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Virginia ABC’s 2023 BTAC Lottery shows us how not to run a bottle lottery

Virginia ABC’s 2023 BTAC Lottery shows us how not to run a bottle lottery

The results of Virginia’s State Liquor Lottery for four of the five labels from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) are in and they are… absolutely ridiculous.

Out of the 35,000 eligible entrants who signed up for each bottle, 2 people won the chance to buy all 4 bottles. 50 people won the chance to buy 3 of the bottles and 229 people won the chance to buy 2 of the bottles. The remainder won the right to buy 1 of the bottles from the collection.

On Thursday night, Facebook groups erupted into anger, deep sarcasm or indifference – depending on their outlook of the world. It was squashed pretty early on that the lottery winners were not part of some good-ol’-boy club where some Virginia ABC insider was handing out favors.

No, this was something different. A level of incompetence that could only come from using a broken and faulty system where there were no checks and balances.

Hold up, wait a minute… somethin’ ain’t right!

A system of laziness and negligence

You gotta feel bad for bourbon enthusiasts in Virginia. All they want is a fair shot at getting a bottle the only legal way they can – through their state-run ABC liquor agency stores. They can’t exactly head south to escape their plight because North Carolina has an even worse ABC system.

Venturing north would mean fighting the dense roadways of eastern Maryland and finding out that Sweet Tea is a rarity. Beyond that is Pennsylvania – another ABC state.

Their only resort is to fight with other residents over the meager scraps their state throws their way. The Virginia ABC has already been wracked with corruption in the past.

In fact, just last year an ABC employee was arrested for selling information about which stores had allocated bourbon at their location. They tipped off dozens of slimy individuals who used it for their own personal gain. A new system was supposed to prevent this from ever happening again. But we all know how that goes…

A new system was implemented to crack down on corruption. It revolved around using an Excel Spreadsheet (!) to randomize lottery entries for rare bottles. Here are the word-for-word instructions on how they were supposed to do it:

Instructions for Processing Lottery Entries – 2023

  1. Open the file sent from the Web Team.
  2. Save in .xls, not .csv. Always keep a clean and un-changed original copy for
    the records.
  3. The “Created” column has the date and time of submission to determine
    what submission was sent in first.
  4. Delete rows with “Created” dates prior to lottery beginning and after lottery ending,
    if any.
  5. Make sure that the column labeled “Create” has both date and time in the format.
    If not, then reformat this column to show both date and time as you will need both to
    de-duplicate the entries. Entries should be sorted from first to last.
  6. Highlight all items and use Data/Remove Duplicates focusing on Street address and City.
  7. Make an Excel Tab for each of the products being offered.
  8. Copy the entry sheet onto the first tab and delete all products but the first product.
  9. Delete any lines where the customer has answered “No” showing they are notinterested
    in entering for that product.
  10. Repeat the step above with the other items until each tab has only one code and only
    lines where the customer has answered “Yes” that they want to enter for that product.
    You should have the same number of tabs as you have products being offered. The
    next steps will be repeated on each of the tabs until all tabs have had winners selected.
  11. Create two new columns to the left of all your data.
  12. Sort your data set on the tab by Create date/time, first to last. If you do not show
    “Time” you must re-format the data until the time shows.
  13. Generate random numbers in column B using the formula: “= RAND()”. Repeat this
    formula down to the last line of the sheet.
  14. Highlight the Random Number column and paste it using “Paste Special, Values and
    Number Formats”, into column A.
  15. Sort Column A by smallest to largest.
  16. Select the number of lines on the sheet equal to the number of winners for that product.
    These are your lottery winners. The remainder are non-winners.
  17. Repeat one tab at a time for all items on the lottery

The downside to this system is that it was obviously not as “random” as the creator of these instructions thought it would be. The mathematical probability that one person could have won more than 2 bottles (let alone all 4!) should have been so infinitesimally small that you’d have a better chance at winning the Powerball.

Yet it still happened, resulting in 335 bottles going to a person who had already won at least one.

Why did it happen?

There are a lot of theories on how a randomized lottery of more than 35,000 people somehow resulted in people getting 2, 3 or 4 bottles while the other 34,000 got nothing at all. Most of those revolve around the Virginia ABC’s usage of Excel’s “RAND()” (Random) formula.

Excel geeks all over the internet have decried the use of “RAND()” as a flawed way to generate truly random sequences. Even as far back as Microsoft Excel 2003/2007 editions, it was identified that the random function could not be trusted for generating truly random results (citations here and here). Rather, they tended to heap results in the same range.

