Whisky Bubble? We're Never Going Back

I've written extensively about how escalating whisky prices are not making consumers happy. I know a good amount of customers who have been priced out by their favorite whisky companies, forcing them to look elsewhere for something they can more comfortably afford. Shortages of stock. Shortages of barley. Mass consumption. A rise in interest. Asia. There are plenty of explanations when it comes to why your favorite bottle is either impossible to get or costs an extra twenty bucks. They don't have enough to sell you and those who want it are willing to pay extra. Supply and demand. "David, I can't afford these prices anymore!" I hear it all the time.

However, most of you know this already. Many other whisky writers have covered this topic as well. What I want to consider today is the very realistic possibility that prices are never going to go back down and in all likelihood will continue to creep higher. While we're basing our bubble speculation on other historic whisky crashes, or the housing and mortgage crisis (previous examples of overextension), I'd like to suggest what is perhaps a more accurate comparison: Bordeaux wine. I read a lot of comments from whisky fans who write things like, "I can't wait until this bubble crashes so I can get my Pappy when I want it." That's what Bordeaux fans said about the first-growth wines ten years ago and guess what: it's only become worse and there ain't no crash comin' in Bordeaux. I still don't think we've seen the ceiling yet.

Back in the early 1980's people were drinking first growths and second growths without worry. They weren't inexpensive, but they weren't outrageous either – no different than what the Van Winkle or A.H. Hirsch bottles ran in comparison to other Bourbons on the market ten years ago. A bottle of Lafite might run you $40 to $50. Cos de Estournel might be $20 or less. Pichon-Lalande maybe $15-20 or so. When wine sales started to pick up in the 1990's, the prices started to pick up as well. Bordeaux fans were not happy about this. Our own expert, Ralph Sands, heard nothing but anger from his long-time K&L customers. "We can't afford these bottles anymore!" they would say. "We're being priced out by the Bordelais!" The same factors that affected the whisk(e)y market were at work in Bordeaux: supply, demand, a renewed interested, more money, better quality, Asia, all of it. Bordeaux became fashionable, trendy, and a sign of wealth. It became a status symbol again. People were willing to pay more money for wine because wine was important.

Flash forward to today. Despite a recent lull in Bordeaux sales, the prices are still higher than ever. $15 for a bottle of Pichon-Lalande? Try $230. Fifty dollars for a bottle of Lafite? Try $700. The math says that $10 in 1980 had the same buying power as $28 today. This isn't just basic inflation at work here. Prices in Bordeaux never went back down, they're not going down right now, and they're never going to go down again. There is no bubble in Bordeaux because the whole thing has turned into a luxury contest. Are Ferraris going to go down in price because there's a recession? Sales on Lamborghinis? I don't think so. Are the same customers who once enjoyed Bordeaux for a reasonable price going to ever be able to afford Cos de Estournal again? Nope. Ralph talks about it all the time. "I lost ALL my best customers when this happened," he told me yesterday. He had spent years cultivating a list of enthusiastic customers who he shared his advice with, but they soon had to look elsewhere for value. Ralph now has a totally new enterprise that he runs as a side gig to his K&L job. He flies out to Hong Kong once a year to do Bordeaux advising for enthusiastic Chinese customers. There's a gigantic Bordeaux movement going on in China with the new economy and they love their red wine.

Whisky prices may never go back down again. Personally, I think this is a certainty because, like the Bordeaux market, there are other people out there willing to pay. Just because we're getting priced out doesn't mean that whisky isn't advancing into an entirely different socio-economic bracket, rife with money and the ability to throw it around at will. I haven't gone into much detail here, simply because I'm writing this while eating cereal before work – I don't have much time for specifics right now. However, I've been listening to Ralph talk about the changes in Bordeaux over the last two decades and it all sounds very familiar. It sounds exactly like what's happening in the whisky business. The same changes, the same complaints, and the same end result.

Bordeaux prices are more expensive than ever. No going back.

-David Driscoll


Bowmore Tasting in SF Cancelled

Due to illness our Bowmore representitive will not be able to make the tasting tonight in San Francisco. We as a retailer cannot pour the spirits ourselves as stated in California law, so unfortunately we will have to cancel tonight's tasting in San Francisco. Sorry for any inconvenience.

-David Driscoll


Introducing Our New Handy-Dandy Whisky Brochure

After such great adventures and fantastic visits with so many friendly and interesting Scottish whisky producers, we thought we should go one step beyond the blog this year. We wanted to do something in print that was easy to understand and could reach a broader audience than the already initiated. We decided to write a big, fat brochure, fresh with color photos and descriptions of where we went, who we met, and what we bought. For those of you who don't shop locally here in-store and don't get our mailers, I've attached a PDF version here that you can download and read at your own leisure.

This document breaks down single malt whisky, why single casks are different, and how we look for barrels while we're traveling. I would appreciate any feedback as well. I'm always hoping to come across as easy-to-understand and clear, so hopefully we accomplished that our first time around.

Let us know what you think!

Download the new 2012 K&L Whisky Brochure Here!

-David Driscoll


Business Before Pleasure, Ego Before Business

Sometimes change makes people upset - especially older people. I had my 33rd birthday yesterday and I'm definitely less comfortable with change than I was last year. That being said, I've learned to reign in my temper for any discomfort that change tends to cause because what good is anger going to do? Instead of going ballistic last weekend when we got to the movie theater 45 minutes early only to find that Lincoln was already full, I didn't let it phase me. That's how it works these days. You've gotta get there hours ahead of time to hold down a seat. When I found out recently that Jack in the Box no longer sells carrot cake (and hasn't for some time, I guess), I didn't take it out on the attendant. I just said, "oh, bummer."

