Joe's Wines & Liquors


Photos by Emilee Robinson


Joe’s Wines and Liquors has been a landmark of Midtown since 1960, with its famed sputnik sign serving as a welcoming beacon to all that are thirsty. For the past 23 years the Larson family has taken the reins of the iconic location by pioneering what a liquor store can be in the mid-south. We sit down with Brad, Sisco and Ross Larson to talk about the past two decades and what they plan for the next few.

Brad Larson

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Originally I’m from Rochester, New York. I’ve been in the food and beverage business for 55 years. I started as a dishwasher at a Polynesian restaurant called when I was 13 years old at a Polynesian restaurant called Luau that kind of encompassed the whole Pacific Rim.


A neighbor a couple doors down owned the business and asked me if I wanted to work as a dishwasher one night, and I loved it. I loved the smells, the energy, work and especially the money. On a Friday or Saturday we would probably make $30 or $40, which back in ‘67 was a lot of money for a kid to have.


It was a crazy place with a volcano water fountain and a lazy river type of thing. Just a very cool over the top place. It had a huge tiki bar that served Singapore Slings, Brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers, all of those ‘70’s cocktails. It was a place a family might go to earlier, and at night people would take their dates to. They would serve dinner until 10, and after that the place would turn into a club. It was way too late for a 13-year-old to be working, but I really enjoyed it.


It was actually kind of a nefarious place. The owner brought in guys from China to cook and had a house that they all lived in. The owner would actually go pick up the staff in a station wagon. First he would bring the cooks and then he would go back and pick me and my buddy up.


It was the first time I really felt that buzz that comes from working at a busy restaurant, and it was always busy. The place held several hundred people, and we would still flip tables.

It was just a wild show, but it only lasted about six months. One night the owner was giving me and a buddy a ride home from work, and I guess he had gotten into the cups a little bit, because almost drove us into the Erie Canal after he had passed out at the wheel. After that my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to work there anymore, but after that I was hooked on the industry and worked at several other restaurants throughout high school.


In November of my junior year of high school my parents decided to move to Memphis. Since I had some athletic stuff going on in Rochester I wanted to stay. I ended up living with some other families and even a teacher for the last year and a half of high school.

By the time I graduated high school, I hadn’t seen my parents in over a year. My dad told me that my mom would like to be with me for a little bit, so I decided to head south and see what my folks had planned. I had shoveled my last shovel full of snow. I wanted to leave so bad I couldn’t stand it.


I had shoveled my last shovel full of snow. I wanted to leave so bad I couldn’t stand it.

In the early ‘70s Memphis had a really great gymnastics team, and I was involved in gymnastics, so I applied and got a scholarship and came to Memphis State.

I came down in August and moved in with my parents and started taking classes. In November they decided to move to Dallas, so I only saw them for four months. I’ve been on my own since then.


I got back into the food and beverage business while I was at Memphis State, and took a job with a buddy at a Hilton by the airport. It was a nice French restaurant that had all black waiters who worked the seasonal circuit. They would be in New Orleans in winter, Memphis in spring and Mackinac Island in summer.


Me and my buddy started there as busboys for the first six months before we moved up to waiters. We kept moving up the ladder and eventually I took a job opening a new Hyatt.


At the time I was still balancing school and work, but I had ended up living with a professor. I was studying business and education at Memphis State, and I realized I was making twice as much as my professor was and only working three days. The restaurant industry was very good back then and it was also a lucrative job.


So I left Memphis State and I started working in Hyatt’s management-training program learning everything I could about the industry — everything from purchasing, bartending, managing, to becoming a sommelier. In fact, I was probably the first sommelier in town, not that people knew at the time what that was.


I liked all aspects of the work. They pretty much came to me and said, ‘We can’t teach you anymore. You’re ready to go on to the big time.’


They had just opened three huge hotels in New Orleans, Houston and Dallas, each over a 1,000 rooms. They told me that I should probably consider exploring those markets. So I took an interview in New Orleans. It was just a circus — unions, language barriers, 3,000 person dinners.


Right after the interview all of the chefs walked out right before a huge dinner that night. They called me while I was in my room and asked if I could come down and help prepare the dinner. When I came downstairs there were eight-foot ice-carved boats of shrimp. It was just overwhelming and I knew right then that this wasn’t for me.


