Friday
Jan252013

How My Job Is Becoming Your Job

Ten o'clock hits. They're open for business. You call the 1-800 number to place your order. The automated system begins, "push 1 to make a purchase," and the battle begins.

"Hello, thank you for calling _______, how can I help you?"

"Hi there! Do you have any ________ in stock?"

"Yes, we have thirty bottles of that available."

"Sweet! I'll take all of them!!"

"Certainly, sir. I'll place the order for you right now."

Does that conversation sound familiar? It certainly does to anyone who works at K&L. When the newest vintage of Haut Brion gets released, the above scenario will happen. When Pliny the Elder beer comes back into stock, the above scenario happens. When Ardbeg releases a new limited edition single malt, the above scenario happens.

However, the conversation I just depicted is not that of a customer calling K&L to place an order. It was me calling one of my many distributors to secure booze for our stores.

Just like consumers have to be on the ball these days to get the highly-sought products they desire, so does a retailer. At least, it used to be that way. Remember when Pappy used to be on the shelf? It's not anymore because one day a customer came in, bought all of it, and we heard nothing but complaints from our other patrons as a result. The same thing has happened with the distribution game. I've been that guy on many, many, many, many occasions. It drives people crazy.

"Yes, do you have any of the new Lagavulin in stock? How many? 50 cases? I'll take all of it."

When K&L gets all of something it gives us a huge advantage in the marketplace. It also pisses the holy hell out of every other retailer. I don't have many friends in the spirits retail world, therefore. David OG, too. We're usually faster than other buyers and we enjoy the sport of it. After a few years of this, however, the distributors began to change their system in response to us, just like K&L changed its system in response to the consumer. We now have quantity limits, as do the distributors.

When Pappy is released these days it's entirely allocated. Almost everything is allocated right now because of the shortage. Yamazaki, Balvenie, Macallan, anything that even remotely stands a chance of being bulk purchased by K&L or another retailer is carefully managed. Every now and again they mess up, though. I managed to grab the Doublewood 17 and clean out the state before they slapped on the restriction. David OG snagged all the Talisker 18, but we ended up sending that all back due to the increase in price (can you imagine if we had managed to keep it all for the old price? Other stores would have blown a gasket!).

The point here is that all the hoops the consumer has to jump through are the same ones we are faced with – and for the same reason: fairness. Business isn't about being fair though, is it? I don't know. I definitely don't want any one customer to hoard all the Pappy for himself. That's not good for our business. At the same time, having K&L hoard all the Pappy isn't good for the Van Winkle's either. Letting one store get every bottle available of anything isn't good business for any state distributor. They have plenty of other customers to consider, too. I can't think of a scenario where monopolization is a good idea.

Nevertheless, I'll still try and find ways to sneak around this system whenever possible. If I could have 300 bottles of Ardbeg Supernova while other stores got none, I would take it any day of the week. That means more for my customers for whom I am trying to provide. It's not about others having nothing, but rather me having more.

This is the example that I am setting for others. It's a business model that works well. Know your booze, know when it's coming, know how much is coming, and get as much as you can before another store does. Yet, I'm against the idea of other people doing it.

And we wonder why people are hoarding and scalping whisk(e)y? Auctions are booming. Prices are up. Whomever has more, wins. Hypocrites included.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan252013

The Anti-Rant

I was reading Jason Pyle's well-written blog today - Sour Mash Manifesto - when I was completely overwhelmed by an odd emotion. What was this feeling that rattled my rib cage and choked up the back of my throat? Could it be remorse? No, that's not it. Could it be guilt? No, I don't feel sorry or ashamed about anything in particular. Could it be the fact that I was wrong concerning my long-standing anger towards those who hoarded their whisk(e)y? Yep. That was it.

Much like Jason proposes on his blog this week, I've tried to be the outspoken voice in favor of drinking one's whisk(e)y collection. Fuck all this storage nonsense. Whiskey is there to get drunk, so you need to drink up!!!! That's the idee fixe of any whisky blog mantra these days. To separate yourself from these straw men. These shameful whiskey hoarders who are completely fucking everyone else over by rummaging away every bottle of Pappy Van Winkle known to man.

