We, the K&L staff, often discuss the impact the internet has had on our jobs here at K&L. With so much information online about alcohol --tasting notes, background information, ratings, etc-- we're all afraid we might someday be irrelevant as actual people on the sales floor. All we'll need is a cashier and someone to fetch will-call orders. Yet, getting to speak to an actual person, someone who knows the products and has experience with them, is an added benefit of shopping at K&L and it's an element whose importance cannot be overstressed. There's simply something special about getting to talk to Joe about Spanish wine because he's been to Rioja and met with the producers. There's no substitute for talking to Gary about Champagne, whose knowledge on the chalky soils and vineyards of each producer can make or break your final decision about a wine. Dealing with an actual person at K&L is simply more helpful, more meaningful, and more comforting when spending your money on something expensive or rare.
The same thing goes for our relationships with producers. Going to Armagnac and getting to meet with the owners of each Chateau is an incredible benefit of working with spirits from that region. You get to actually talk to the people making the product day-in and day-out. Contrast that with Scotland where a distillery visit will generally be conducted by a paid tour guide or brand representative, rather than the distiller himself or the owner of the distillery. Part of the reason you'll never meet the owner of a Scottish distillery is because nearly every distillery in Scotland is under corporate rule. Therefore, the relationships we at K&L have with single malt producers are usually tied to the brand ambassadors and corporate salesmen, rather than the guys in charge or in the distillery. Today, however, rather than a sales rep or travelling spokesperson, we were visited by George Grant himself: the owner of Glenfarclas distillery. When we deal with Glenfarclas, we deal with the actual family that has been in charge since the mid-1800s.
I can't tell you how refreshing it is to deal with an actual distillery owner. You can pitch an idea and get a simple "yea" or "nay" answer without needing approval from a gigantic corporate entity. Like when I asked George about putting together a new project between K&L and Glenfarclas that went outside of the standard "Family Cask" label. George thought it over and simply said, "Yes." No running it up the food chain or dealing with the marketing department, just a business owner meeting with another business and making a decision that's beneficial to both sides. It's awesome.
I'm very thankful to have close relationships with my larger producers, but we both know there's not a whole lot we can do outside of the box. We can put together a deal on existing products, but there's no room for creativity or exploration because larger companies cannot offer tailored design. There are too many people in the picture to do something specific, like a single cask or special marriage of whiskies. With independently-owned distilleries, however, like Glenfarclas, we can always think outside the scope of the every day. We're free to brainstorm and come up with something new. Plus, there's the added benefit of getting the scoop straight from the horse's mouth. Getting to meet directly with George is really fantastic and it helps to solidify our relationship each time we do it.
There's no substitute for direct access in the booze world. People are important at K&L and they are the foundation of what makes spirits appreciation so satisfying.