I really thought about the industry and what I wanted to do. The happiest people I had met in the business were the beverage purveyors. They were always like, ‘You can buy from this week, or buy from me next week. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy either way.’ It seemed a lot less stressful.


So, I ended up going to work for Star distributors, who at the time had some pretty iconic names in the business.


At the time they had just done the Judgement of Bordeaux in 1976, where the California wines beat the French wines in a blind tasting. Star had a lot of contracts with those vineyards, so they were trying to start a wine division to better sell those products. I was kind of the first wine salesperson there.


But, I was leaving a salary job, where I knew what I was going to make, to start working commission. I found out really quickly that only a few stores in town could sell those high dollar wines, so we had to push a lot of stuff like Manischewitz and Thunderbird.


Things changed as Memphis progressed. The best part about this business is there’s something new every single week. If you can get that product on with one store, hopefully you can get the store next to them to buy it and start a chain reaction. That’s kind of how I build my business, by working in clusters of liquor stores.


Another thing is making sure the employees in the stores knew what you were selling. That’s something I’ve really tried to emphasize at Joe’s. Teaching the staff, especially the new hires because they don’t know a damn thing.


By teaching their staff you show that you’re interested in their business, and in turn they’ll take some interest in the products they know about and further your own business.

In 1977 I left Star over a gas dispute. Money was tight at the time and I found out they were giving some of the older guys gas allowance. After my first year I took my vacation, and when I came I asked for a gas allowance. They told me no, so I left.


I got a job at Buster’s as a sales associate, because they had been one of my accounts and I knew the owner Rommy Hammond.



After two weeks working at Busters, Rommy pulled me aside and told me to go home and put on a shirt and tie. He told me to go see Jackie Aaron at Athens Distributing because he was starting a wine division and thought he’d like to talk to me


I left immediately, got dressed and went to Jackie’s office to talk. He offered me a job and I started that next Monday.


It was kind of a ‘who you know’ situation, and luckily I knew most of those people. I stayed with Athens for over 20 years, until a new opportunity came.


By this point I had been married to my wife Jana for over a decade and had two growing kids, Sisco and Ross. We had a house in midtown and my wife had recently become a nurse anesthetist. Anyway, we had just gone on vacation, and while we were gone I heard through the grapevine that Joe’s Wines and Liquors had gone up for sale and was already sold.


It wasn’t a secret that Walter Wilkinson, who was the owner, was planning to sell it, it just hadn’t gone on the market yet. I really wanted the store, I had called on it for years and always loved it. It really broke my heart. It was a diamond in the rough.


So when I walked in that next Monday, Walter kind of cornered me and said, ‘You know, I thought you might have wanted to buy the store?’ I told him that I thought it was sold and he told me, ‘Oh, no, no no. I haven’t made a decision yet.’


I handed him my order pads and said, ‘Well, why don’t you fill this out?’ I immediately left and called my wife and said, ‘Let’s go to the bank and see if the bank will loan us some money.’ Long story short we won the beauty contest, and in 1998 I became the owner of Joe’s Wines and Liquors.


I think he thought I would take care of his employees. They had done a good job for him and he wanted to make sure someone would take care of them.


At the time Joe’s was a lot smaller, and half of the building was a convenient store called Peter Pan, which Walter also owned. He worked there until we expanded the building.

It was a scary thing taking over a business, especially with two kids, but it really was a diamond in the rough. The staff knew everybody in midtown. I lived in midtown. It just felt natural.


For the first seven years I worked six days a week. That’s what it takes in this business. When I was in the wholesale business, I can’t tell you how many times I had come in to make a sales call at nine o’clock and the owner was out playing golf or on vacation or wherever.


My three pet peeves I always tell new employees are: Number one, be early. Don’t be late. Number two, do not bullshit a customer. If you don’t know the answer to something, find someone in the store that does. As a last resort google it and find the answer yourself. Number three, treat each customer like you would treat your mother or your grandmother. Greet them at the door and thank them when they leave. You want the customer to know that you’re there to help them, and that they’re welcome there. You can go anywhere in Memphis and get bad service, but you’re not going to get it at Joe’s.

They’d leave it up to whoever and find out later that their bank accounts had been stolen by employees or inventory was missing, whatever.


You see businesses go down the tubes if the owners didn’t keep an eye on them. I wanted to be here as much as I could. I also really wanted to get to know the people that shopped here. We had a great following in the store already, but I knew we could grow it.


