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A Shift In Sales Philosophy

Since taking over at the end of 2009, David OG and I have been very cautious with our buying (as any new buyer should be) and we've been even more careful with our volume.  Like other stores in the midwest and the east coast, we probably could have purchased multiple Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, or Elmer T Lee casks simultaneously, so that we always had at least two going at all times, but instead we only did one at a time.  This happened for two reasons - 1) we only bought a barrel if we REALLY liked it.  2) we wanted to bring in the barrel, announce it, and move it out before committing to another large purchase.  We weren't sure how large the demand was for our exclusive casks, but when the barrel of A.D. Rattray Clynelish 27 sold out on pre-order, we realized that we had created a larger market for our whiskies. 

Thanks to all of the local whiskey enthusiasts, we're able to make riskier and more exciting purchases because we know that there is a demand here in the Bay Area.  However, I'm seeing more orders leave the state and that means people from all over the U.S. are taking note and I want to be able to supply that demand.  It's become the case that when we bring in a barrel our customers only have about 2 or 3 weeks to decide if they want to buy it and then it's gone forever.  This puts pressure on the customer to decide quickly, and the scarcity could definitely be seen as a marketing tool where no one wants to miss out on something, so they buy because they would rather have it than not get a chance later.  While that's a model that has been very successful for us, I don't think it's ultimately how I want to run the whiskey department.  My philosophy has always been focused on education, creativity, and inclusivity, however, it's the exclusivity that has driven our sales. 

In my opinion, there is only one way to remedy this situation and I think everyone is going to like it: buy more casks.  If we always had a strong rotation of numerous K&L whiskies then each one wouldn't seem like such a "gotta buy it right now" bottle.  You might think I'm crazy for wanting to slow down the sales of each purchase, but I'm getting my heart broken by emails/phone calls from customers who want to purchase of bottle of the Mannochmore 28 or the St. George 11 and are devistated to hear they missed out.  While the demand we have created for our casks is amazing, the frustration generated by the small window available to buy them is palpable and real.  How can we reach out to new customers when our best products are constantly sold out? Having more casks to choose from at any given time would mean less attention would be given to any particular one, slowing down the rate of purchasing and giving our customers more time to try and then purchase more should they want to.

Here's the problem, however.  I've literally been begging distributors to find me more barrels.  Get me samples, let me give you tens of thousands of dollars right now!  The process is mindbogglingly slow.  They must get me a list of barrels available from which I must choose only a few to sample.  That selection then has to be relayed back to Scotland, where the samples are drawn from the barrel.  The warehouse must then file the proper paperwork and prepare the bottles for shipment to the distributor.  A month later, I might get these samples, which represent only a fraction of the overall selection.  I then taste and decide.  This usually creates one more big problem: what if I don't like any of them?  The process then starts all over.  Considering it takes at least another two months after selection to get the barrel bottled and shipped to the U.S., it could be months before we see it at K&L. 

But what if I were to go to them?  On Monday I plan on sitting down with our owners and laying out the case for my first Scotland trip.  David OG and I need five days of massive tasting to help secure more booze for K&L customers and we're going to do it or die trying.  We have insanely high standards (to the frustration of many distributors) and we will not buy for the sake of buying - even if we know it will sell.  That's just not how we roll.  The West Coast needs more independent casks of high quality single malt whisky.  There's only one way to make that happen at the speed we need it done.  Go to Scotland and take care of business.

-David Driscoll

Reader Comments (11)

David this is fantastic stuff man. It's so great you guys are doing some really unique things in your shops in the Bay Area. Shops all across the country could learn from this. The real need is education. Your customers clearly trust your judgment and the fact you educating them about what exactly they are getting and why it's so fantastic further cultivates that market. Well done and I hope you get the trip to Scotland granted. If they are smart, and I know they are, they will send you off. Good luck.

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason Pyle

"people from all over the U.S. are taking note" - yup

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel Muindi

I hope everyone else thinks so too, Jason! Samuel, you think it's getting beyond CA?

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid D

By the time I was half way through the "Here's the problem, however" paragraph, I was shouting GO TO SCOTLAND. Hopefully you get the green light. It obviously won't be a vacation. You'll probably be completely spent by the time you come back. Given the regulatory cat's cradle, this sort of buying trip is the only logical way for you to continue to deliver and grow this side of the business.

Your committment to sourcing the best stuff, regardless of exclusivity, is why your customers trust your judgement. I'm not a collector, and I don't want exclusives for their own sake. I just want a chance to try amazing, world class whisky.

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

That's exactly what I want too!

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid D


Yes, you're definitely reaching an audience beyond CA because I'm one of your regular customers and I'm in the midwest. Last summer I bought a bottle of the A.D. Rattray Clynelish and my wife got me, much to my surprise, the Mannochmore 28 for my birthday.

Fortunately, I'm in a state that allows alcohol shipments, which means that I have the option of buying from Binnies, Park Avenue, Astors, etc. However, I'm a K&L customer because you already have some of the most interesting options out there. Plus, its been fun to read along with you as you grow into your job.

So the point I would make to the K&L owners is that you're already having a good measure of success in making K&L a national brand. I'm sure that you'll never want to lose the personal contact you have with your regular customers in San Francisco (I'm jealous of that), but I would think regular offerings of high quality and unusual barrels would really put K&L on the map.

And on that score, I would love to see more island malts. The Mannochmore and Clynesh were great, but where's the peat and smoke? Also, how about an exclusive K&L Compass Box barrel? I know that do that for Park Avenue.

Any way, great idea. Fingers crossed that you'll get permission to pull it off.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel Muindi

Very good news, and let's hope your bosses spring for the trip. I rarely spend more than $100 for a bottle, so I hesitated to pull the trigger on the Clynelish, which should have been a no-brainer since it's among my fave-rave distilleries. When I finally worked up the gumption to order it, poof! All gone. Won't get fooled again -- fooled by my very own self, that is. Of course, your having more casks means we all have more to choose from. Thanks again for looking out for us as you look out for your owners' profits.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHenry H.

David, I couldnt agree more and thanks for seeing it from the consumer lens. The clynelish, for the price was a no-brainer. but when we start getting into $125+ I have to be more selective since bills to pay, etc. I'm all for interesting barrels, and enough murray mc/ACE-based/distiller editions...lets get closer to the "truth" and the "purity"

i'd love it if you could go to scotland and acquire some barrels that would be a great representation of the various regions - a KL tpour of whiskey or must have sampler if you will. or find me a caol ila 18+ cask. I miss that bottle.

BTW, I finally drank my pour of The Last Drop. OMG was that delicious.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

er, what i meant was I've had enough murray mc/ACE/distillers! lets get back to the purity of it all!

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

This is great news. but GO TO IRELAND too!!!!

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Silvers

Man, you're going to be awfully busy in Scotland. Let me know if you need any help!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStefanT

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