Monster booze store shoot-out: BevMo vs. Total Wine

There was big excitement in Phoenix a couple of years ago when venerable SoCal liquor giant BevMo started opening Arizona locations. Finally, a liquor superstore would kiss our sun-baked hellscape with its whiskey soaked lips! My first visit to BevMo was truly momentous…a samplin’ keg up front, and a huge floor full of Costco-style aisles brimming with booze. I’m not sure if BevMo drove the local Safeways to reduce their liquor selection, but the timing seems more than coincidental. Truly, BevMo was the new king of libations in Phoenix.

And then another contender came to town: Total Wine. Different. An emphasis on wine, to the point of it being in the name. TV commercials. Who was this upstart throwing money around and appealing to these riesling-sipping post-yuppie yahoos? Like they could ever come close to the selection and prices BevMo’s spartan but efficient boozatoriums has brought to town! And their nearest location was nearly twice as far away as my local BevMo. My disdainful laughter echoed from the nearest Circle K to the 2nd nearest Circle K!

And then I actually went to Total Wine…

I didn’t want to like them, but the first impression was good. Softer lighting, nicer displays. Lots of wine, but that’s also the case at BevMo. My prey was brown party liquor, and I stalked into the bowels of the store on the hunt. First, the rum section. I knew I was close when I saw the man dressed for a Jimmie Buffet concert. Their rum assortment looked to be good, two to three times the size of BevMo’s selection. And a pleasant surprise: Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7 year! I’ve been on the lookout for this Nicaraguan beauty since reading a very positive review at The Rum Howler, and here it is for about $21. Is this sheer dumb luck, or is Total Wine catering to the rum enthusiast? Next check is for my rum of choice, Appleton Estate VX. Safeway used to carry it, but recently stopped (probably to make room for more Seagram’s Grape Malt Liquor-ade). Takes me a minute to locate an empty shelf where it should be. Failure! However, as a consolation prize they do have Appleton Reserve in stock right next to the empty VX space. Never seen that one before locally, but at $22 it’s probably worth a try.

Ok, enough with the rum, time to check out the rest of the store. What else can I think of that they probably won’t have? I know, good rye whiskey! Most stores sell the Jim Beam Rye and stop there. Not to knock the Jim Beam (about $12 a bottle and tastes like it should be $16), but I’m in the mood for something a bit more upmarket. The whiskey section is at the back of the store, and there’s a wide assortment to choose from. Even found some white whiskeys, which are very unusual in my corner of the desert southwest. Tempting, but too adventurous for today. After browsing the extensive party liquor assortment, I settled on a bottle of Bulleit Rye Whiskey for $20. At this point, I realized I needed to head for the checkout or risk spending the entire afternoon browsing and buying. Up towards the front of the store I could see they easily had two or three times as many registers as BevMo…less time waiting to pay, more time drinking in the parking lot! But before I could pay for my selections, we had to run the gauntlet of single-shot airplane bottles. All reasonably priced, and some interesting selections. I had to get a shot of the Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (the whiskey is actually pulled from the barrel’s wood!) just so I could drink to their marketing department. Once I had a handful of single-shots, I dashed the last few feet to the checkout. No equivalent to BevMo’s Club Bev here, but none is really needed. I didn’t shop based on price, but the prices all came out to be Club Bev good.

So how was the booze? The Flor de Caña is a wonderful sipping rum. Refined, smooth, and delicious. I prefer it neat. Although it’s great stuff for mixing, it seems almost criminal to bury it in a mixed drink. On the other hand, the Appleton Reserve really shines as a mixer. Their VX is great straight on ice, and for me it beats the Reserve by a hair that way. However, the Reserve has a slight edge over the VX in a Mai Tai. Given the similar price on the two, I think it comes down to personal taste more than anything. As for the Bulleit Rye, it’s a kicky little whiskey. I’d recommend it for anyone who enjoys Bulleit’s bourbon, or anyone who’s looking to explore rye whiskey in general. If it were a bourbon, stylistically it’d be closer to Wild Turkey than to Maker’s Mark. Raw and kicky, but in a good way.

So grudgingly, I’d have to say Total Wine edges out BevMo on almost every level. The closest Total Wine is twice as far as the nearest BevMo, but Total Wine is worth the longer trip. The prices are as good or better, the selection of liquor is better, and the ambiance is more pleasant. Hopefully BevMo will up their game to compete. For now, there’s a new golden calf in town, and I’ll be worshipping it regularly.

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