Additionally, previous versions of Excel were found to not pass standard randomness tests, e.g., L’Ecuyer and Simard’s (2007) CRUSH tests (these supersede Marsaglia’s (1996) DIEHARD tests.

These tests also showed that the flaws with the RAND() function was because of unknown period length and that it was not reproducible. Microsoft has never responded to inquiries on if they’ve re-engineered the RAND() formulas in later versions of Excel, so we can assume that modern Excel versions still aren’t free from issues.

This all boils down to Microsoft Excel’s RAND() function not being a reliable way to produce truly random outcomes. In fact, it’s flawed to the point where abnormal results can occur, especially if the operator does not understand how it all works.

Statistical Anomalies occurred before this

In 2022, the results of another Virginia ABC Lottery were found to have some pretty glaring anomalies too. A Virginia bourbon enthusiast inside of a popular Facebook group uploaded what he found.

Sure enough, opening the spreadsheet was enough to immediately see what they were talking about. Virginia’s ABC officials were so carelessly incompetent about running a lottery drawing, it seems as if they just awarded bottles to whoever came first alphabetically.

The most interesting thing that catches my eye is how did people register their name with a space in front?

This table is abbreviated but continues to list all last names that start with “A”

Were there any safeguards in place?

According to memorandums submitted under the Freedom Of Information Act, there was to be an internal auditor present at the time of this lottery randomizer. No additional information was given on who that “internal auditor” was. Was it that person’s job to be an auditor? Or if it was just some janitor yanked from the hallway and asked to verify that “no funny business happened?”

More importantly – the internal auditor seemed to be cool with whatever he or she saw. Maybe it was getting close to their lunch break and they wanted to get this whole thing done with?

I’m not a mathematician and I’ve never worked in a casino, but even I can tell you that if I’m asked to oversee the results of a lottery like this and got the results that the Virginia ABC got, I’m going to say something. It would probably sound a lot like “umm, hey guys, don’t you think we should re-do this one more time?

At the very least, I’m absolutely shocked that there was no rule stipulating that you could only win one bottle per lottery. That’s just bad business. It would have been totally easy to do this too. Once a winner was drawn, their name would be removed from the other 3 bottle lotteries. Ctrl + F to find their name in the other lists, delete row, BOOM, done. It’s almost like ABC officials were too busy to put in an extra 60 minutes to make that minor fix.

ABC States might employ some smart people – but they sure don’t act like it

In today’s hyper-politicized environment, of course half of the comments on Facebook were saying how the government sucks and how they can’t do anything right. That’s a gross oversimplification of what happened here.

People tend to forget all of the good things that government does. Government is also constrained by laws and rules designed to make things fair and works with compromises constantly having to be made on everything. Nobody will ever be 100% happy with everything all of the time.

But for instances like this, when the government is literally running a for-profit business (something government really shouldn’t do in my opinion), the employees need to have the mindset of a business. They cannot hide behind bureaucratic excuses on why they can’t make something better. Fairness should be held in high regard above all else.

If the Virginia ABC was a privately-owned liquor store in, say, Kentucky and ran a lottery like this, nobody would shop there again. The only reason why Virginia ABC won’t go out of business is because they control all liquor sales in the whole state.

The state will never relinquish their control and allow privatization because it brings in so much revenue. After all, over the past five years the VA ABC contributed to $2.7 billion towards the state’s general fund!

Realistically, the Virginia ABC probably sees no reason to change their stance on how they do things. People will still buy from them because they have to. And Virginia will still sell their allocated bottles in a manner that takes the least amount of braincells to do.

The people writing to their congressional representatives probably are just pissing in the wind with their complaints. There needs to be change though.

Use your voice to be the change you want to see

If you are a Virginia resident who drinks bourbon and enters these raffles, you already know you are in an uphill fight. You’re still a minority when it comes to total liquor sales state-wide. But you need to find the VA ABC on social media and demand changes.

Do not use emotion to try and get them to see your point of view. Present a united front. Demand that changes are made to the lottery system starting with one person, one bottle limits.

Also demand that they switch to a better lottery system like using a third party randomizer program rather than Microsoft Excel.

Finally, advocate for them to broadcast results over social media showing the randomizer being used. I’ve observed Ray Vandivier at the Rural Inn in Indianapolis Indiana do this exact concept online for his yearly raffle. It’s fair and it works.

So if you live in an ABC control state like Virginia and sense that your lottery is poorly ran, reach out to your representatives too and demand more transparency. If the officials don’t hear any feedback, they will assume everything is fine with their programs. But when its your money involved, everything is on the table and your voice should be heard.

