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Best of 2009: Power keg 

At 35,000 square feet, Cheers is a big deal — but size is only a small part of its success

In-Store Beer Selection
In-Store Spirits/Liquor Selection
In-Store Wine Selection

Cheers Liquor Mart (1105 N. Circle Drive, 574-2244, cheersliquormart.com)

Back in my days of slinging beer cases for a living, my co-workers and I would slam the new guys with the worst orders. Smaller liquor stores would naturally order fewer cases — which meant the newbies would have to zip around the warehouse on forklifts, jumping down to tear open new pallets and pluck single cases of beer. Since us loaders got paid per case, this wasn't very efficient.

Then there were the Cheers orders. Not only would Cheers need thousands of cases a week, it would often request entire pallets of a single type of beer. We could slip our forks under a pallet of Coors Light, bring it back to the dock, and just like that, we'd thrown 1,000 cases without so much as getting out of our lifts.

So it was with a sense of gratitude that I drove to Cheers a few weeks ago to talk with Jack Backman, the store's 54-year-old co-owner. But surprisingly, as much as I wanted to talk about Cheers being the biggest liquor store in southern Colorado — Backman orders 4,000 to 6,000 cases of beer a week — he wanted to talk about it being the fastest.

"We were the first ones with a Web site, we were the first ones to do custom-label wine bottles," Backman says. "We're always trying to stay ahead of the competition with things no one else does."

Absolut wonderland

Backman started in the liquor business as a stock boy in a large Denver store, back in 1976. He worked his way up to cashier, then to assistant manager, before growing hungry for a new challenge.

Cheers had already been around a while — it opened in the '70s — and Backman knew of it as the first big liquor store in Colorado. When its owner ran into financial trouble in the early '90s, he says, Cheers closed down for a little while. Backman saw his opportunity, assembled some investors and "it just kind of steamrolled from there."

Now, it's a certifiable juggernaut. A late '90s renovation expanded the already-vast space to 35,000 square feet, and aggressive marketing and pricing have kept the store at the forefront of the drinking public's mind — as its consecutive sweeps of the Indy's In-Store categories attest.

I visited on a Friday, around noon, and I had the distinct feeling of having just entered a grocery store. I saw patrons with metal carts, biding time patiently in checkout lanes. Except, instead of the toiletries they picked up in Aisle 3, or the cereal from Aisle 5, their carts held cases of wine, or 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.

Backman claims there isn't anything Cheers sells exclusively; instead, it sells in one store what you'd normally have to visit several different liquor stores to find. In addition, because of the sheer size of the store and revenue from more popular products, Cheers can afford to carry the more obscure and infrequently sold items that win the allegiance of some customers. Hence beer selections like Crabtree Ginger Bee from Greeley, Coney Island Human Blockhead from New York, or Black Boss Porter from Oregon. As for wines, you can purchase Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou St. Julien from France or 42 Ice Wine from Michigan. Cheers also sells Wasabi Vodka (blended with sake) from the Netherlands and Ron Zacapa, a 23-year-old rum from Guatemala.

"We carry just about anything we can get our hands on," Backman says. "When we hear about something that's hot, or we have a customer request something, we go ahead and put it in."

Pairing and planning

One way to find out whether Cheers has the unusual beverage you love is to visit its Web site. In addition to standards like store history, contact information and a link to its Facebook account, Cheers offers a full inventory in its online store.

More uniquely, the site includes a wine pairing section. Simply pick the type of cuisine you're eating that night, and the style — spicy, fruity, creamy — and it will suggest a wine. So if you're planning to have people over for tacos, Cheers will recommend a Gewürztraminer.

And then there's the party planner. Plug in the party name, the type of event — full bar, wine bar, beer only — the number of people attending and the number of hours the party will run, and it will give you a checklist of recommendations to keep your guests buzzing as long as you can, without spending more money than you have to.

No doubt, tooling around cheersliquormart.com is a lot easier than toiling in the stuffy warehouse on Northpark Drive. Still, I can't help but think: In the time it took you to read this, I could have, at my old job, snagged half the cases Cheers needed to stock its gigantic store. If only I could get the Independent to pay me per word, and I don't know, order 4,000 "ands."

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