Since Ebay has been shutdown, the whisk(e)y scalper business has indeed taken a turn for the worse. You can't instantly flip your impossible-to-get booze over to some sucker in a whiskeyless realm of sorrow for three times the standard retail value. However, there is another side to whisk(e)y hoarding that is being totally ignored by the world of bloggers and booze journalism: the fact that those smart enough to anticipate price increases were buying in to save their pennies, not make more of them. I'm going to shamelessly bite one of the comments from Jason's most recent post (only because he obviously reads the K&L blog as well):

Commentor Andrew wrote the following:

Jason,

While I understand where you are coming from I am going to share a personal view on the topic of stashing. First, I do not have a display of what I have. What anyone usually sees is what I have open at any given time — usually around seven to nine bottles. But, I do have what I would call a stash consisting mainly of a handful of products I want to keep on hand for myself and friends. Not a huge collection, but it is there. Nothing incredibly old, nothing incredibly rare. It is not for showing nor is it for selling. Only for drinking. So, why do I have a stash?

First, it is a hedge against the continuing rise in prices. In general, as grain prices and transportation costs have climbed over the years so has the price of bourbon and whisky. As the demand for bourbon and whisky increased and inventories in the warehouses decreased, prices increased. As distillers got greedy, prices increased. One need only read David Driscoll’s postings of late.

On a similar note, if there is a product a like I try to keep a reasonable amount on hand. I do not get greedy. But when a local store made Johnnie Walker Green available for $42 and it was something I enjoy it was an easy decision to grab more than usual. I probably saved $15+ a bottle and who knows how inventories will pan out as this product has been discontinued. Am sure towards the end pricing will skyrocket for what is on the shelves.

Next, while the tasting is good and you know the quality of the product why not stash? As distilleries ramp up production, quality seems to have suffered with a number of products. Redbreast was one of my regular go-to whiskys until it became a hit. Then, as production ramped up the taste seemed to go off a bit. I thought it was just me but then Ralfy made a similar comment in a review. When I found a handful of bottles in the old packaging I grabbed what I could as I enjoyed that version of the product. Also, a number of products change flavor profiles yearly such as Evan Williams Single Barrel. So, if you like the taste of EWSB 2003, why not stock up? Who knows what the 2004 will taste like.

Then there is local availability. Rittenhouse Rye 100 BiB is not available in FL. A lot of products are not available here. So, when I am on the road it is not abnormal to come home with a case or two of products I would not normally see around town to add to the stash.

FWIW, I do not go Pappy hunting, but if they are made available to me I will purchase at reasonable prices. I have yet to see a single 2012 Four Roses Limited Edition, either version, and do not expect to any time soon. I also still go out and purchase single bottles just for the tasting experience when I want to try something new. But most of the time I go back to my standards.

Am happy with what I have, drink what I have, and stash when I see the need.

This guy has it totally right - that is a logical, well-explained, and clearly-made case for hoarding a bit of whisk(e)y. If I go to Whole Foods and I notice that my favorite Chana Masala Indian sauce is on sale with a 2 for 1 deal, I'm going to stockpile a few of these jars in my pantry. If toilet paper is on sale at Walgreen's, I might buy a few more rolls than normally. Therefore, who the fuck are we to lecture consumers of whisk(e)y that they should drink their collections (not photograph them or display them) when they're merely hedging their bets against a rising tide of greed? If you would have bought a case of Laphroaig 10 at K&L back in October, you would have saved yourself $144. That's a giant chunk of savings if you drink Laphroaig 10 on a regular basis. The SRP went from $30 to $42 a bottle in less than four months.

I could keep going. Old Pulteney 17? If you would have bought six bottles back in October, you could have saved yourself $120. There's a big difference between saving $12 or $20 a bottle and the few cents I save buying toilet paper by the 24 pack. These are significant price increases!

Guess what sanctimonious, righteous, holier-than-thou whisky bloggers? WE WERE WRONG!!!!!

Hoarding whisk(e)y was totally the move! Look at what just happened with Talisker 18! Personally, I don't collect much whisk(e)y because my position gives me access to limited supplies, but even I can't protect myself against a $60 per bottle increase. Had I known Diageo was going to jack up that price I would have definitely stored a bottle or two of Talisker 18 under the bed. When I first started working at K&L, I was the assistant to a guy named Jeff Vierra, the former Loire Valley and German wine buyer for our store. He recently dropped by to say hello and told me, "If I had known all those Black Maple Hill bottles would be so valuable today I would have bought cases!"

He wasn't stressing their retail value. He meant "cases" for his own personal consumption. I can't blame him. In a market where whisk(e)y is more valuable than ever, there are many of us who wish we would have bought in earlier before our options began to vanish. Just like I wish I could have bought a house in the Bay Area back in 1989. However, that didn't happen so I need to get over it.

Meanwhile, all this "drink your whiskey" talk is getting too self-righteous for me. Jason is totally right when he stresses that booze is meant to be drunk. However, commodities are meant to be hoarded when they constantly fluctuate in price because human beings will always look to capitalize on a good deal. If someone was smart enough to have the foresight to stockpile a bunker of good booze, then you shouldn't be a hater. You should simply say, "Hot damn, I wish I had been as smart as you."