Walter had the store for 18 years before I bought it, and never fixed the sign. It was just dormant. I wanted that sign to work, in fact it was in my business proposal to the banks. I had it written down that by the end of our third year in business, we would have the sign fixed.


Well, we had bought Joe’s in July and we had raised enough money to fix the sing by the next spring. We had a tip jar that went to the repair costs and the customers just kept donating. We also did a fundraiser block party as well.


We had a lot of support from Midtown. As the years went on we expanded the store twice, we started our wine and beer clubs, we started doing wine dinners, the passport events, a growler station and other events throughout the years.


My three pet peeves I always tell new employees are: Number one, be early. Don’t be late. Number two, do not bullshit a customer. If you don’t know the answer to something, find someone in the store that does. As a last resort google it and find the answer yourself. Number three, treat each customer like you would treat your mother or your grandmother. Greet them at the door and thank them when they leave. You want the customer to know that you’re there to help them, and that they’re welcome there. You can go anywhere in Memphis and get bad service, but you’re not going to get it at Joe’s.


The kids have mainly run the store the past couple of years. It feels really good knowing the store is in good hands. They know what the business can do and they’re building on what we’ve built in the past. I’m really happy to see that.


"



Sisco Larson

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I started working at Joe’s when I was about 16-year-old, but it was just over the summers and on the holidays when they needed an extra hand.


I’ll always remember those first Christmases I worked. The place was buzzing with energy. I was just bagging stuff up, but I remember seeing people like Mike Bodeen, who worked here for as long as my dad had owned it, telling people a 30 minute long story about this one wine trip that he had taken out to California.He just really loved talking about wine.

Almost everybody in the store was in a good mood because they’re buying alcohol for the holidays and they’re being introduced to new wines. It was just fun.


I also just really enjoyed working with my dad, and after we’d get off, it was Christmas. Mom and Ross had usually gone to church, and me and him would just have an awesome meal together.


After high school I went to the University of Alabama, and even though my dad owned a liquor store I was definitely not a snooty college drinker.


I had tasted some craft beers while working at Joe’s as a teenager, but for the most part it was domestics for me. While I was in college I started working at the med over the summers because I thought I might want to pursue a career in the medical field. My mom is a nurse anesthetist, so I had a little knowledge of it.


While I was back in Memphis I really got introduced to more craft beers. When I got back to Tuscaloosa I started getting my friends into them. At the time I think there were only two bars in the city with craft beer, and we started going there. It was a big jump from the Natty Light we were drinking at the time.


When I turned 21 my dad gave me two options for a party, he said I’ll buy a couple kegs and you can have a kegger or you can come on this trip with me and Riche, the old general manager of Joe’s, to Napa. I was going to have a kegger either way, so of course I took the trip to Napa. It was an amazing trip, and the first time I really took the time to think about wine, varietals and my palate. It transformed me into a wine drinker. Obviously being in Napa helped, but just being educated about wine was really a formative experience for me.

I ended up as a double major in international business and Spanish. Neither of which you would think would immediately be applicable in this industry, but a huge part of the wine industry revolves around importing and exporting products. I can also speak Spanish, so that helps a lot, not only with wine, but being able to speak to customers who might not speak English.


So, when I graduated in 2012 I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. It wasn’t necessarily my plan to come home and work at the store, but after talking to my dad, who really wanted me to come back, I decided to give it a try.


I was 22, and basically, I didn’t have any goals. But, craft beer had become a passion of mine and I knew I wanted to expand the store’s selection.


I had just seen this growler bar while I was in Atlanta. It was big and shiny and new. There is also something inherently cool about draft beer. I just thought, ‘You don’t have to go out to get these beers. You can buy it here and go home and drink it on your couch.’


I also really wanted to stress education for the staff, and in turn the customers. Over this past decade Memphis has certainly gotten more and more eclectic, unusual and really awesome stuff. Whether it’s amaros, natural wines or whatever, their really hard to sell if you can’t tell someone about it at all.


The other day I overheard two employees talking about how a customer asked one of them about the differences between Campari and Aperol, and neither of them could come up with a great answer. I immediately got the Campari representative on the phone and scheduled a staff training for that very question, because we sell the hell out of those products. As similar as they may look, they are two very different spirits.


