By Paul Stephen / StarNews

In 2014, liquor stores in North Carolina sold 3.8 million gallons of vodka — enough to fill more than 121,000 bathtubs. That’s more than any other liquor sold in the state.

Overall tastes don’t vary much. Though vodka was king in 13 of the 15 largest areas, second-place finisher whiskey outpaced vodka in Catawba and Onslow counties.

The National Alcoholic Beverage Control Association, an organization that tabulates sales data for states with controlled alcohol sales, publishes a report every year tracking total case sales for the states it serves. The 2014 report for North Carolina runs 422 pages long, detailing sales in painstaking detail in the more than 160 boards scattered across 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties — Graham County, near the Tennessee state line, is the lone remaining dry district. When looked at closely, the document reveals some distinct drinking habits.

Vodka’s popularity is no surprise to Allen Robbins, a 20-year Alcohol Beverage Control employee who’s served in several roles with the organization in New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties. These days, he arrives well before sunrise at the ABC warehouse on Market Street as part of a crew tasked with unloading a 45-foot tractor trailer packed with plastic-wrapped pallets of liquor cases.

Click here to see more photos of what people drink across Southeastern North Carolina.

Robbins carts towering stacks of vodka boxes along rows that snake for more than a hundred paces, each stack destined for a specific spot. So many new products have entered the market that a separate pocket of cases lives in another corner of the floor, coded with a higher number when the correct category ran out of room.

“The vodkas have grown so much,” Robbins said. “There’s about 30 flavors from one brand alone.”

Wilmington is the eighth largest city in the state, but New Hanover County ranks fifth in liquor sales by quantity with more than 487,000 gallons sold. But it’s not just vodka — a category of spirits that currently accounts for nearly one out of every three drops of booze sold statewide — driving the upward spike.

New Hanover County is twice as likely as the rest of the state to toss back a shot of Irish whiskey, the numbers show. That’s in part driven by the efforts of Slainte Irish Pub, a downtown Wilmington bar that recently expanded to a second location in Monkey Junction. Slainte is one of the top-grossing destinations for Jameson branded whiskeys on the East Coast.

Kevin O’Brien and his son Rory Makaroy are both Slainte regulars to the point that they’ve earned green jackets in the bar’s Jameson Masters Club, a loyalty program that rewards customers who’ve crossed the 100-shot threshold. O’Brien regularly visits his son in Wilmington from his home in upstate New York, where he has a retirement job in a bar. O’Brien said Tullamore Dew is more popular in his home state, but his loyalty is to the category in general.

“I used to drink milk when I was little,” O’Brien joked. “It’s been Irish whiskey since then.”

The 750-milliliter bottle of Jameson is by far the county’s most popular Irish whiskey, with one bottle sold for roughly every 12 people. Statewide, that number pushes up to 47. With a retail price of $28.95, it’s not hard to see how a growing preference for brown spirits in general pushed gross whiskey revenues ahead of the odorless and flavorless vodka nationwide, according to a 2014 report from business publication Quartz. Aristocrat, one of the top selling vodka brands in the state, runs a paltry $5.65 by comparison.

That isn’t to say inexpensive vodka is the only option on the shelf. While many of the basic drinks served at The Husk, one of Wilmington’s top vodka bars, use Aristocrat, a shiny row of copper mugs in the front window attest to a broader interest in craft spirits. The Front Street establishment serves scores of the popular Moscow Mule cocktail in the gleaming vessels. Mules are made with a tincture of ginger beer, lime juice and Tito’s vodka, which retails at $21.95 per bottle.

“We’re always out of Tito’s by the time the next vodka shipment gets in,” said bartender Raquel Silva. “We run out of copper mugs all the time, too. We don’t sell them, but people like to take them home anyway.”

Statewide, drinking habits do tend to follow patterns, sometimes unexpected ones. Rural counties like Bertie, Greene and Hertford have an outsized appetite for gin, while communities in Dare, Currituck, Onslow and other coastal counties imbibe rum at an accelerated rate.

Local bias also emerges — Tennessee whiskey sells better in communities closer to North Carolina’s western boundary with that state. In the Triangle area, it’s the hip rye whiskey splashing into tumblers a lot these days. Wake, Durham and Orange counties all are significantly ahead of the state average in rye sales, peaking at 463 percent above the norm in Orange County.

“Rye is a hot new trend right now, for sure. Most of my business is on the south side in Chapel Hill,” said Barry Roberts, buyer and warehouse manager for Orange County’s ABC board. “Rittenhouse Rye is particularly hard to find. I order it 50 cases at a time when I can get it.”

Others buck the trends entirely. In the tiny Duplin County community of Warsaw — estimated population 3,000 — whiskey beats vodka as the top seller. The percentage of vodka sales there is actually the smallest in the state. Meanwhile, brandy and gin sales soar to about 300 percent above the state average there.

All told, the state ABC system raked in $869 million in sales in 2014, according to its annual reports. That total is nearly twice what it was a decade ago. New Hanover County is on course to cross the $40 million revenue mark in 2015, a nearly four percent growth over last year. Gary Cain, retail and liquor-by-the-drink operations manager for the county, attributes the growth to at least two factors. One is a more informed drinking public.

“There is so much information out there on the Internet and social media,” said Cain, who has been with the ABC for more than two decades. And, he said, because ABC stores across the state are cleaner, brighter and more inviting environments than they once were, customers feel more comfortable shopping. Someone browsing for 45-minutes isn’t uncommon these days.

“When I first started working,” Cain said, “if somebody stayed in the store that long, we would get suspicious.”

Contact Paul Stephen at 910-343-2041 or Paul.Stephen@StarNewsOnline.com