Big Red Liquors is an institution in Bloomington — and the rest of central Indiana, for that matter. Founded in 1972 by Mark McAlister in a small storefront off North College Avenue, it’s grown to include a enterprise of almost 60 stores, from its Bloomington epicenter to Indianapolis and Terre Haute, and smaller towns like Bedford and French Lick.
Big Red was the first retailer to order our spirits when we opened in February 2015, so you could say we're huge fans. In addition to selling our spirits, they've helped make them — we distilled a custom whiskey and gin with Big Red that is sold exclusively at their stores along with our other spirits.
Their flagship store in downtown Bloomington, a veritable warehouse of beer, wine, and spirits, sits just south of the original location on one of city's main drags, College Avenue. The store is home to James Connor, one of the main wine managers who holds a C.S.W. and C.S.S. (certifications in both wine and spirits).
We caught up with James recently to get a behind-the-scenes look at Big Red, and he shared 9 tips about the flagship location, as well as the whole brand.
So where did the name Big Red come from, anyway?
James says there’s lots of theories, but the one that has the most legs is pretty simple: Mark has a flash of red hair on his head, and that was that. Big Red stuck.
The most expensive spirit in the store? It’s tres chic.
James immediately knows this when I ask. “Samalens 1900 Armagnac,” he rattles off like it’s business as usual. (It’s not—it’s $3,300 per bottle!) “It’s been here longer than I have,” he says, laughing. “We’ve got all sorts of ridiculous things in this store.” Since the flagship is the biggest (and best, according to him), he feels like they have to have special offerings like the Samalens.
The most overlooked and underrated spirit in the bunch? It’s not what you think.
Surprise: It’s brandy! Everyone’s on the bourbon craze, James explains, but brandy is a really flavorful, affordable alternative.
They’ve got a VIP club, and you’re invited. (There’s Pappy involved.)
Big Red’s VIP program is still a pretty good secret among locals. It’s a reward program the company started close to 4 years ago, where customers earn points on dollars spent on anything in the store. The points get you everything from a free bag of ice to beer glasses and, as they add up, the rewards get more enticing: invites to special events and trips and even your own beverage concierge. But it’s not just points—there are a few weekly emails that go around about releases of small batch or rare beer, wine and spirits. Any given week you’re getting about 3 of these, including opportunities to buy, say, coveted Pappy Van Winkle or very rare sour beers from Goose Island that won't ever hit the sales floor.
Weekends aren’t always the busiest days.
While you might think that Saturday mornings before a football game are crazy (and they are! They are.), there are other weekdays that garner a lot of activity as well. Thursdays are also extra bustling, according to James—but there are less costumes, then.
(It might not come as a surprise that James estimates that over half of Bloomington’s clientele comes from the city’s renowned university, Indiana University.)
The Bloomington store on East 3rd Street has a secret wine cellar.
Ok, it’s not so secret, it’s there in plain sight, but most people breeze right past the staircase to it—which means you usually have the wine room all to yourself to browse.
There are free public tastings 3 days a week.
You can drop by the Bloomington flagship for tastings 3 times a week. Thursdays are beer nights, and on Fridays and Saturdays there are wine flights to try. (On Saturday, that’s usually going all day.) James emphasized Big Red’s dedication to education among not only consumers, but staff too. It’s really important to them that they have an informed staff who can knowledgeably recommend the right selection for their customers.
Cardinal Spirits pours samples often at Big Red stores — this one is coming up at the downtown Bloomington location, with bottle discounts that day, too.
They really, really support local beer, wine, and spirits.
Not only does Big Red stock Cardinal Spirits (more on that later), it carries a lot of locally made booze. From swaths of the regional beer that Indiana and its surrounding states produce, to local wine from Oliver Winery down the road, to other nearby spirit makers like Starlight, they’re committed to bringing in high-quality, locally-made products — and the biggest selection of them.
They were one of the first to carry Cardinal Spirits! (And they’ve even made 2 exclusive batches with us.)
Cardinal Spirits is the first distillery in Bloomington, so, according to James, it was a natural fit to stock at the store. We opened our doors in February 2015, and James called it a “huge eye opener.” Big Red definitely had their sights on us while we were ramping up to opening, he explained, so they were thrilled when they finally got to taste the products, which met their high quality standards. Customers in the store love that it’s local, craft, and that the products really live up to the hype. It’s also a boon that some of the spirits are made in interesting styles, like the vodka, which is grape-based. It’s a great opportunity to educate customers, he said, about different approaches to spirits.
Big Red’s support of Cardinal has also been reciprocated—we’ve opened our doors to their spirit-loving VIPs to make a custom whiskey. And, Big Red has made a custom American Gin with us. (Both are available at Big Red locations.)
His advice for aspiring craft spirit makers trying to get a foot in the door? James says to not give up, and shared that “we’re looking for quality above all, not a fancy package.”
Don't miss our take-over of the Big Red store in downtown Bloomington on Saturday, Dec. 10. Raffles, spirit samples, cocktail demonstrations on the hour, giveaways, high fives, and more! And... a killer discount on bottles for one day only...