11637 Research, 345-2866;
Reuben's Wine and Spirits107 W. Stassney, 442-8395;
seven more locations
Reuben Kogut started his business in 1955 on Red River. Over the years, he grew his chain to nine liquor stores. The two stores listed above are the biggest. Wine or cigar lovers should make a beeline to the Emporium. The West Stassney branch is a bit larger and is restocked more quickly since the Reuben's warehouse abuts. Two years ago, Reuben sold his nine liquor stores to Twin Liquors, but Twin operates the stores as an autonomous system, maintaining Reuben Kogut's feel and philosophy. Reuben's was the co-winner of the 1999 "Best of Austin" Reader's Poll. The Sauza was well-priced at $35.99.
Grape Vine Market77938 Great Northern Blvd., 323-5900
Grape Vine Market is 4 years old now. They burst onto the Austin scene with the biggest, best-stocked store in town and garnered national attention winning the "Retailer of the Year" award from Food and Wine Magazine. The store has 18,000 square feet of easy-to-navigate aisles with 500 beers, 700 liquors, and 4,500 wines, as well as a beautiful cheese-and-meat collection. But Grape Vine's greatest strength is a highly educated and knowledgeable staff devoted to information sans snobbery. Despite what must be staggering inventory costs, they had one of the lowest prices on our benchmark -- $35.99 for the big bottle of Sauza.
Dan's Wine and Spirits5716 Burnet Rd., 451-2100;
1600 Lavaca, 478-5423
Austin old-timers love to tell stories about Dan's mispriced wines and hidden gems in the Sixties and Seventies. Today, the prices are usually correct, thwarting the bargain hunters, but the selection is probably better. The two Dan's stores have completely different personalities. The Lavaca store has an antique feel reminiscent of 1960s Austin, while the Burnet Road store is clean, bright, and roomy. These aren't huge stores, but they find a way to get a lot of product in their space. The Burnet Road store features a wide selection of high-end liquors. Benchmark price was a $36.99 average. Both Dan's are owned by Twin Liquors.
Costco (Western Beverages)10401 Research, 795-9226
Western Beverages of San Antonio owns this store, not Costco. It sits just outside and to the left of the Costco main entrance. Given the stellar selection and impossibly low prices for wine at Costco, the Western Beverages store wisely emphasizes liquor over wine. It's not a huge store and doesn't highlight obscure drinks, but if you are looking for a standard brand -- Jack Daniels or Seagram's, for instance -- they'll have it. The store itself is well laid out and easy to navigate. Best of all, it has some of the cheapest prices in town with the Sauza coming in at $32.99.
Centennial Package Store2932 Guadalupe, 478-4646;
six other stores
Centennial is family-owned. They have six small stores aimed at speed and convenience called Centennial Liquor Stop. The Guadalupe store, located across the parking lot from El Patio, is their flagship. The shop has a well-used and lived-in feel to it. There's lots of space, although many bins are empty. All the workers we met in Centennial were both nice and knowledgeable. People with a taste for older wines should check out their madcap collection of antique wines in the display case across from the cash register. The Sauza price was a little high at $37.49.
Two other places deserve a quick mention for their small but fascinating collection of liquors. The Cellar, 3520-B Bee Caves Rd., 328-6464, is owned by a couple of guys intent on discovering liquors that no one else has found. Bon Appetit listed them as one of the 10 best small wine shops in the U.S., and they do have wonderful wines. But they also have some interesting and obscure liquors. Finally, the Austin Wine Merchant, 512 W. Sixth, 499-0512, widely known for its excellent selection of French wines, has a small selection of liquors, including a nice assortment of eaux de vie and cognac.