Yes.....we all agree that whisky is meant to be consumed, just like pretty flowers are meant to be sniffed and baby kittens are meant to be loved. However, deals are meant to be capitalized upon as well. While we know that a few people are indeed hunting down limited stocks with the intention to profit, most people I've met are hoarding for protection rather than avarice. The whisky companies are doing the scalping now, so at some point you have to take a stand – either buy in big or stop drinking it. If you have the foresight to know a deal when you see it...well....you might just want to get yourself a real estate license.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan242013

More New Things (I wasn't really interested in at first)

We just brought in the new Michters Sour Mash Whiskey $44.99, a bottle of booze I was truly not excited about tasting.....at first. When my sales rep came in with an open sample, I acquiesced and did my duty, however. Wow! That's actually really good. There's something rather honeyed and slightly round about the Sour Mash that I quite enjoy. It's almost like Dickel #12, but without the woody, pencil shavings-like undertone. The more I taste whisky for a living, the more I feel like drinking things like the new Michter's after work when I get home. It's easy and delicious, yet with a flavor profile beyond what's readily available. It's pleasing to the senses and it doesn't really require me to focus much beyond that.

A new Temperance Trader? Whooooooopie. Actually, not whoopie. I was being sarcastic. "Hold on before you blow this one off, too," said my sales rep. Fine!! Sip, swish, spit. Hmmmm....you're right. It's actually really nice. Oregon's TT bottling outfit managed to lockdown some nice barrels from everyone's favorite Indiana distillery and they put a nice little marriage together. Bottled at 56% cask strength, the Temperance Trader Cask Strength Bourbon $39.99 brings spice, richness, and balance. It drinks very much like a young Willett's whiskey and is priced accordingly. If you're in the mood for something like that you'll be pleased.

I have to admit that I haven't been as impressed with the latest batches of El Dorado 12 Year Old Rum, formerly one of my favorite value bottlings. It's been my go-to sticky rum for over a year (meaning the sweet, sherried, sipping rums that come in at around $30 or so). When we tasted the Kirk & Sweeney 12 Year Old Dominican Rum $33.99 I figured it was just 12 year old Brugal in a different bottle. Whether it is or not, I'm unsure, but I can tell you that it's soft, sweet, rich, and it goes down like a spoonful of molasses. It does its job and it does it well. Bye bye, El Dorado. I'm moving on.

Just a few fun things to pass on today.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan242013

The World's Best Whisky Tasting?

Last January, a guy named Mahesh Patel contacted K&L about helping to promote a whisky tasting event in Las Vegas. He was calling it the Universal Whisky Experience. It was going to be really expensive and we we're going to have to fly out of town, get a hotel, and spend some serious dough in order to attend it. Were we interested?

Nope.

At least, I wasn't. It sounded like a snooty, overpriced party for guys who want to measure each other's.......wallets. Diamond encrusted bottles, golfing expeditions, master seminars with private tastings, and who knew what else. David OG somehow convinced me to go, however.

"Com'on! It'll be fun! We can take our wives and just go out to eat if the whole thing gets boring," he said.

And you know what happened? It was really, really, really enjoyable. Honestly. I can safely say that it was the best whisky tasting event I have ever attended - counting the many public events that take place annually in the Bay Area and any private event I've organized on my own. The bottles in that room were fantastic. They were interesting, exciting, tasty, and rare. The food was exquisite. Really top notch grub. The best part, however, was the space. There couldn't have been more than 100 people at this tasting total. You could walk freely from table to table, shoot the breeze, and casually enjoy each whisky as you went along.

In the end, the ticket price was expensive. You also have to spring for a flight and a hotel room on top of that. It's not something most people can just up and do. I get that. In fact, it's exactly this point that made me so annoyed with the idea of being asked to promote the event in the first place.

"This guy thinks all our customers can just get on a plane and fly to a fancy tasting? The nerve!"

However, when I finally met Mahesh and attended the event, my perspective was completely altered. First off, who am I really kidding? I can afford to go to Vegas for the weekend. I do it twice a year with the miles from my Virgin America credit card. Why was I suddenly being so indignant at the idea of helping others to do the same? Second of all, people spend serious cash on all kinds of shit. Many people spent $300 for a bottle of our 1979 Glenfarclas, which didn't seem obscene to me. What's so crazy about throwing down some cash on a fantastic dinner and a great tasting? Nothing, really, but I was still uncomfortable with the whole thing because it wasn't a K&L thing. I couldn't promise anyone complete satisfaction or their money back, or that whole deal.

