T HE New Hampshire Liquor Commission is in the running for Retailer of the Year from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Other contenders include the Urban Grape, a wine, spirits and craft beer store in Boston’s South End.
Because what fun would it be without some cross-border rivalry, especially between liquor stores. (Right, Total Wine?)
New Hampshire is the only control state nominee in the magazine’s 22nd annual Wine Star Awards. The commission says it was recognized for its selection of more than 14,000 wines and spirits and the $4 billion the stores have netted for the state since 1934.
The state’s empire of nearly 70 liquor outlets operates in a different universe than the Urban Grape, a single family-owned store. Safe to say this is a friendly rivalry.
The commission saves its heavy ammo for Total Wine & More, which opened its first Massachusetts superstore in Natick in 2015 and now operates six locations in the Bay State.
The national retailer, which operates 221 locations, sells a large selection of private label wines and spirits at lower prices than the name brands.
Since 2019, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission has been placing ads in The Boston Globe calling out Total Wine for selling look-alikes. Doesn’t the label on that bottle of Tower Vodka remind you of Tito’s Handmade?
It’s just one more way to woo shoppers from Massachusetts, who generate nearly 25 percent of sales for New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets. The commission also shows some love for the name brands its stores promote.
“Total Wine has a nationwide reputation of being the company that everybody loves to hate,” said Joseph Mollica, chairman of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. “They create a lot of knockoff brands. They don’t really care who you are, whether it’s wine or spirit. They’ll knock off your brand and sell it at a better price at their store and put your brand on the bottom shelf and put their brand at eye level. And no one ever really seems to call them out.”
A New Hampshire Liquor Outlets ad with the headline “Totally Real” pairs a bottle of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum side by side with Total Wine’s “knockoff” George Ocean Spiced Rum.
New Hampshire’s liquor stores don’t sell any private label products.
“We don’t get into any knockoff brands. We sell nationally known brands at the lowest prices,” Mollica said during a phone interview last week.
“Knowing that 50 percent of our business comes from cross border, and 23 or 24 percent comes from Massachusetts, I think we’d be doing a disservice to the people of New Hampshire if we didn’t call out this nonsense that Total Wine calls business.”
Mollica noted that the state began revamping and expanding liquor stores in 2010, five years before Total Wine entered the Massachusetts market.
That said, the state moved quickly to shore up its southern border: It built its largest liquor store ever in Nashua in 2016.
The 33,000-square-foot store at 292 Daniel Webster Highway inside of Willow Springs Plaza replaced a smaller store at the Southgate Mall.
Mollica acknowledged the competition from Total Wine.
“They’ve been successful nationwide. There’s no question about it,” he said. “But when they’ve come to New England, they run up against a very successfully run state-controlled business, and that is the New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlets.”
We reached out to Total Wine’s spokesman via email Friday but did not hear back. The company operates stores in 27 states and is probably used to squaring off against government-run competitors in nearby states.
New Hampshire is one of 17 states where the government controls the sale of alcohol. For most of the commission’s history, state liquor stores had boring signage and were tucked inside strip malls. They looked like they were run by the government.
Over the past decade, the state has operated the stores more like a business, investing in branding and marketing along with all those building upgrades. In fiscal year 2021, the liquor outlets netted nearly $176.6 million. Since 2012, the commission has renovated or relocated nearly three dozen stores.
The commission is seeking developers interested in buying 88 acres in Hampton and redeveloping the sites into full-service travel plazas, aiming to build off the success of its stores on Interstate 93 in Hooksett that flank both sides of the highway.
“You don’t have to look for us, and we’re not afraid to tout that brand a little bit,” Mollica said.