LVMHKL (or How to Do Some Business)

"Let's do some business together."

What does that phrase actually mean? Exchange money for goods? Work with one another to achieve a common goal? Develop programs that are exclusive to one's immediate commerce?

Sure. All of those, I guess. In the case of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey and K&L Wine Merchants, it means all of those things and more. Over the last three years, we've become one of the top Ardbeg accounts in the United States. I haven't checked the numbers recently, but I've been told there's no one who sells anywhere near as much as we do on the West Coast. This is not an anomoly or some freak occurance. Neither is it random or coincidental. It's the result of a carefully-crafted plan. It's mainly because we've "decided to do business together."

How did this wonderful relationship start and what does it actually entail? Let me tell you. It started like any friendship does between two people. When David and I took over the spirits department in 2009, we were both really big Ardbeg fans. We had a passion for the brand and went out of our way to support their products. Lester Lopez, the LVMH representative for California, spotted this enthusiasm and began checking in with us to see if he could help. We organized consumer dinners, public tastings, hot deals, and exciting promotions to help build more equity for the brand. It all worked.

We took an aggressive price stance. We were the first retailer that I know of to knock the Uigeadail down under $60 and for a while we were running the 10 year for $35. This sent our Ardbeg sales numbers through the roof. As we all know, limited edition releases for every liquor brand are based on quantities sold during the year. That meant we started getting huge shipments of Supernova, Corryvreckan, Alligator, and the subsequent whiskies that followed, more so than our nearby competitors. This built up an ever bigger frenzy. We were really cooking at this point. All of our hard work reflected the fact that we believed in this brand and it was nice to see that company reciprocate its appreciation.

I can't say enough about how helpful Lester Lopez is. It's gone beyond business at this point. I think of him more as a friend than an LVMH rep. I know that our Champagne buyer Gary Westby feels the same way. He keeps me up to date on stock, pricing, what's coming in, what's running out, special offers, and tasting LVMH product. He's so good at his job he makes everyone else look terrible by comparison. None of this would have ever happened without him. Whenever master distiller Bill Lumsden comes to town or Ardbeg brand manager David Blackmore, Lester always brings them to K&L first. Just recently we had lunch with Glenmorangie CEO Paul Skipworth and business development director Mark Harvey. They wanted to meet with the guys from K&L, who they had heard was one of their strongest U.S. accounts.

We had a fantastic dialogue going throughout the entire meeting. We talked history, strategies, future projects, and possible promotions. I told them my perspective as a retailer and they told me their perspective as business heads of a huge whisky company. It was fascinating, insightful, and genuinely helpful to sit down with a couple of guys from the business side of things. Nothing was off the table and all of my questions were addressed seriously, although mostly off the record (which is fine with me because they aren't the point of this article). As someone who is trying to explain to customers why they should choose one whisky over another, a meeting like this is invaluable. Not just because it shows me that this particular company actually cares about our relationship, but also because it allows me to see how the world outside of K&L might revolve. It allows for perspective.

After the meal we tasted some of the Glenmo Pride, we revisited some of the other high-end selections, we previewed the forthcoming Ealanta (a 19 year old whisky aged in new, charred American oak), and then said our goodbyes. Just checking in, wanted to talk a bit, offer some support, and say thanks for the business. That's how it's done in the liquor world. That's how great relationships are formed and that's how they're maintained. Everyone wins when this type of business happens. Our customers get great products at great prices, we make higher profits due to increased business, and LVMH sees their sales numbers blowup for the Calfornia market.

Why do I bring this up now? For a few different reasons. I wanted to let the guys from LVMH and Glenmorangie know how much I appreciate their support. I wanted to let our readers know that everyone from this company that I've ever done business with is a class act – yes, you're giving your money to a large, luxury brand, but one that actually strives to live up to that label. Finally, I wanted to draw a stark and discerning contrast between Glenmorangie, a large whisky company that has its act together, and an even larger one that does not. I have a feeling that one of the biggest single malt labels we sell at K&L might go missing from the shelves this holiday season, which would be a shame. We've been trying to do business with this company, but we're just not getting anywhere. It's very frustrating. Why continue to support a brand that says one thing to your face, but does another thing behind your back?

In the end, it's all about looking out for each other's best interests. I can safely, proudly, and happily say that LVMH has K&L's best interests at heart and our customers' as well. That's the foundation of any great relationship. It's how business gets done.

