We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
So far in our profile series we’ve focused on the people bringing your drinks to you – from bartenders crafting cocktails to sommeliers creating a wine list. But who brings the drinks to them? Those ingredients don’t just magically appear, do they? One name kept coming up over and over again – Joe Riley, fine spirits manager at Ace Beverage. I ventured up to leafy Wesley Heights (near AU) to meet him at the small but packed shop in Foxhall Square. We talked about his experiences as a fine spirits manager, and I also canvassed DC craft bartenders Owen Thompson and Derek Brown, along with cocktail enthusiast Marshall Fawley, to find out what it is about Joe that has loyal customers so buzzed.
Joe’s reputation is that he can find anyone anything. Within a few minutes of talking to him, I’d mentioned my nostalgic love for a rose liqueur I tasted one evening in Paris, topping a glass of champagne (the waiter exploded the bottle over me, but that’s another drinks story). “Not rose water, rose liqueur,” I sighed, “but no one has ever been able to – ” Joe’s head had cocked to one side during my reverie, eyes sparkling, and I trailed off as I realized he was about to make magic. “Crispin’s Rose Liqueur, Greenway Distillers. Hand distilled from apples, infused with rose petals. Crispin Cain’s been perfecting the recipe for years. We should be able to get that soon.”
Quest ended. Just like that. I then spent about an hour in the shop listening to him weave tales of liquor lore. Not only can he find anyone anything, he seems to know about everything – a fine spirits encyclopedia, a libation historian, filled with tales of Prohibition and the Washington of old.
And that’s fitting, because Ace Beverage has been a DC institution since 1934. It’s the kind of shop that’s completely dangerous for me to spend any amount of time in. It’s packed with wine and beer and spirits, oh my! Within a few minutes I’d spotted two of my favorite lust items – Bollinger Grande Annee champagne and The Kraken black spiced rum. There’s an ordered chaos that’s charming. Rather like Joe himself (the charm part, that is!).
It turns out Joe is a native Washingtonian, moving from a house in DC proper at the age of four to McLean and now residing in Arlington. DC is home for him, and like many others I’ve spoken with, he loves it here because it’s “such a unique city, really a very small town in some ways.” Joe started out working for wine shops and in wine wholesale before he came to Ace, but he prefers a retail setting. It all ties in to the relaxed, small town feeling at the shop, which was so evident in the time I spent there talking with him. “For someone in my business, it is one of the very best markets to work in,” he said, “I like being able to offer customers products that they have trouble finding elsewhere.”
Always fascinated by what people want, I asked Joe for the most common and uncommon requests. It’s no surprise that the most popular items are vodka, California chardonnay, and national brands of beer. But the craziest? The hardest to find? This is where he truly lights up. “Becherovka,” he says (whoa, I’ve got a bottle in my liquor cabinet – a gift from a Czech friend. I had no idea it was hard to get. Epic fail, so-called drinks writer!), “Amer Picon. Suze liqueur.” Joe relishes the hunt for these rare apertifs, bottles of complex deliciousness.
Why is it such a great market here? Joe spent some time explaining that DC is slightly outside the typical three-tier system established post-Prohibition (where your alcohol gets to you on a labored journey from the producer to a wholesaler and then the retailer, at least in states without direct government control like Virginia). So if a local wholesaler doesn’t deal with the product you want, your local liquor store can get it directly from the producer. This is possibly a post-Prohibition loophole particular to DC because of our many embassies. I don’t know about you, but my particular local liquor store was never very helpful on that rose liqueur search. But what sets Joe apart is his willingness to do just that. Indeed, the challenge is what drives him. And this zest is what makes him so beloved by the drinks community.
Owen Thompson, president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, was running Bourbon when he first starting working with Joe. “We used to do these regular tastings on Monday nights with a bunch of bartenders and enthusiasts (I’ll say it so you don’t have to, we’re all nerds) where everyone would bring the most off the wall bottle in their collection and we’d sit around and taste. On a given night there could be 30 bottles of booze from every corner of the world on that table and beverage managers from a dozen DC establishments.”
(Those are definitely the types of nerds to hang out with!)
Owen loves working with Joe “because he is as passionate about finding the spirits we love to use as we are using them… I know that if it can be got inside of DC’s borders Joe will be able to track it down for me… He’s been an immense help to the DC Craft Bartending movement lobbying for certain products to be made available here and always keeping us up to date on what’s going on.”
“Joe has been an invaluable resource for the craft bartending community,” agrees Derek Brown, creator of some of the most celebrated wine and spirits programs in the city (and co-owner of The Passenger - his cocktail laboratory The Columbia Room is housed inside). “From orgeat syrup to obscure bitters, he has tracked down spirits and mixers that are near-impossible to find and landed them on our doorsteps.”
What kind of sleuthing are we talking about here? As an example of what makes Joe’s customer service so special, Owen’s most diffcult request of him was to find DCSL Very Special Old Arrack, “a Sri Lankan spirit made from coconut as opposed to being made from fermented sugar cane and rice like batavia arrack. We tracked it down to one importer out of the Philippines and found a few bottles in California but no luck here on the East Coast.”
This is the kind of effort that’s behind your drinks. Not to mention the effort behind the parties and events you attend – Joe does an enormous amount of catering orders, dealing with DC’s crazy licensing laws and so forth.
It isn’t just craft bartenders who are getting the star customer treatment he specializes in. While I was at the shop I bumped into Marshall Fawley, an avid cocktail enthusiast who pens the Scofflaws Den (along with fellow intoxicologist SeanMike Whipkey). About Joe, Marshall says, “not only will he do his best to find obscure spirits and bitters, but he truly listens and understands his customers… instead of trying to sell the most expensive product, he will sell you the right product. He gives his customers the best products for their needs simply because he understands what he sells.”
Joe’s knowledge of fine spirits came through clearly talking to him. He manages to pack in an enormous amount of information without coming across as pedantic or arrogant. Many times people go into liquor stores and freeze up, finding themselves unable to ask for help and just grabbing a bottle of the shelf. It’s kind of like the fear that strikes people when the sommelier comes to your table and you just stab at a wine hoping not to be made a fool of… but as we’ve seen over the course of this series, it doesn’t have to be that way! Joe makes a dense liquor world very accessible, and that dedication to customer service is extremely valuable.
So next time you are sipping down an amazingly intricate cocktail, think about not just the craft that went into it but the search that brought the ingredients to the bar. As Derek aptly puts it, “I propose that we stop calling him a liquor buyer or retailer and give him a nickname more fitting of his endeavors, The Bottle Hunter.”
Many thanks to Joe Riley, the folks at Ace Beverage, Derek Brown, Marshall Fawley and Owen Thompson, for all their help.