Six Pitkin County businesses got caught in the state Department of Revenue’s latest compliance checks in which a minor — working on behalf of government agents — is sent into a local bar, restaurant, liquor store or convenience store to purchase alcohol.
The sting operation, conducted on June 20, led to citations for employees of the following businesses: Aspen Public House, Local Spirits, Of Grape & Grain, the Snowmass Club, Tiki Mana Island Grill and Woody Creek Station. (The latter is a convenience store and gas station near Aspen Village that sells beer.) Another 18 businesses in the county that serve or sell alcoholic beverages passed the test.
Prior to the June 20 compliance checks, agents with the revenue department’s liquor enforcement division had not conducted an operation in Pitkin County since March 2018. That operation was solely related to Snowmass Village establishments; eight out of 10 businesses were found to be in compliance.
The revenue department regularly notifies businesses that employees who serve or sell alcohol must check government-issued identification to ensure that a customer is 21 years old. They also suggest checking all alcohol purchasers, regardless of how old they look. According to state law, those who fail to present identification — a driver’s license, a government-issued ID or a passport —cannot buy booze.
The Aspen Daily News reached employees, managers or owners of the businesses that did not pass the June compliance check. Most of them either declined comment or said a representative of the company was unavailable to speak.
However, Jason Sterner, co-owner of Aspen’s Of Grape & Grain, lamented what he described as an “accident” by an employee. He said the high-end wine shop is careful to check IDs, and that what occurred on June 20 was an extremely rare, unfortunate mistake.
“They sent in a guy who said his ID was in the car,” Sterner said. “This was our first offense, ever. I was away at lunch, or it wouldn’t have happened.”
Of Grape & Grain’s clientele tends to be older — the store doesn’t get much business from 20-somethings, he said. That’s what makes the state revenue department’s visit all the more unusual.
“This is a sore spot for me. It’s a bummer. We have had such a good record of checking identification,” Sterner said.
Like other local business owners and managers who have commented on the compliance checks in the past, he took issue with the state’s sting operation. He said it’s usually conducted during busy times of year, never the off-season, and that he believes it’s done as a revenue-generating activity.
“We’re paranoid now,” he said. “If anyone comes in here, and they look younger than me, we will ID them,” said Sterner, who is 48.
“I want to apologize to the community. We don’t want to sell to minors. This was accidental.”
There was a time when the state performed compliance checks in Aspen every year, and they involved a greater number of businesses.
For example, in 2012, agents made 96 stops in Pitkin County, the lion’s share in Aspen. Of those 96 visits, 15 citations were issued for serving or selling alcohol to minors: a 16 percent failing rate.
That year, business owners and managers insisted that they do their best not to sell to the under-21 crowd. Some viewed the state’s tactics as a form of entrapment, given that undercover buyers typically look much older than their actual age.
The state requires entities that hold liquor licenses to train their employees in the area of “sales to minors,” “sales to intoxicated persons” and the like. There can be criminal and civil penalties for violations, including fines and liquor-license suspensions.