-David Driscoll


Achieving the Opposite (More Irony)

You know what's amusing me lately? People.

Some of us want others to know how special we are, how we're not just anyone, and it's been cracking me up all month (and I'm not excluding myself from this group, either).

Hello there, stranger! Let me tell you about myself and let me start with my achievements. You obviously don't know who I am. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the whole "I'm not really a waiter, I'm actually an actor, and I'm just doing this in the meantime" thing. Why is that so amusing? It's not that I don't think the person is actually an actor and that they're making it up. They very well could be a fantastic actor. That's not what's amusing me. What's funny is the fact that the person is obviously self-conscious about being just a waiter. What's wrong with being a waiter? I was a waiter in San Francisco for years and I earned BANK. I made twice what my friends working retail earned and I was able to afford a plush studio while others were cramming four into one bedroom. Being a waiter is great!

Some of us aren't always comfortable in our own skin, however. At least twice a day (and I'm not exaggerating here) a customer will pay for their wine at the counter and launch into an explanation about why they're buying such inexpensive bottles. "I just need something cheap for my wife. Normally I would get something nicer." What's wrong with $10 wine? Most of us at K&L drink $10 bottles every night and we're supposed to be wine professionals. That being said, while I think being a wine professional is pretty cool, there have been plenty of former K&L employees who were uncomfortable about working at the store, having come from such interesting backgrounds. Some of them couldn't deal with the whole "retail clerk" thing. They tried to change their title to "wine sommelier" or "wine educator" to make themselves feel better. What's wrong with be a wine retailer?

Our public perception is important to us. Many of us want the respect we feel we deserve. However, sometimes we forget that our actions speak louder than words. You can't just tell someone that you're smart, or talented, or special, or gifted. People need to figure that out on their own. The irony of telling someone how cool you are is that it instantly makes people think the opposite. "Hi, nice to meet you, my name is Bob and I went to Harvard." Guess what, Bob? I'll be avoiding you for the rest of the evening because I have a feeling all you're going to talk about is how smart you are.

"Yeah, so last night we opened a bottle of Petrus. It was pretty good, but it wasn't nearly as good as the Haut Brion." Do you hear the silence? Can you feel the tension? Do you notice that not one person at the K&L counter is impressed, interested, or even paying attention? It's not that we don't care about fancy wine because we do! We want to talk about fancy wine! It's that we don't care for people who lead into a conversation by bragging about fancy wine. No one does. Not one person in the entire world, not one, not one person anywhere on this planet, wants to listen to someone try and impress them with a story about fancy booze. So why tell it? Because they think it makes them look cool. Yet, ironically enough, it achieves the exact opposite! It sends everyone running.

I've been sick all week and dragging myself into bed when I get home. I was so excited to get my new issue of the New Yorker and bury myself under the covers. A food issue, no less! This should be a good read. Let's just flip through this thing........sigh. This issue wasn't about food. It was an entire issue about people who wanted to talk about themselves, how special they were, how gifted their family members were, how they knew about all the cool places to eat in this world, and absolutely not about the food. It was so annoying. Two of the first three articles I read couldn't get more than a few sentences without dropping their Ivy League alma mater. Food was the common link, but these people were the actual subjects.

How many times I've typed up an article for this blog, only to delete it. Why? Because I wasn't writing about booze or life or something actually interesting to others. I was writing about me. I'm not talking about writing from my own perspective or from my own experience, but rather that the whole point of the article was to write about myself. It happens. You think you're focusing on the whisky, but the entire piece ends up explaining where you went to school, and what led you here, and why you made the choices you did in life, etc. Twenty paragraphs later, you finally get to the point, but the point was really myself. Ultimately, that's one of the main reasons there are no comments allowed on this blog. It's the only way I can be sure that I write honestly, not catering to what will get me the most responses or feedback.

Bragging is one of the ultimate ironies in life. People do it because they want you to know how great they are, yet it inevitably leads to the exact opposite result. You're much better off staying quiet, keeping your CV to yourself, your wine cellar to yourself, your whisky bottle collection to yourself, and talking about the weather instead. My, it is wet out there today!

-David Driscoll


What have I done?

