Pennsylvania might improve its dreadful drinks laws—a little

Source: Cartoon ©2012 Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News. 

If Rep. Jesse Topper has his way, Pennsylvania’s legislature will roll back its infamous stealth tax on drinks. Topper, a Republican representing the south-central Bedford, Franklin, and Mercer counties, has introduced H.R. 2263, which would repeal the “flexible pricing” authority given to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 2016.

Why is this good news? Well, the cheerfully named provision had the dreadful effect of enabling the state liquor officials to raise prices as they saw fit. The PLCB has a monopoly on the sale of spirits and a near monopoly on wine sales, so it can set prices without fear of price competition. And with the state legislature demanding the PCLB give it big chunks of revenue each year to fund government employees’ pensions and the like, the problem is obvious: flexible pricing is a stealth tax. Bureaucrats raise revenues for general government spending by elevating mark-ups paid by drinks consumers, sans legislative enactment. It is literally taxation without representation.

As my colleague Jarrett Dieterle has observed, “Retail liquor markups in control states usually are set as a percentage of the wholesale price of the liquor in question.” Topper’s bill proposes returning to Pennsylvania’s old fixed pricing scheme, which fixed the “mark-up” of a bottle of hooch or plonk at 31 percent. (To be clear, Keystone State consumers do not pay a price that is merely the wholesale price plus a 31 percent mark-up. Oh, no. They pay a price that also includes a 24 percent tax and a more than $1 a bottle fee. And some counties levy additional taxes.)

The old mark-up system, certainly, is not ideal—but it is less bad. Re-enstating it means politicians will find it a little harder to hide the true cost of government by keeping taxes artificially low and covering the difference by sticking drinks consumers with the bill.

And who knows, if the legislature can find the sense and courage to enact Topper’s bill maybe it one day also will have the gumption to abolish other bad drinks policies, like the law that forbids anyone from buying more than four bottles of wine at one retail shop per visit. And the rules that limit the sale of spirits to dreary government-run shops. And the regulations that force consumers to make consumers go to distributors instead of groceries for many beer purchases. And…

Kevin R. Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and the author of Whiskey: A Global History and Moonshine: A Global History. He is the editor and founder of and a contributor to The American Spectator’s Great American Saloon Series.


Pink ale and other brews I’ve enjoyed recently


This past weekend, our glorious nation was awash in green beer. I meanwhile found myself tasting a pink ale. Before you judge—hear me out.

I was making my way through the grocery store, cart overflowing with jugs of milk, Goldfish crackers, string cheese, and all the fine eats a father of four could be expected to purchase. My three-year old was relentlessly pleading for me to get him a doughnut from the bakery. So. Much. Winning.

And there she was: a brunette rep for Old Ox Brewery of Virginia. Pouring samples. 

Admittedly, the bright pink color gave me pause, but I was desperate.

What a pleasant surprise. This saison ale (5% alcohol by volume) is dry and pleasant, and the cherry juice they used adds only a gentle fruity aroma. A treacly beer Old Ox Festivale Cherry Saison is not. I bought a four-pack of the 16-ounce cans.

Pink beer is not the only interesting beer I have stumbled on to recently. Bell’s Oarsman Ale was a pleasant surprise. I have enjoyed their stouts and hearty ales, and this “tart wheat beer” (4% ABV) is a peach that will be especially enjoyable once the mercury gets above 70 degree.

After reading so many doom and gloom predictions about Sam Adams’ future, it was nice to see the folks at Boston Beer Company bring out a new brew that is receiving acclaim. Sam ‘76 (4.7% ABV) is billed as a cross between lager and ale. I bought a 12-pack for $16, and enjoyed it so much that I nabbed another.

Speaking of well-known brands doing something different, Guinness offers a Rye Pale Ale. As best I can tell, folks either love it or hate it. This light-bodied beer (5% ABV) is a touch sour, herbal, and definitely shows the rye. Most peculiar!

Last among my recent beer-ventures is Grand Teton Brewing Company’s Double Vision Dopplebock. I’ve previously raved about other Grand Teton beers, but I tried not to set my hopes high before I took a sip of this brew. Which proved needless, because… Oh. My. Goodness. This potent, dark lager (8% ABV) from Montana floods the mouth with chocolate and coffee notes. The more Double Vision warms, the richer the flavors become.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History and Moonshine: A Global History. He is the editor and founder of This column also was published by the American Spectator.


