Some of you who subscribe to my whisk(e)y newsletter may recall my mentioning of a possible double cask purchase - a whole barrel of 1991 Aberlour and a cask of 1982 Clynelish all for ourselves and our customers. Well, I'm happy to write that the deal has gone through and last night, I went out to dinner with Andrew Morrison, whose family owns the A.D. Rattray line - from whom we purchased both whiskies. We really had a great time talking about his family's history in the whisky business, his future role in helping to develop the Rattray label, and how we could team up to really bring awesome products to our customers.
Also dining with us were booze industry veterans Todd Smith and Rich Trachtenberg, who participated with us in our night long discussion about where Scotch whisky was headed and how we could all stay afloat in this business for as long as possible. My opinion as a retailer is based on what I see moving off the shelves and the comments of my customers. I made it clear that the current trend cask finishing was wearing thin on the patience of the whisky fans I knew, not to mention the multitude of bottlings that these various enhancements produced. "Who cares if it's the same whisky in five different wine barrels?!" I said. My fears always revolve around our customers wallets being stretched too thin. "All people care about is good whisky, maybe at cask strength, from a solid distillery, and at a reasonable price. That's all you need; nothing more," I finished.
Innovation is necessary in all fields of business, but there is nothing to be said for creativity just for the sake of it. Good booze is good all on it's own - there's a reason people have been drinking the same Bordeaux wines for centuries. As we sipped our respective beers and cocktails, we all agreed that what people wanted was easier access to that good booze. Andrew and Rich mentioned that the whisky business has always been a rollercoaster ride, with prices rising and falling consistently over the years. With the world economy in the toilet, Andrew thanked his lucky stars that he wasn't two years into a new distillery sitting on a rickhouse full of malt too young to drink. I told him that he was exactly where I would want to be: using his long-founded family relationships to track down the best barrels in Scotland. "You want selection," I said, "but you want to be able to consistently bring in new products. How many different whiskies can you afford to make?" With the Rattray line, Andrew's family is able to bring in a new whisky every time the old one runs out. So far I've yet to taste one stinker in the whole catalog, and it's only a matter of time before people start associating that quality with his company.
As far as the future for retailers goes, I think our best bets are to start working with experts we trust and people we like to meet our common goals. I really like Rich, Todd, and Andrew and they really know their stuff. We brainstorm ideas constantly about how we can do our jobs better. I long for the old-school, small-town grocery type of relationship with my customers. If I could have a whisky barrel open in the store where everyone could bring in a bottle and fill it up every week, I would do it. I would love to have a new cask every month that people could enjoy until it ran out, only to be replaced by something new and exciting. While I can't have the cask open in the store, I can have it bottled for me and available for purchase, so that's where I'm headed and that's where guys like Andrew fit in. He finds me the barrel and I sell it for him - it's a win-win for us and for our whisky-drinking friends who depend on us for good advice.
So while we wait for A.D. Rattray to bottle our newest barrel acquisitions to make their way over the pond, I've got some of Andrew's other selections available for purchase. Currently in the Redwood City store I have an outstanding Bowmore 17 Year Cask Strength $89.99 full of smoky almonds and rich amber flavor. On the Spey side of things, we just received the Balblair 19 Year Cask Strength $74.99 which to me is a veritable steal of a malt - perfect balance of power, sweetness, and length. Along with the two we have in stock we offer many more on special order (go to the website and search Rattray).
At the end of the night, as I was sitting on the midnight train back down to San Mateo, I thought about how much fun it is to work with people who really care about building something from the ground up. I'm hoping that we're on the verge of doing great things with all the new barrels we are ordering, and I'm glad that there are people like Andrew in his family who just as excited as I am. It makes everything so much easier - and fun.