Part of my job is to evaluate expensive bottles of booze, then give my analysis and interpretation to our customers. Basically, is this bottle of whisky worth the money? Yes or no? David, based on your experience and what you've tasted over the last few years, would you buy this bottle? Yes or no? Another January is now upon us and Mahesh has once again contacted K&L to help promote his Universal Whisky Experience in Las Vegas. He's offered K&L customers special pricing (and it's quite a significant discount) as a way to help bring more Californians out to the party. In my professional opinion (and personal one as well) the UWE is definitely worth shelling out for.  However, I wouldn't just fly to Vegas, go to the tasting, and then fly home. If you know you can get the weekend off and you want to do something fun for yourself, it's a great way to spend a vacation. Last year we got rooms for the weekend, hit up a bunch of restaurants we wanted to check out (Lotus of Siam - YUM!!!), took in a show, played a few hands of BlackJack, went shopping, and then tasted some whisky. We had a complete blast and so did our wives.

This year's event will be over the weekend of March 1st - 2nd. What I like about Mahesh's approach is that he combines FUN with BOOZE. He and I both like to savor our single malt, but we also like to party a bit and let loose. Check out some of the packages you can add to your trip. I think Wednesday's event is a fucking helicoptor ride to the floor of the Grand Canyon where you can drink Glenfiddich 50 year old at the bottom of America's largest crevasse. That sounds like an awesome thing to do if you've got the time and the money. Because when you're paying for a helicoptor ride, you're getting an amazing view and an amazing experience. Not just a glass of whisky.

That's what I would take from the UWE if you're on the fence. It's more than just a tasting. It truly is an experience. That's the reason we go on vacation. To have some fun and try something new. If you're interested in attending the UWE in Vegas this year, you should definitely talk to David or myself first. You'll save the first night's hotel fee if you book via K&L.

Any other questions or comments, please ask us. We've got nothing but good things to say and we have no reason to promote this event otherwise. It doesn't benefit us in any way. We're only helping Mahesh because we think it's honestly a fun time if you want to go and, if we can help you save a few bucks in the process, then even better! Check out the link here - The Universal Whisky Experience.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan232013

Too Much Positive Re-Enforcment (makes Jack an annoying whisky)

I have a problem with the way we analyze quality with booze. I've made that pretty clear on numerous occasions. I've always had a problem with awards, yet I've felt the need to dole a few out in order to give recognition to brands or producers I feel strongly about. I want them to get the recognition they deserve.

However, I have an entirely new problem with awarding medals or titles to wine and spirits: it's giving producers the idea that their product is better than it actually is. I'm no stranger to positive re-enforcement. I grew up in a gaggle of overachievers, many of whom believed the world existed to celebrate their eventual achievements. We believed this because we won trophies and awards that helped to cement this idea in our brains. However, when we actually went out and tried to get a job based on our "Who's Who Among America's High School Students" certificate, we were laughed out of the interview. That was the wake-up call for me. I realized I wasn't nearly as special as I had once believed.

I've watched the generation after mine struggle with the exact same dilemma, only worse. Now I'm watching it happen with booze. Immediately after a product wins some kind of recognition, I get an email in my inbox requesting that I reconsider my stance on their spirit.

Dear David,

I know that you haven't carried our products in the past, but seeing as we just won a Silver Medal at the Nassau County Spirits Convention, we think you might want to reconsider.

Guess what? I don't. I didn't like your product then (that or I didn't think I could sell it at K&L) and I still don't like it now.

The above scenario is a garden variety response, representing a mild and generic example of what can happen when a company wins a meaningless spirits award. I've dealt with much worse, however. After last year's Good Food Awards, a competition that merely recognizes producers for making quality booze without artificial ingredients (and of which I am a chairperson), I was chewed out by a gin distillery for not carrying their product after they received an award. They literally said, "We won the competition. You are one of the judges. Why are we still not on the shelf at K&L?"

Becaaaaaause........no matter what a panel of judges thinks, says, writes, or tweets, I still cannot find a consumer audience for your product. When I relayed this message back to this producer, things got nasty real fast.

The indignation after being told that you still don't have what it takes, despite a manila folder full of awards, certificates, and accolades, seems to be too much for many producers to handle. My question is this however: who's fault is it? Mine for letting you know that in an industry full of booze, I don't like yours as much as I like these fifty other products? Or perhaps the industry of spirits awards for leading you to believe that your product was better than it actually was?

You got a high SAT score? You got straight A's? You went to Berkeley? Great. Do you taste good on the rocks and come at a wholesale price that I think offers a competitive market value? Oh....you don't.

"But I won an award!!! People think I'm good. Don't you get it?"

I get it just fine. The question is: do you?

-David Driscoll