1964, Bowmore "Fino" 46 Year Old

Well, we bought this today. It's $14K. It's actually a deal when you consider that someone bid $140K for the 1957 only 8 years this malts senior at Bonham's last month (somehow it didn't sell. I guess the reserve was just a smidge too high). I know it's crazy, but this is one of the most incredible luscious substances ever to cross my lips. We got to taste it with Rachel Barrie while picking out our cask of Glen Garioch at the MBD facility in Glasgow. Luckily we tried after the other whisky because it just trounced everything...EVER. Imagine this like hyper concentrated juice from the rarest tropical fruit that you collected by climbing a giant Mayan pyramid while fending off cannibalistic tribes, a la Apocalypto. It smells like 24 carat gold, tastes like liquefied diamonds and finishes like a Swan 105. Clearly, only a lucky few will ever experience this incredible product.  Or you could take that fourteen grand and spend it on this


...even better, buy it and donate it to the auction! You should buy a ticket even if you don't live in NYC. It's only $25. Have you given anything for Sandy Relief yet? You should. If you do happen to live in New York get down there because there's some amazing whisky on the block. Plus a ton of stuff to taste and a lot of wonderful people from our industry. The auction will include the legendary St George 11 Year Old Single Malt which I know so many of you geeks loved. This was the one that spent 4 years in Apple Brandy barrels. This is not a malt that a lot of people know as there were only a few bottles available, but it was the crown jewel of the St George Distillery and marks one of the very first super special whiskies to be bottle exclusively for K&L. I still have people coming in asking for it. This is probably your last chance to ever procure a bottle. And for a good cause too...

-David Othenin-Girard



I'm now sick, fighting a sore throat and cold, and dragging myself out of the house to go process more orders before we open. Yet, I'm still in a rather ponderous mode.

We did two staff training events last night. One with Steve Beal and Johnnie Walker (after the public tasting ended) and one after work with Spanish Rioja. In both cases, we were looking for commonality between the booze that may or may not exist. We were looking for patterns – characteristics that would help us understand what makes blended whisky what it is, or a way of describing why these particular wines taste the way they do.

What is Highland whisky? Is Highland whisky light and heathery? Some of it is. But Glendronach isn't. Glenfarclas isn't. Ardmore Peated isn't. Old Pulteney 21 isn't. Glenmorangie Artein isn't. I could obviously keep going.

What is Islay whisky? Is it peaty, smoky, briny, and full of the sea? Bruichladdich 10 isn't. Bunnahabhain 12 isn't. Bruichladdich Organic isn't. I could keep going here as well.

People look for patterns to make generalizations. Generalizations help us to grasp certain concepts and make us feel more secure with how the world works. However, in the case of booze, they may be holding us back. Categorizing certain wines or whiskies by saying, "Lowlands are this, and Islands are this" just isn't really all that true. Maybe it was at one point, but it certainly isn't now. The same goes for Rioja. We were trying wines from different villages and, while there were some similarities, most of the wines were their own individual thing based on whatever that particular winemaker did in the vineyard and the cellar.

Stereotyping and racial prejudice work the same way. A racist will say that all white people do this. Asians are always doing this. Black people are prone to this, but we level-headed people know this isn't true. The truth is that each person in the world is a product of whereever they are from and the environment in which they were raised. It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Booze is pretty much the same - each household is entirely different. You can't make generalizations. You can't lump Speyside or Lowland whiskies into one type of group.

I think that people who are learning about wine and whisky do that because it takes a compliated subject and somehow makes it more managable. To think that you would have to judge, evaluate, and learn about each individual distillery on its own, every wine and winemaker on a singular basis, is simply too overwelming. It's frightening. Therefore, we look for commonalities. Bordeaux is this. Burgundy is this. Single malts are this. And so on.

I'm not so sure that's the way it works anymore, however.

-David Driscoll


Why Don't You Have This Whisky? Why Can't I Get It?

Hi David, I saw that there's a new whisky from Japanese distiller Nikka available in Japan. Can you order this for me?


David, can you guys get the Port Askaig whiskies? I saw them in the UK and was hoping to get a couple of bottles.


David, I live in Michigan. Can you guys ship spirits here?


What? Why not?

Ahhhhhh....the wonderful world of import and shipping laws. I've said repeatedly that any lawyer could make a fine career out of just dealing with interstate liquor commerce. There's so much room for interpretation and error. So nebulous, at times.

Here's the deal.

