Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Sad Decline of Wine & Liquor Depot

A few years ago, Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys was the destination for whiskey in the LA area. The shop boasted what was probably the largest selection of independent bottlings of single malt Scotch in the nation. There were hundreds of Cadenheads, Murray McDavids, Douglas Laings and others. The indie bottles were densely stuffed together on two long rows of shelves. It was like Scotch heaven. They also had a great selection of American whiskey, not to mention a lot of brandies, tequila and mezcal.

The store seems like it's been in a slow decline for a while, but it was really driven home to me on my last visit. The rows of indies have been picked over and not restocked, and there are precious few left. Cheap blends and gin now occupy space which formerly held much of the massive indie collection.

There is still a good collection of distillery bottlings and a small collection of rarities. You can get a Loch Dhu, if you dare, a few old Springbanks or George T. Staggs from years past, and the Black Bowmore still sits on its pedestal, out of reach in both height and price.

But the Depot was always about the indies. That's what made it special and what made it a destination for Scotch lovers from across the region and even the country. Now, it's just another pretty good liquor store.

I'm not sure why this happened. It could be the retirement of the former owner; certainly the recession may have played a role or the increased competition as whiskey became bigger and bigger.

There was a time when I looked forward all month to a Depot trip and could easily spend an hour going through their huge stock. That the shop was buried in an unlikely corner of Van Nuys and that it didn't seem to advertise or make any attempt to promote itself whatsoever (or even offer passable customer service) was all part of the charm.

I still go occasionally, but more often than not, I leave empty handed (which never used to happen). Luckily for us LA whiskey geeks, K&L started stepping up its game just as the Depot was entering its decline, so there is no lack of good whiskey to be had, but I must admit, I miss the trips up to Van Nuys, the low key vibe and the still unrivaled selection of years past. But all things must change, I suppose, even one's favorite liquor store.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. The current proprietor, Mark(I believe was his name) told me that he knew nothing of Islays and in fact "hated them all."

Their pricing wasn't even that good.

Mark told me that if I brought cash, his Black Bowmore could be mine for $4800, $2k less than his sticker price.

Mission and K&L are far better.

Macdeffe said...

I planned to pass by this and Wade's in Thousand Oaks when visiting LA.., maybe I will do with Wade's ?

Steffen

sku said...

Steffen, it still might be worth a trip. It's just not what it used to be.

I've actually never made it out to Wade's as I don't get to Ventura County very often. Let me know how it is.

Macdeffe said...

I think Wade's had a very good selection, but not as good as WL Depot had when I was there in Jan. 2010

I think Wades has better selection than Beltramo and KL in San Jose. Thats the 4 shops I've been to in California, apart from a non interesting one in Sacramento

Steffen

sku said...

Hi-Time is worth a stop if you're going to make it down to Orange County.

Mission in Pasadena, which Anon mentions above, is also good, but the prices tend to be high.

Regular Chumpington said...

W&LD definitely is a disappointment these days. I get the impression that if they have any interest in spirits these days, it's tequila (and probably vodka).

K&L is a solid stop; one can only hope their selection grows.

I'll second the Hi-Time recommendation -- not only do they have some off-the-beaten-path stuff, they have screaming deals from time to time, as well as a pretty solid selection of independent bottlings.

Wally's should be avoided at all costs.

I just wish we had some spots like they do in SF. (Cask, though a bit overpriced, is nice; the Whisky Shop is great, etc..)

David D said...

If we had unlimited space, what would you guys like to see? Besides pricing that is. Are you guys looking to browse or actually shop? Our stock turns over way too fast to have older bottlings, but I would like to offer more selection if people want it.

Nathan said...

I was wondering what was happening at WLD--the fact that their website hasn't been updated in 18 months says it all.

It's great that K&L has seen vast improvements over the last year or so, but sadly, they don't ship to Pennsylvania. WLD does, and if they ever updated their website I'd love to keep patronizing them.

Regular Chumpington said...

Hey David,

Speaking for myself - I know obviously first and foremost you guys have to run a business, which means there's going to need to generally be a high proportion of the usual suspects of OBs from Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan, etc (though, either by shelf utilization or selective memory, I don't recall you guys devoting as much space to them as, say, Bevmo or Wally's for instance). No denying that and, hey, I still enjoy an OB as it presents a nice "house style" to jump off from in the IBs.

Speaking only for the Hollywood store, it'd be cool to see a slightly broader selection of IBs. Maybe in my ideal world, half of another shelf section? (If memory serves there are two verticals for scotch, I'm saying half of one of those). A decent range of IBs, and it doesn't need to be super-rare, crazy $400 stuff. There's a ton of those midlevel Signatories that are of interest and are reasonably priced. Heck, even their upmarket Cask Strength stuff can be reasonably priced - I think I saw an Aultmore somewhere the other day for $90 - almost bought it.

My impression, whether accurate or again the product of selective memory, is that the Hollywood IBs tend to skew quite expensive (the $1300 Glen Garioch jumps to mind) and tend to reside solely in the locked cabinet. The other IBs seem to be reasonably priced but of mainline distilleries - Highland Park and Caol Ila spring to mind. Again, I don't begrudge you guys the need to run a business and having those mainline distilleries certainly can be a good intro to the whole concept for the uninitiated.

But, back to the wish list - say half of a vertical shelf space, maybe a handful of reasonably priced (call it $60-120?) indies from various distilleries, ideally ones that don't dominate your OB stock as well. I don't know what kind of quantities you have to order in, but even if it were a couple cases moving semi-regularly, it'd be fun to see what was in.

The Hi-Time selection is crazy fun to browse, at least for me, and I tend to walk out with a bottle or two of something different. Their indie selection seems to be a good mix of "unusual" and "reasonably affordable". But, it's also in Costa Mesa and I don't usually feel like driving 70 minutes to poke around and grab a couple bottles.

Of course, this is all just offered in the spirit of improving a good thing. I don't think LA does whiskey half as well as SF unfortunately and I get that the market is probably different. You guys are doing great stuff (especially with the exclusives) and I would hate to throw you off of a broader master plan. Especially given will-call it's a pretty workable system. I also have to give you guys a nod for putting up notes on the scotches in LA - anything to educate the market and raise the tide.

If we were playing the "unlimited space" game, of course, you'd have the entire store filled wall to wall with all kinds of crazy bottlings, including those europe-only ones, and some of the 20cl sizes and minis so I could kick the tires on some stuff I'm not gonna buy a full bottle of. But then, in the game of unlimited [x] I'd also have tons of money and space to store this stuff. :)

humchan2k said...

David, as someone who just discovered your store, you're doing the best job in LA for us whiskey fans, keep it up! Just keep fighting the good fight for us to get enough VWFRR, Pappy 15-23 and BTAC and we'll be all good!

So, now that K & L has stepped up their game for us in the WeHo area, is Hi Time still worth the visit?


humchan2k