Update on May 22, 2023

Shortly after publishing this article, we received an anonymous email from a person who has connections to people who work inside the Virginia ABC. They told us the following

“I recently saw the article about the VA abc lottery. As a former employee who is still connected with others still employed in the stores, there a bigger scandal brewing.

Currently all the employees are under a gag order with the threat of immediate termination if it’s discussed. The head of retail operations Jennifer Burke, her subordinates and two zone managers were suspended by CEO Travis Hill while a investigation into their activities is ongoing. Essentially almost the entire heads of retail within the VA ABC office. The reasons are unknown but there is rumors of embezzlement or quid pro quo amongst vendors.

A mass email was sent to the stores last week informing store managers of what is going on. People are scared of losing their jobs, which is why there been silence. I’m sending this anonymously as I see that you are not scared to call out abc for their missteps.

Thank you” 

We must point out that this is just an email we received. We do not vouch for the accuracy of the statements contained therein. However, knowing how almost every liquor control state has had cases of corruption and controversies in the past, this isn’t a shock to me.

How does this tie into the recent lottery mismanagement?

To be frank, there is no direct correlation yet. Looking at the bigger picture; if many of the top heads of the VA ABC are ready to roll, they probably don’t have the time or energy to put into properly addressing the recent lottery fiasco. The statements they’ve put out so far – which basically amount to “yeah we know it looks bad but there was nothing wrong and nothing we’re going to do about it” – could indicate that there are much bigger things to worry about right now.

Another speculation is that with all of the light being focused on the VA ABC, it’s probably causing a lot of finger pointing within that exposes even more finger pointing. If you are the parent of children, I know you’ve seen this phenomenon before where one child tattles on another and suddenly the accused child will drop a bomb about something the accuser did earlier to take some of the heat off of them. I can totally see this happening within the ABC right now. Could there be even bigger news coming?

Will the VA ABC ever learn?

As I stated in my original post, government entities should never run for-profit enterprises because of the temptation for power to mix with corruption. I’ve seen it happen all too often when I was in the military during the War on Terror years. Lots of people found themselves in positions of handling money and having power over the decisions of who that money was going to. The chance to make a buck was too intoxicating for many. There were so many reports of embezzlement or kickbacks and even some jail time doled out for the worst offenders.

The VA ABC (as well as other state’s ABCs) need to have a healthy dose of external oversight. Without it, people will find a way to make money off of a system that they have a duty to keep fair. How it relates to bourbon and its enthusiasts is that if any person in the industry is looking to make more money on the side through their job, it won’t take them long to find out just how lucrative re-selling allocated bottles of bourbon can be. The schemes they could come up with are numerous and the smart ones will look at how previous government officials were exposed and refine their own tactics.

Of course everyone gets caught eventually, but it will take longer and longer to find these people out and by time they are, the damage has already been done. As another point, there is currently no other alcoholic beverage being sold with as much profitability for re-selling as bourbon (and some rye whiskies) is right now.

As long as ABC organizations continue to exist with such little oversight and by conducting their own “internal audits,” nothing will ever get fixed. Control states may never give up and allow privatization, but they can certainly do a better job than they have been.

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Wednesday 28th of June 2023

Just as many (if not more) people get screwed out of these bottles in non-State run liquor stores as well. The only difference is the corruption, extortion and privilege is applauded when it is done under the umbrella of 'privatization' and 'capitalism'.


Wednesday 7th of June 2023

I suspect this was a new project for Virginia ABC and there was no new funding (I bet there will be now). This is the problem with Government entities, they are not quick to scale (get funding). What I will say, Government entities are always inefficient as being fair, but the Private sector is super efficient had being horribly unfair.


Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

1. When I used the =rand() function and then sorted by "small to large", the sort made no sense. I then added "1" to each function and the sort once again made no sense. I can keep sorting "small to large" and get a new sort time after time -- a single sort should line up the data small to large so a subsequent sort would not change the order.

2. When sorting in Excel, a person needs to keep all the other columns in the sort pattern or only a single column will sort leaving the other columns in their original order. Looking at the "directions" for sorting, there is no indication that all the columns stayed with the sorted data. The 2022 data with winners by name suggest that there was no true sort.


Thursday 25th of May 2023

@Cliff, Every time the spreadsheet updates RAND() recalcs so in order to successfully sort it small to large you have to first convert the equation to just plain values.


Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

They probably switched to Office 365 and hoarked up their VBA functions.


Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

Well written article, thanks.