More whiskies to warm the belly and help me ride out the winter


This year, the District of Columbia’s weather is nearly as screwy as its politics. A few days ago I was basking on a dock in the warm sun, yanking one catfish after another from the Anacostia River’s depths. A gentle, temperate breeze blew.

Today, I look out on the sogginess left behind by the snowfall. A cutting wind from the northwest and chilly mist kept me inside most of the day.

The mercury supposedly will jump twenty degrees in the coming days. But one can be certain the warmth will prove a tease, and drizzly cool will return before the shad start coursing up the Potomac River in late March.

All of which means belly-warming whisky will remain a go-to drink in the coming weeks. (Gin and tonic season is very far off.) Here are several I have enjoyed recently.

The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve ($50): This is a very easy single malt Scotch whisky. There is no need for ice. This 80 proof malt is butter in the mouth—not that it tastes like dairy product, mind you. No, it shows barley, vanilla, and a touch of coconut aroma. Very pleasant.

Lost Distillery Auchnagie Archivist Selection ($70): The Lost Distillery series of whiskies are attempts at recreating Scotches from distilleries long gone. Auchnagie, for example, closed in 1911. This one is sweet and oozes citrus fruit and baking spices.Like the other two Lost Distillery whiskies described here, it is 92 proof and needs no ice or water. Lovely.

Lost Distillery Gerston Archivist Selection ($70): What a very different animal. Gerston is oily in the mouth and floats mild smoke and barrel aromas up the schnozz. All the action is on the tip and sides of the tongue, where salty and sour tastes are detected. Very simple and approachable.

Lost Distillery Stratheden Archivist Selection ($70): Well, this whisky is subtle devil. It offers up all sorts of gentle notes: pear, honey, apples, leather, and tobacco. Impressive, and definitely one for the more discerning quaffer.

Talisker Storm ($50): Last does not make least. On the contrary, this 91.6 proof malt is a gentler version of the famously robust Talisker 10-year. This amalgam of whiskies (aged 3 to 25 years) is full flavored, yet light on smoke. The mild orange peel aroma surprised me.  For sure, this is way more intense than the Glenrothes or Lost Distillery whiskies. So the Scotch newbie should approach it with caution.

Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky ($70): Taste this spirit and you’d be forgiven for thinking it is some of Scotland’s finest. In fact, it is made in India. Fusion is a big, smoky drink, one that has gotten raves from whiskyheads. One gulp and the 100 proof warmth flows from lips to the navel. Whoa.

Thank goodness for whisky, which can buck me up in the evening so I feel less loath to put on my parka and take my old labrador on her walk. Although, I might probably could skip the coat after a slug of Amrut Fusion.

Kevin R. Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and the author of Whiskey: A Global History and Moonshine: A Global History. He is the editor and founder of . This column also was published by the American Spectator.


Scotchy, Scotch: It’s cold out there

Laphroaig distillery, Islay, Scotland. Credit: Kevin R. Kosar.

By Kevin R. Kosar

I grew up in Ohio, just south of the snow belt. My favorite home was a wood frame on a street without sidewalks. Drafts made their way in, and the single pane window near my bed got frost on the inside, which I like to scritch-scratch with my thumbnails. Sometimes we wore stocking caps to bed.

Which is to say that cold does not much bother me. Or, at least it didn’t when I was young. I went coatless and wore t-shirts no matter how low the Mercury went. As I have aged, I am a little less hot blooded. A little.

Chilly weather changes my appetite for drink. I’ll drink a cold lager in January, but my thirst for dark spirits is strong. The more powerful, the better. Harsh cold merits an intense spirit.

Scotch frequently fits the bill. I enjoy malts from the Lowlands to the Highlands, but my favorite whiskies tend to be the spirits made in the most weather-exposed parts of Scotland. Here are a handful of reasonable priced hearty Scotches I like, from mildest to the most beastly. All of them should be enjoyed neat, but add drops of water if you want to cut the intensity and open their flavors. Continue reading “Scotchy, Scotch: It’s cold out there”