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At the monthly ABC meeting, talk of bourbon and busts

Editor’s note: This story is part of “Under the Radar,” a series examining the little-known boards and commisions of Durham’s local government.

The agenda was packed for the monthly meeting of Durham County’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but two items had the members buzzing: record sales in December and the recent bourbon lottery, which boosted revenue in January, usually the driest month. 

“Durham was thirsty,” said one attendee, and the board was thrilled. 

For a routine meeting of a government board, it was surprisingly lively, with videos of the ABC’s holiday gift exchange and its upcoming retreat.

The Durham board is part of the state network of county organizations that regulate the sale and distribution of all hard alcohol to ensure that it is sold, bought, and consumed safely. The board also provides grants to local nonprofits working on substance abuse. 

The board is authorized by North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control laws, which came about at the end of Prohibition. Statewide, liquor is sold in retail stores run by county boards.

“Any liquor bottle that comes in through our county goes through us,” Lou Sordel, 40, general manager of the Durham board, told The 9th Street Journal. The board has nine retail stores and two outlets where bars, restaurants, and hotels buy their liquor. 

To enforce its policies, the Board contracts with the Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch of the State Bureau of Investigation, which goes by the convenient acronym “ALE.” Known, among other things, for their commitment to busting underage drinkers, ALE officers “target problem ABC-licensed and illegal establishments that serve as havens for drugs, gang activity, organized crime, money laundering and other criminal activity.” 

But the board isn’t just concerned with enforcing alcohol laws — they want Durhamites to drink, too. The more money people spend on booze, the more money the board can bring in for the local government. Such is the inherent tension of a government agency whose mission includes both regulating and selling alcohol. 

The five-member board, a group of citizens appointed by the Durham County Commissioners, meets monthly at the board’s office on Shannon Road. Members are appointed on the basis of their “interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, ability, and good moral character.” 

Board Chair Daniel Edwards called the meeting to order at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. 

First up, an ALE officer stood to announce the ABC-related arrests from December: 39 total charges, with 36 misdemeanors and 3 felonies. He then provided a highlight reel of sorts. In one case, officers charged a 17-year-old clerk who had sold alcohol to an obviously drunk customer. In another, they discovered that an ABC-licensed store was manufacturing drug paraphernalia used to ingest crack-cocaine.

Having gotten their fill of tawdry tales of illegal drinking and drug use, the board turned to the  intoxicating news of record-breaking sales. 

The county’s ABC stores exceeded $7.2 million in sales in December, which is almost $1 million over sales in the same month a year earlier. 

Sordel told The 9th Street Journal it reflected a post-COVID rebound. “During COVID the liquor wasn’t as available,” he said. “I know everybody was going through their own struggles. So I think this was a full year of having enough of it.” Another factor: a new store on Highway 55, which made liquor more accessible to South Durham customers. 

He emphasized that, while there may be tension in the dual mission, the ABC board has a customer focus. “We try to make it more of a service to the community than a control,” he said. 

The board then heard about the bourbon lottery, which was held Jan. 14. More than 750 customers lined up outside the new store on Highway 55 to receive a raffle ticket. One board member said that the line “wrapped around the store twice, and then around the dentist’s office next door, and then down the parking lot, and then around towards the sidewalk.” 

At 8 a.m., store employees called out 50 numbers, and the winning customers had first dibs on a selection of exclusive bourbons. The store’s revenue in the first two hours alone was almost $50,000.

In fact, the lottery was such a success that board staff made a video montage of photos from the day, accompanied by jazzy music. People in the room smiled as images of expensive bottles of bourbon and satisfied customers flashed across the conference room screen. A photo of a sales receipt, which tallied tens of thousands of dollars in sales, received an especially jubilant response.

The videos kept coming. Next up was a montage from the board’s annual holiday luncheon and gift exchange (employees received gift cards and bottles of wine) and then a final video, to generate excitement for their board retreat in February. The retreat will be held at a distillery, and will focus on team-building. 

For Sordel, the board’s emphasis on community helps make the job fulfilling. “We’re a very positive team, and there’s a lot of energy,” he said. 

Board members are looking forward to their upcoming meeting on Feb. 21. Action items on the agenda include approving the minutes from the first meeting of the year, and announcing the date of the following meeting in March.

(At top, there was much excitement at the ABC meeting for January’s bourbon lottery. This screenshot from the meeting shows some of the selection.)