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


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