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The trusty vault has served since 1965 as the state's impregnable liquor fortress at 1625 S. 900 West.

Not once in operations manager Dennis Kellen's 17 years with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has there been a successful burglary of the 80,000-square-foot warehouse, which is well-wired with security devices.Construction begins next year at the same site on a new 100,000-square-foot facility to replace the current one, which is showing its age but in the meantime remains a center of tremendous activity five days a week, from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Men in forklifts dart about lifting cases of whiskey and assorted spirits from pallets, piling them near gaping doors where they are tagged and taped with cellophane. Outside, a fleet of 14 trucks picks up the cargo, bound mostly for government-run stores in the Salt Lake Valley but throughout Utah as well.

This is the house that booze built: 1.3 million cases of liquor and wine move through the warehouse each year. At an average of 12 bottles per case, that's 15.6 million containers annually.

The warehouse's vast inventory is tracked by computer, and every move anybody makes inside the cavernous building is recorded by video cameras, a setup that accounts for what Kellen says is "less than one-tenth of 1 percent shrinkage a year." One of the cameras caught a truck driver some years back stealing a bottle. He didn't drink but thought it would be a nice gift for somebody.

Because the department deals in "two of the most traded commodities - cash and liquor," it has honed its security to an obsessive art and is meticulous in its accounting. It is reviewed annually by state auditors, who happen to be paying their yearly visit this month.

For every incoming case of liquor, there is a proper storage space assigned by a bar code denoting aisle and bay number, all of it fitting into a grand layout scheme that puts the fastest movers in one central area and tucks the less-popular stuff in distant corners.

The brisk sellers are situated on floor-level "picking pallets" where the forklift brigade can pluck them at will. Products for which there is less demand are on higher shelves.

The really slow movers are off in the bowels of the building, gathering dust much of the time. Most of them are "boutique wines," which are stocked a year's supply at a time.

Wine sales are nothing to sneeze at, accounting as they do for 45 percent of the department's more than $80 million in annual sales. The most popular liquor-store wines are the inexpensive varieties that come in a boxed plastic bladder.