First off – the United States drinks its whiskey from 750ml bottles. The entire rest of the world (except for South Africa, I believe) does not. 700ml or 70cl is the global standard. The United States does not want its citizens to be confused between two different measurements, so they do not allow for 700ml bottles of booze to be sold domestically. That means that any liquor company that wants to sell its booze in the U.S. needs to put it in an entirely different bottle with a new label as well. All of their other booze can be shipped with ease to every other nation (except South Africa, I believe) around the world. Then a separate, special, time-consuming batch has to be made just for the Americans. That sounds annoying and it probably is annoying to many small companies in the whisky trade, so they say forget the Americans. It's too much extra trouble.

David, let's say they're willing to do it. Let's say they're willing to bottle in 750ml. Can you order it then?


What?! You still can't get it?

Nope. We are a retailer not an importer and it's illegal to hold both licenses (good ol' "tied house" laws). It first needs to be imported and someone else has to do that.

OK – let's say that it's imported. You can order it then right?

No, I can't. It then has to be distributed. If the importer is located in California they'll usually have the right to distribute here as well, but if they're on the East Coast they'll have to hire a CA distribution company. In order to sell in any U.S. state a company must use an in-state distributor. You want to be in all 50 states? You're going to need to pay 50 distributors (or be a part of one big one that has representation nationwide).

Let's take Bruichladdich as an example. It can take a while to get their stuff out west. Their importer is WineBow, which is located on the East Coast. Their distributor in California is Young's Market.

David, can you get me the new Bruichladdich Octomore 5?


Why not? Can't you call the distillery and order one?

No, first Bruichladdich has to decide that they want to go out of their way to make an entirely different batch for the U.S. market only. Then WineBow has to commit to importing it. Once it's imported to the U.S., WineBow has to decide who they're going to sell it to. They might have enough orders in New York alone to sell through their entire inventory and, believe me, they're going to take the easy money. Now they're sold out. We're still stuck. Bruichladdich now needs to make another batch for the U.S. only. WineBow still needs to get it. Once it's here, they still need to find a market for it. There's literally nothing I can do until Young's in California gets its allocation. Once Young's gets its share, then I can buy what I need from them, which might be as little as two cases by that point.

So you see, us retailers are simply the final link in a chain of many different businesses that must make proactive decisions before we're able to act. Unfortunately, I will not be able to order that bottle of Nikka or Port Askaig until those parties take the necessary actions (which will likely never happen).

Can't you just have them ship you some over in the mail? I did it once from the UK.

Shipping laws. What's legal and what isn't? In all honesty, it's really hard to know these days. First off, if a retailer sells a bottle that they didn't buy from an in-state distributor or certified auction house, they're in big, big trouble. If I paid cash to a customer and then sold that customer's Pappy Van Winkle at K&L we would be slapped with a big, fat fine and possibly have our license suspended. So we can't order anything directly from overseas.

Second of all, they can't ship it here either. Just because it gets done doesn't mean that it's legal. Every liquor shipment from outside the country is supposed to be declared and go through customs first. Again, we all know that doesn't always happen, but that doesn't mean it's OK.

David, I'm in Utah. I need booze. Why can't you ship to me?

Why? Because shipping liquor to Utah is a felony. No joke. A felony. Shipping liquor to Michigan is also a big no-no. They're the only state that actually tried to sting us, as in order booze from us in an attempt to document the process and prove we were transpiring in illegal business. I don't want to go into a big discussion about what is exactly legal and what isn't, but pretty much anything to do with putting booze in a box and taking it to your common carrier is a big grey area. As a private citizen, you cannot ship anything. Putting wine in the mail to send to your friends is not allowed, that's why you need us, but we can't ship everywhere. Some stores are willing to do it because they're small and no one is paying attention to them. Other stores move high volumes and do not want to jeopardize their business by drawing the wrath of any government agency. We have a lawsuit going with Texas. We've got all kinds of action going on. If K&L doesn't ship to your state, believe me, it's not because we don't want to.

Again, just because other people do it doesn't mean that it's legal. It just means they haven't been caught or a certain law isn't being enforced.

That's it, in a nutshell. That's why we don't have certain bottles that you see online elsewhere. That's why we can't get those bottles, and if we can, that's why we can't ship those bottles to you specifically.

It's a crazy business. Rooted in mafia protectionism with different groups trying to protect their territory after Prohibition. We don't need some out-of-state retailer ruining our little monopoly here! That history would make a good blog post.  That's a Chuck Cowdery topic if I've ever seen one.

-David Driscoll