JOHN VON SOTHEN thinks all the alcohol he sees oddly wrapped in plastic at the supermarket says more about us than it does the actual product.
If you find yourself aimlessly wandering around supermarkets like I do, still floating on that expat cloud of finding otherwise tedious and painful shit like grocery shopping exotic, you may then stumble upon a peculiar section near the wine and orange juice, where small bottles of alcohol are sold in heavily packaged plastic. Now I’m not talking about Evian bottles in saran-wrapped groups of six whose handles we all know dig into your hands like piano wire when you carry them home. I’m talking about small bottles of gin, rum, or whiskey (“flask” size as we call them) “packaged” in industrial plastic and sold on the shelf as if they were Transformer figurines, hanging by that little cardboard eyelet, impossible to open unless you have an Exacto knife.
I’m not dim. I get why supermarkets do this. These bottles are probably often shoplifted, and for that reason the manufacturer’s making a bet: that packaging them like batteries still costs less than what they’d lose to theft, and who knows, maybe it’ll make the product more enticing? We all know we want things we can’t get at easily. Hell, the only product in French supermarkets I’ve found equally protected against shoplifters is razors, which means France I guess, is a country of shaving alcoholics.
The excitement for me in seeing plastic wrapped alcohol isn’t just because I find it perverse. It also fits into that category I call “paradox products” – products you don’t expect to find in the areas you’re shopping in; like lighters sold in gas stations, or in New York where cigarettes are sold in pharmacies, or my favorite, suit luggage sold in duty free next to the gate from where you’re about to board.
We have these same bottles of alcohol in the US, but they’re sold in horrible bulletproof liquor stores, behind counters protected by owners with guns or baseball bats. In France, les cavistes (who sell much of the liquor) are too snobby to sell such a seedy product, probably because it reflects just as poorly on the seller as it does the buyer. And they’re right. You never see these bottles at a dinner party, for example, your host pulling out a flask of vodka for the digestif. And non-alcoholics you rarely see drinking from these bottles unless they’re in parking lots attending football games or in parking lots attending funerals.
Plus it takes a certain brazenness to buy a bottle of whiskey wrapped in plastic; passing it through the checkout line along with your microwave dinner and that box of taboulé. With the purchase, you’re kind of making a statement; especially as the cashier laser swipes the back, and asks you if you want a bag or if you plan to open it right away.
I’ve always wondered what’s on the back of the bottle inside the packaging. Perhaps a promotional contest is in the works (you know to send in your package to maybe win a cruise) or maybe it’s a line of recipes (how to make tacos go with that tequila) or tips on how to serve a great rum punch? Maybe there’s even a warranty?
Recently I did buy one (two actually); doing so with my kids at my side, just to see how the cash registrar would react. As she swiped them along with the Chocopops and Pepitos, she looked at me bizarrely, as if I’d made a mistake. Especially when I asked her for a pack of razors in the glass case behind her.
But why am I the one who’s embarrassed? If anyone, it should be them. They’re the ones selling the shameful product in the first place, preying on a certain population, a certain group who needs it so bad they’ll steal it unless you wrap it up in hard plastic like a GI Joe doll.
What’s twisted about the packaging are the bottles themselves, small enough to put in your pocket, small enough to steal, small enough to finish on your own. Let’s be honest. They’re bottles created for poor guys who after buying them, have to desperately break through the packaging in order to get at what they need. I’ve tried, and believe me by the time you open the tough wrapping, anybody would want a drink.
Like most of my Parisian observations, though, much of the world doesn’t notice nor really care about plastic alcohol, and I’m the one left with two bottles of gin hanging with my ties in the closet. I guess I can probably give them away for Christmas this year, putting them in everyone’s stockings, like sets of Pokémon cards.
The sad thing though is that for a lot of people the product is a set of Pokémon cards, and every day for 2 Euros 45, they get to open with their penknife or their keys, or a bottle opener, or their teeth, a perfectly packaged piece of alcohol. Because every day in Paris, unfortunately for some, is Christmas.