MEET THE MASTER CURATORS PROVIDING GARDEN STATE NEIGHBORS REASONS TO WINE, SIP, AND BE MERRY

BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY

Anyone who regularly travels down Route 35 in Middletown knows it well. “Calico,” the 30-foot-tall red, blue, and yellow roadside clown with a famously sly disposition, has been a neighborhood fixture since the first Food Circus Supermarket was erected in 1956, the largest of its kind in the area at the time. The name stemmed from the idea of creating a fun gathering place for families to shop, akin to the big top of a circus.

Today, Circus Wines, Beer & Spirits resides in the former supermarket’s location, an evolution of the banner’s storied history, which originated nearly a century ago. What began as a corner confection store in Highlands burgeoned into a mini empire, with locations across the tri-state area, spanning grocery supermarkets (under the moniker Foodtown), pet stores, floral shops, and three wine and spirits boutiques, with more on the way. After almost 100 years in business, the Circus entity is still entirely family owned and operated, and that remains a source of esteem and pride for the founding Azzolina and Scaduto families.

“The business began with our grandparents,” said Joseph Azzolina Jr., a third-generation co-owner who shares the executive reins with his cousins Phil and Lou Scaduto. “In 1927, they opened a small mom-and-pop candy store, and that grew into a little food market. Eventually we moved into Middletown with a large supermarket.”

From there, business exploded. The family expanded the Circus nameplate to multiple locations, and after the successful launch of an ancillary spirits shop in the early 1960s, every new Foodtown Supermarket was constructed with an attached wine and spirits store. The primary focus was on food, but liquor sales proved to be quite the fruitful side enterprise. It continued to grow steadily throughout the decades, until the early ‘90s, when Joseph Azzolina Sr. and Louis Scaduto Sr. saw an opportunity.

Gardian Spread

“We were closing a Foodtown store in Red Bank and decided to turn it into a dedicated wine and liquor store,” explained the younger Azzolina. “In 1992, we did the same thing in Middletown, naming it Spirits Unlimited. Three years ago, we changed the name of all three stores to Circus Wines, Beer & Spirits. The name Circus is a part of our heritage.”

Across the three locations, a massive selection of wine, beer, and spirits lines the shelves, curated from all over the world, from the vineyards of South Africa to breweries with Monmouth County ZIP codes. The stores pride themselves on exceptional product diversity, noted Richard Kay, the liquor supervisor, though before sharing his expertise, he began with a caveat.

“I’ve only been with the company for 45 years [laughs]. We carry items from all over the world. In fact, there’s not a country that produces a wine or spirit that we don’t carry something from. We mainly focus on French, Italian, and Portuguese wines. We have craft spirits from places like Poland and Romania. We also have a lot of local beer; we think it’s important to have that home state presence in the stores.”

After three decades in business, customers have grown accustomed to such a wide assortment of beverages, and as the owners pointed out, they are not timid about asking for recommendations. Management takes proper research seriously.

“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” laughed Phil Scaduto. “Our managers are very well educated. We all go to tastings and are constantly educating ourselves in the industry. We attend the big liquor trade shows every year, from Atlantic City to Oregon. We visit wineries in Europe and learn a lot, then we bring that knowledge back to our customers. If a customer asks a question or wants a recommendation, we make sure we have the knowledge to answer it.”

In the name of precious research, the team recently visited the Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky, where they were granted the unique opportunity to handcraft their very own special edition bourbon.

“There were 1,001 combinations of different types of bourbon we could make,” explained Scaduto. “We used ten staves, which are pieces of wood that go into the bourbon barrels to give the liquor its flavor. We used four pieces of the Maker’s Mark 46, four pieces of roasted French mocha, and two pieces of toasted French spice. They then put it all in the barrel with Maker’s Mark bourbon for four months.”

The bourbon, labeled the Circus Wines and Spirits Special Edition, yielded 40 cases and is currently available for purchase exclusively at all three stores.

“The funny thing is, you don’t know the alcohol percentage until the liquor comes out of the barrel. Our bourbon is 113-proof. Not bad [laughs].”

Customer tastes are constantly progressing, and the liquor industry is particularly susceptible to sudden shifts in trends and crazes. But according to the owners, the group’s nimble size gives it an advantage over bigger chains.

“Larger companies operate the same way, whether they have one or two stores or 300. We cater to the community; we can respond immediately, and if a customer wants a particular product, we can usually have it in the store the very next day. If people comment, we react to it right away.”
And for Kay, responding to the ebb and flow of trends is one element of what makes his career so stimulating.

“I love watching how excited people get about different trends. First it was the malt beverage craze, now it’s vodka seltzer. Rosé sales used to soar only in the summer, now people drink it year-round. We’ve moved away from clear liquors and onto brown liquors. Ten years ago, nobody knew what Prosecco was, and now it flies off the shelves.”

As for the future, the family has its sights set on expansion. Soon a fourth location will join the Circus spirits tribe, and its flagship store in Middletown is scheduled to undergo a total renovation. Expect a separate tasting room with a rotating weekly schedule, classrooms for wine, beer, and liquor education plus food pairing courses, and perhaps even a café offering wines by the glass and small bites.

“We are currently in expansion mode,” said Scaduto. “We want to take our Middletown store to the next level.”

Circus Wines, Beer & Liquor
Middletown / 853 State Highway 35, 732.957.9700 / Red Bank
56 Newman Springs Road, 732.747.4053 / Sea Girt 2204 NJ-35, 732.292.6294 /
Circuswines.com