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Woodman’s spirits department rising

The assignment seemed simple: Sample and report on organic beers. In Madison, that should be as easy as falling off a barstool, right?

But despite the city’s locavore overload and love for all things organic, the anticipated organic-grain tipple proved elusive. Organic ingredients are expensive and those used in making beer — especially hops — are not easily available.

At Willy Street Co-op, I was only able to find a six-pack of Organic E.S.B. from Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. (Lakefront has since discontinued the brand.) At Madison’s Whole Foods outlet, the organic selection was limited to a single brand of organic from U.K. brewer Samuel Smith, sold in individual bottles.

But if there are more organic beers in Madison, then Woodman’s likely has them.  At Woodman’s West, my family’s neighborhood grocery store, we found — scattered among the 6,000 other brands and varieties — Lakefront Organic E.S.B. and a half-dozen different Samuel Smith organics.

This seemingly oversized number is not mere hops hyperbole. In addition to featuring some of the lowest prices on beer in the area, Woodman’s carries just about every brand available in the Wisconsin and Illinois markets where its 15 stores are located. (Next spring, a 16th Woodman’s is set to open in Eau Claire.)

In addition to the 6,000 beers, Woodman’s West’s liquor store carries about 6,000 liquor brands and between 8,000 and 9,000 different wines, according to manager Mark Okey. 

The store’s recent expansion into what used to be the video department increased its footprint to 14,000 square feet — 3,000 square feet more than Woodman’s average.  That makes it the chain’s largest liquor store.

“The craft beer aisle is where it’s happening,” said Okey, who has worked for 27 years for the Janesville-based chain, family owned since its founding in 1919. “I’ve got 40 linear feet of craft beer cooler space that’s going to increase to 48 linear feet after the New Year, because we just can’t keep up with the new brands.”

The majority of brands are the same from store to store, but each liquor department is given license to bring in locally produced and available specialty beers and other products to serve the tastes of area shoppers. 

In craft-beer-centric Madison, that includes a diverse and comprehensive collection. While craft beer may be the store’s most vibrant section, liquor and wine also hold their own, Okey says. Despite the country’s economic swings, interest in premium brands is growing greater every day, he says.

Okey says he tries to offer what’s popular in area bars and restaurants, “where most people go to try new things.” Even younger consumers go to Woodman’s looking for high-end cordials and other items they’ve sampled in establishments around town.

“At first the sticker shock may get them,” says Okey, pointing to a bottle of St-Germain, a French artisanal liqueur made from freshly hand-picked elderflower blossoms. It’s become a popular cocktail ingredient, despite its $32.99 shelf price.

“But even when I point out less expensive substitute brands they always seem to go for the originals.”

The same dynamic characterizes the wine section, which offers a revolving selection of domestic and imported wines. The store has its own versions of used be known as ”Two-buck Chucks,” a reference to selections from California’s Charles Shaw Winery that originally sold at Trader Joe’s for $2 each. Woodman’s offers a variety in the three-for-$10 range, but that’s not where the action is, Okey says.

Instead, he says, “I sell an awful lot of cabernet sauvignons in the $60-to-$100 per bottle range.”

The store recently reintroduced its limited selection of upscale wines, located in a locked box near the checkout counter. Customers can impress their friends by serving either La Muse Red or Le Désir from Sonoma County’s Vérité winery for a mere $369.99 per bottle. (The average price nationally, according to wine-searcher.com, is $391 each.)

Interest in high-priced, small-batch bourbon at $30-to-$50 per bottle also is on the rise, while purchases of high-end, single-malt scotch continues to decline. Any locally produced spirits, whether from Madison’s Yahara Bay Distillery, Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery or 45th Parallel Distillery in far away New Richmond, are guaranteed to attract a following.

But the state’s love affair with brandy continues, Okey says. Wisconsin consumes more brandy per capita than any other state, although Okey says tastes differ from city to city.

“In Appleton, Aristocrat Brandy is the largest seller,” he explains. “But I don’t even stock it because I can’t give it away here.”

In Madison, favorite brandy brands include Christian Brothers, E&J and Paul Masson. But the top seller is — and probably always will be — Korbel.

“We sell more Korbel Brandy than any store anywhere else,” Okey says. “Our Korbel rep tells us that we are the center of the distillery’s universe.”

Thanks to Woodman’s wide selection and low prices, that may be true of other brands as well.

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