You also have to teach people about the trends in the industry like. For instance — what’s going on with bourbon? Why do people love it right now? Why can’t you find your favorite bourbon anymore? What’s the difference between rye, bourbon and Scotch?


Then there is the more esoteric stuff, like Cachaça. We just had a training day about Cachaça and tried five very different ones. It blows people’s minds that there are two-different ones, let alone hundreds. And everybody absorbs this knowledge differently. Everybody has different favorites and different ideas of what to do with these products. You can definitely dive down the wormhole and come up with countless different options and opinions.


As a store we want to foster and encourage that creativity with our staff and our customers. I want to show people that they can make really great cocktails at home and can explore their palate by trying different things and mixing different flavors.


In fact I heard a really great quote from bartender Morgan McKinney, who now runs the Best Shot Co. online bartending platform, that was ‘Cocktail recipes are guidelines, not gospel.’


When someone realizes they can make their own riffs on drinks, their own recipes, it really unlocks it for people. It makes creating less scary. And that’s what we want to do — make this industry approachable.


You never want to be snobby in this industry. You never want to laugh at how someone pronounces something. If they pronounce some French region wrong, that means they’ve probably only heard it one time. But they remembered it from one time! It should make you remember the first time you said it!

You never want to be snobby in this industry. You never want to laugh at how someone pronounces something. If they pronounce some French region wrong, that means they’ve probably only heard it one time. But they remembered it from one time! It should make you remember the first time you said it! Always be approachable; No snobbery.


We also always try to have a staff member scheduled that is knowledgeable about wine, somebody who knows beer and somebody who knows liquor and cocktails. We think it’s really important to have somebody you trust to recommend things for you. Not only do you get a good recommendation but you build a relationship with that person.


Outside of the store we also host our Passport events, which highlight different wine regions from around the world, and partner with some of our favorite restaurants to host wine dinners, which typically highlight a region, specific varietal or style of food.


The pandemic put a lot of those things on hold, but one thing that did come out of it was our virtual wine dinners with Kelly English and Restaurant Iris. We launched them on April 23rd, 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and they’ve been something I’ve looked forward to every week.


You sign up and pick up your dinner from the restaurant, the wine from and log onto Zoom for the dinner to learn more about what you’re eating and drinking that night. There’s always something new to talk about, even throughout the pandemic.


Kelly comes up with the new menu every time which is awesome. The food’s always great and the wines are always fun. It’s just been a really great experience in such a bleak time.

One of the things that Kelly brought up to me throughout these dinners was that he didn’t think a liquor store could have a ‘direction’ they go in. We try not to be a place with just popular liquor brands just stacked to the ceiling. We love those products, and we love the people who drink them, but we also have a very curated wine selection thanks to Ross. We’re going to make sure we have what the people want, but we also want to introduce them to new things they didn’t know they wanted.


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Ross Larson

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My first real experience with wine was when I was in college. I was a geology major in school at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. To graduate you have to do this final project, but the school didn’t offer it. But, they would let you do the project at another school, domestic or abroad.


There were a lot of different schools you could go through, but I went through Boise State and was able to actually finish my final project in Sardinia, Italy, which is just an amazing wine region.


It’s a beautiful island off the coast of Italy. My final project was basically working in the field in Sardinia. Where we were was just surrounded by wineries, so I’d go to them whenever I had the time. That was my first real experience with wine and, like Sisco said earlier, it was just an eye opening experience.


It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective of wine and the industry surrounding it. After I finished the project, my family came and met me in Italy and when we went to Tuscany and had a great time.


When I graduated in 2013 I came back home and I really had no idea what I wanted to do at all, so I picked up some shifts at Joe’s. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be here or what I wanted to do.


There’s so many different things you can go into as a geologist, but I knew that I didn’t want to go work for an oil company, which was the main thing going on in the area at the time. I thought about going into environmental law, but that just didn’t feel right. I realized what I loved about geology was the subject itself, so I decided to go back to school to get a masters degree in teaching. I worked part time at Joe’s while I was in school again. I ended up finishing my last semester by working as a student teacher at Collierville High School.

I loved it and had a great time. I even could have gone and taught there after I graduated, but something in me told me that it just really wasn’t what I wanted to do right then.


At the same time I graduated in 2016, my dad had gotten really sick. It was sad. I just remember mom calling me and saying you know, it’s stage four. Dad had to kind of forcibly remove himself from the company.


