Randy Yohe Published

From Protecting Youth To Peddling Pappy, W.Va.’s ABCA Commissioner Has A Dual Mission 

Man in sport jacket at microphone.
ABCA Commissioner Fred Wooton at the WVPB recording studio in Charleston.
Randy Yohe/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Distributing beer, wine and spirits, along with enforcing and controlling the sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages are not the only priorities of West Virginia’s Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (ABCA).

Randy Yohe spoke with ABCA Commissioner Fred Wooton about the marketing, tourism and product enhancement initiatives that are key aspects of a forward-thinking mission statement.   

This story has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Yohe: When you were appointed to lead the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission in 2017, you helped get the Resort Bill passed. What new opportunities did that bring to West Virginia businesses?

Wooton: We had a large ski resort in West Virginia that basically had 20 different alcohol venues on the mountain there. Before the resort bill passed, they would buy 20 different sets of licenses. Now we can cover the entire mountain, up to 20 venues under one license. It just streamlines the process to apply for a license and to renew those licenses. Now they renew one as opposed to doing 20 in the past.

Yohe: Also in 2017, your annual report said you wanted to ensure the agency is meeting consumer demands and current industry trends. First of all, how are those determined?

Wooton: In West Virginia, we operate 182 privately owned retail liquor stores. My job is to make sure that we have the newest, latest products here to supply to the stores. I receive information from our suppliers, also our retail liquor store owners. They may hear about a product and they may call us up and say, “Hey, can you get XYZ product in the warehouse for us?” We run a bailment warehouse system and it’s about managing space. I want to put products in that warehouse that will sell. The stuff that does not sell there, we want to delist that product and move it out so we can bring the new innovations into the warehouse.

Yohe: High-end bourbon has become a national trend. You mentioned in a recent interim legislative committee hearing that West Virginia was not high on the national bourbon allocation list.

Wooton: That’s because of the size of our state. There are 1.8 million people here. They base those allocations on the size of the population of the state. What I would like to do in my role as the commissioner of ABCA is to meet with the suppliers and plead our case that we need more allocated products in the state of West Virginia. And so far, it’s been pretty successful.

Yohe: You talked about the promotional activities by your team to enhance the bourbon experience in the Mountain State. People like that Kentucky bourbon, and I know you sent some people to Kentucky and did something with barrels. 

Wooton: Before I became commissioner, no ABCA commissioner had ever done this. We traveled down to Kentucky and we did private barrel selection picks. We actually taste a few products down there, and we make our selection and we bring those products back to West Virginia. Our suppliers put some type of a connotation – Blended for West Virginia, West Virginia Private Select, things like that. Those promotions have been great when we put that West Virginia connotation on those bourbons, they sell before they come into the state.

Yohe: And then you did something with area codes?

Wooton: We got three barrels of Maker’s Mark, we hand-numbered each of the bottles. West Virginia has two area codes, 304 and 681. And so when we hand-numbered those bottles, if you were the lucky person that purchased bottle 304 or 681, we awarded you the empty barrel. It was great.

Yohe: You also called the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon brand a unicorn. For the unenlightened, explain that term.

Wooton: Years ago, the name wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. You could find it on the bottom shelf at Walgreens. Now, it’s a phenomenon. It’s like finding a unicorn in finding a bottle of that stuff. It comes in a three bottle case. Last year, I think we received 52 cases of it. So we only received 156 bottles for the entire state. Trying to distribute 156 bottles is a real challenge. If I listened to my brokers and suppliers, they said send it to the five biggest stores in the state. That’s not my way to adequately and fairly distribute that product here. I told those lawmakers I want to send that product from Moundsville to Mullins, Huntington to Hedgesville so everyone in the state gets a shot at buying that rare, allocated bourbon.

Yohe: How’s the craft beer industry faring in West Virginia?

Wooton: It’s booming. We’ve got some great brewers here in downtown Charleston – Short Story, Fife Street. Our craft brewers statewide are outstanding. This year, there were some changes in legislation that actually allowed them to have a second point of manufacture. So if your business is doing great in Reedsville, you could open another brewery in another part of the state.

Yohe: Aren’t some of our beers here in West Virginia starting to take off regionally and nationwide?

Wooton: Absolutely. Our resident brewers have developed some distribution networks to move that beer out to our surrounding states.

Yohe: On the other hand, it’s also good to get a variety and to let that consumer see a variety. I see that Rhinegeist from Cincinnati recently came into West Virginia. That’s an example of a popular beer. So we can go both ways. We can export, we can import, right? 

Wooton: Exactly right. It’s a win-win for West Virginia brewers and for our citizens to get to try beers from out of state.

Yohe: At ABCA, you’ve got a dual purpose. You have to make sure that there’s control and safety and public protection, especially with our youth. On the other hand, you’re working with a marketing and tourism governor that wants to see the best of those marketing and tourism efforts in almost all of his agencies, right?

Wooton: That’s absolutely right. Between Gov. Jim Justice and Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, they’ve been a great partner to work with. We’ve run several large bills in the state legislature the past year. They’ve all been new innovations, new opportunities for our licensees in the state. I see things in a positive light. I think things are going great.