That's not always what happens, however. Not everyone has trained themselves to deal with change, especially booze customers. Not the guy who had been buying handles of Ballantine's from us for ten years ("I'm sorry, sir, that's not really our deal anymore"). Not the guy who's stopping in to look for Bombay Sapphire ("What the hell kind of liquor store is this that you don't have Sapphire?"). Not the guy who got the email earlier in the day, only to drive over and find it's all sold out ("But I just got that email earlier this morning!!!!"). The booze world is changing. It's always been in flux, but today's boutique market is a far cry from what most shoppers are used to seeing. Niche products, smaller producers, and online inventory with will call ordering? What the heck happened to to stopping by for a fifth of Jack?

No subject is more sensitive, however, than the Pappy Van Winkle supply. "I remember when I could just walk into K&L and get it whenever I felt like it!" Those were heady days, indeed. When those days suddenly came to an end back in 2010, things got a little tense around the store – for me included. I was so caught off guard by the reduced allocations we received for Pappy Van Winkle that year that I didn't know what to do. I was really upset. Partially because I knew my customers were going to freak out. Partially because I thought we deserved more. Partially because it was such a smaller number than it had ever been previously. In 2010, however, I had not trained myself properly for change. I still spoke with my ego first. I cared more about my needs than about K&L's business. I fired off one humdinger of an email.

As our insider email list has grown over the years I've come to realize that not everyone on it actually shops at K&L. There are plenty of industry people who have added their emails as a way to keep tabs on what we're doing. So when my ego got the best of me and I vented my frustration about the situation (I don't remember exactly what was said – something about "making me want to puke" and "looking forward to selling more Four Roses"), the dookie hit the fan. That email went viral. It circulated throughout the booze industry and it wound up in the inbox of every Buffalo Trace employee who mattered. It would become known around K&L as "The Sazerac Incident."

After a brief exchange of blows and a small attempt on their part to get me in trouble (no hard feelings, guys), I eventually apologized for my outburst. Sazerac had pushed for a public apology, but K&L ownership wasn't really all that upset. I hadn't lied about the decrease in allocations, so while my language had been colorful, the message had been all truth – we were getting less Pappy than ever. Nevertheless, I wanted to apologize because I knew deep inside that I was being a total prick. I was playing the holier-than-thou role, the way a hot-head diner blows up at the waitress for spilling a glass of water. "How dare you do this to me!" There was actually a very good reason as to why these allocation cuts happened and if I had stopped to think about this first, I might have spared everyone this hot mess.

BevMo is the largest liquor retailer in California, but they're a bulk-item store. They never really dabbled in the boutique market. When their Sazerac rep would come around every year, offering them a a few cases of Van Winkle Bourbons, they looked at both the price and the quantity and said, "Why would we want these?" As a retailer, there's not much profit in the Van Winkle portfolio. They're more of a status symbol or a way to reward loyal customers. BevMo could make more on daily sales of Gordon's gin, than in Van Winkle sales. Most of their Bourbon selections were around twenty bucks. Who in the hell was going to pay seventy? In 2010, however, with the retailer market changing and the rise of consumer interest in Bourbon, BevMo decided they wanted in on this whole Pappy thing, as did many new retailers who had for years had paid little attention to the items. That meant the unused allocations for 100+ BevMo stores plus every other Sazerac account, which previously had been given to smaller boutique retailers, was now actually going where it was supposed to go. That meant no more thirty bottle allocations of Pappy 15 for K&L. It was going to be more like six.

(CORRECTION HERE: Sazerac has been selling Pappy to BevMo for more than 10+ years, but not all accounts took their full allocation. It was a combination of this, plus other accounts, plus lower yields)

Since BevMo is clearly Sazerac's biggest account in California (remember that they also make things like Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and Rain Vodka), it only makes sense that they should get the largest allocation. It wasn't so much the principle that made me mad as much as it was the instant change. Change was freaking me out because I had more people asking about Pappy than ever (now it seems like nothing) and I was getting fewer bottles to cover that spread. Imagine all the heat that they were getting, though. Imagine the phone calls, the pissed off vendors, the bars, the restaurants, the customers – all bitching about not getting their Pappy. What a mess! It wasn't their fault, however. It was the way the market was heading. Times were changing. More people wanted Pappy, but there weren't any more bottles being produced. We needed to understand this coming market trend and adapt to it.

In the end, a few people from Sazerac reached out to me. We made our peace. I did a podcast with master distiller Harlen Wheatley. We started a robust single barrel program. I became closer with my new rep Dennis Tobin, who I now try and bother as little as possible because I understand what he's going through. When I have customers going to Kentucky, I call Amy Preske (who is incredibly helpful and works around the clock to set up appointments for K&L shoppers) and she makes sure they're taken care of. We've got a pretty good business relationship going right now because we realized that our anger wasn't going to solve anything. In the end, we wanted to put bottles in peoples' hands and we wanted them to be happy. Having a spirits buyer with an overblown sense of entitlement wasn't going to help K&L or Buffalo Trace. Neither was getting him canned.

Doing business requires us to see beyond our anger and look at the big picture. In the case of Buffalo Trace, they're being bombarded by requests for products they don't have. They're having to spread the wealth as far as possible, which means it's being spread thinly. Unlike another company I know of, however, Sazerac has always been up front with us and answered the phone when we needed to chat. They've been adamant about keeping things positive and moving forward with our relationship. I've learned that, unless I've completely thought through every angle, I need to keep any knee-jerk reactions to a minimum. I should have called Sazerac first before sending out an email. They would have wanted to explain why this was happening and work something out.

Talking things through makes good business sense. I'm wondering why another large company won't do the same.

-David Driscoll


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