Me and Sisco told him that he needed to step and that we would jump in. Going back it’s really emotional to think about, but it was the best thing I could do at the time for my family.

Two years later I got the opportunity to go to the Pinot Noir camp in Oregon. My dad was still sick but getting better, I had a masters degree, I was working at Joe’s, and I was just really confused about life. I didn’t know if I wanted to stay here or if I wanted to pursue teaching.


But, that was one of the coolest experiences of my life. They have these huge trenches that might be a 100 meters away from each other. But one trench is volcanic soil and another is marine sedimentary.


When I was in Italy, wine was just so brand new to me. It was hard to take it all in. But, when I was in Oregon, the science of everything just really reinvigorated me. My passion for wine became a lot stronger and I felt a lot more comfortable coming back to work here.

Sisco and I have a good relationship. We’re good at compromising and taking risks, but also being really great at being realistic and cautious as well.


This past year has been crazy. The pandemic made us have to rethink how we do business. We shut down to the public almost immediately in mid-March, but had a huge demand. We had to figure out a plan of how we would deal with the increase in orders while only being curbside.


It was definitely the most difficult thing we’ve had to do, I think, in our careers. We did the best we could, but it was just a hard situation. We’re a small family business and we didn’t have the means to set up a quick and easy way to set it up. But we did our best.

By the time we did open back up to the public in August I was jonesing for the interaction with our customers in person. It was such a refreshing energy to be back.


This year also made us a lot closer as a family. I think it took a while for me and Sisco to hit our stride. He will always have two more years of experience than me, but I think now I’ve really fallen into my role as the wine buyer. He’s got his role, and we have our roles together. I think we work better together now than we ever have.


"


Joe's picks


All products are available at Joe’s Wines and Liquor. Prices and availability are subject to change. You must be 21-years-or-older to consume alcoholic beverages. Drink responsibly.


vermouth

CONTRATTO

$26.99


Contratto’s Vermouth Rosso is a favorite among bartenders far and wide. This a great vermouth for any occasion, whether it’s being enjoyed as an aperitif after a large meal or being used within a variety of classic cocktails, such as the Manhattan, Negroni or Boulevardier. The first Contratto vermouth recipes were developed back in the 1890’s and by the 1930’s the estate was producing hundreds of thousands of bottles. This vermouth has deep herbaceous flavor, with just the right acidity and sweetness to balance it out. If you haven’t already we highly recommend you adding this to your home bar.



tequila

LA GRITONA

$38.99


Grown with 100% blue agave, La Gritona Reposado is a great addition to your liquor cabinet, though we recommend putting front and center on the shelf. The recycle bottle itself is a head turner, but it’s what’s inside that really counts. This small batch tequila is distilled by Melly Barajas in the Valle de Guadalupe in the highlands of Jalisco. Made from mature agave cultivated at the height of its sugar production, it is baked within 24 hours of being cut, spends 24 hours in earthen ovens, and is rested for 24 hours before crushing. It is naturally fermented, twice distilled, and rested in reused American whiskey barrels for 8 months. The flavor is strictly vegetal agave and has an incredibly smooth finish.





vodka

OLD DOMINICK

$19.99


Made right here in Memphis, Old Dominick distillery has a lot of products to offer. From their whiskies to their gin to their popular vodka, Old Dominick is making Memphis proud by claiming the title of the city’s first Whiskey distillery in town. But, we’re talking about their wonderful vodka today. This smooth vodka has hints of oranges, dried ginger, and lime gummies. The satiny mouthfeel is full of vibrant citrus flavors and it all wraps up with a finish that has notes of lime peel, lemongrass and a hint of pepper! Whether it’s a vodka soda, a white russian or a dry martini, you can count on Old Dominick to lift your spirits.




bitters

ANGOSTURA

$10.99


The bitters to rule all bitters. Angostura is quite possibly the most well known bitters in the country. This little bottle packs a lot of punch and hits all the right notes with flavors of clove, cinnamon and even some hints of citrus on the back end. A couple dashes of angostura can go a long way, and though we don’t recommend drinking it on its own, it can be used more heavily in drinks like the Trinidad Sour which calls for an ounce of the stuff! More commonly though these bitters are used in the holy grail of cocktails, the Old Fashioned. They also make a great addition to a glass of soda water to help soothe the stomach.



bourbon

BLUE NOTE

$29.99