The Future Of American Whisky Retail

If you've read any of my previous posts about distribution in the liquor world, then you probably have a good idea about how competition and selection works among retailers.  For a quick refresher, I'll give you brief example.  Beltramos, BevMo, and K&L all the get the exact same pricing from the exact same set of distributors, so the only way we can differentiate ourselves is by price, selection and customer service.  There is nothing available to me that would be unavailable to them, period, and vice versa.  I might have a few connections that they are not privvy to, but I don't know one distributor that would sell to us exclusively.  The point is that retailers are looking for an edge and a way to build their customer base.  My passion for helping people and building relationships (hence why I used to be a teacher) fuels my desire for our customers to have perks that other stores cannot offer them.  Since a liquor importer cannot hold a retail license, we cannot import our own exclusive goods, so that's not an option.  The best way to get individualized products is through independent barrel purchasing, but at this point, not everyone in the industry is happy about jumping on board.

From my perspective there are no drawbacks for anyone in buying an entire cask.  The customers get an exclusive product unavailable elsewhere, the retailers don't have to worry about competitive pricing, and the distributor gets a huge chunk of cash all at once.  Everyone wins, right?  With all the independent bottlers reaping the rewards of private bottling, you would think that the major distilleries would want a piece of this action.  In the United States, this has been the case.  We've already done a Four Rose's cask and two barrels of Buffalo Trace with customers gushing continuous positive feedback.  The fact that these are limited products makes them even more exciting, so the buzz really gets around town.  Knob Creek, Evan Williams, and Elmer T. Lee have also jumped into the game and I've been successful in convincing smaller producers like Steve McCarthy, St. George, and Corsair into getting involved (as we should have private bottlings from all three with the next six months).  However, with the exception of Bruichladdich, the Scottish distilleries have been resistant.  To find out more about this, I met with David Blackmore, brand ambassador for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, to find out more about their point of view. 

Most distilleries have master distillers and blenders who fine-tune each of their expressions to achieve optimal balance and create the house style.  In the single malt world, no figure looms larger than Ardbeg/Glenmorangie's Dr. Bill Lumsden.  The mind behind the Corryvreckan and wine barrel finishing has brought us some of the tastiest whiskies of the last few years and is always dreaming up new ways to make single malts better.  Because his whiskies are never the result of single barrels, but rather a multitude of different barrels all consisting of different ages, it is easy to see why Glenmorangie would be uninterested in a cask program - namely, their whisky is not meant to be drunk as such, so what would be the point?  That's just stating the obvious, but after talking with David I found out more about the headaches involved.  Everytime a whisky is bottled, there must be a label approved by the federal government, which takes both time and money.  If Ardbeg releases a new whisky for the entire world, then that's one label that needs to be approved.  If they do a single barrel bottling for us, then they would be obliged to do one for every other interested retail store, which would require a new license and label everytime.  This would bury them in paper work and licensing fees, taking time away from what they do best - make whisky.  The demand for single casks of Ardbeg would also be so high that it would likely drain heavy supplies of whiskies they planned on using for future blends, crippling their plans for exciting new products. The list goes on from there.

Independent bottlers like A.D. Rattray and Signatory can execute their cask programs so efficiently because that is there sole function - they buy the barrels, apply for the paperwork, bottle the whisky, and done.  They have that routine down.  American distilleries selling to American retailers have hired specific people to handle this process as well, creating whole new divisions in their companies, however, I'm pretty sure this is a domestic program only.  The fact that single barrel cask strength bourbon seems to highlight what we like most about the big flavor of American whiskey only makes the process easier.  Bourbon and rye are not rooted in the blend like Scotch whisky is.  Four Roses, Elmer T. Lee and many other bourbons offered single barrel cask strength expressions long before the cask purchasing program began.  Single malts are rarely offered as such because many barrels are not meant to stand on their own.  They are components in a formula, each whisky offering its own character to the overall flavor.  Let's face it, Glenlivet 12 isn't a single twelve year old whisky, but a blend of forty different whiskies of which the youngest is twelve years.  Even though it is the top selling single malt in the world, it's possible that any one of those whiskies bottled on its own might be very underwelming.

If you add on the fact that Scottish distilleries would have to hire more staff to travel the American countryside and meet every interested retailer, the odds against private cask purchasing become even smaller.  At the same time, I can't envision that Diageo is sitting too well with the fact that we've just sold a privately purchased 27 year old Clynelish that trumps any of their own expressions, or the fact that we've got a 28 year old Mannochmore coming this winter.  We're making money off of their brands and leaving them out of the equation.  Sure they sold the barrel originally, but I guarantee you they would have made much more (and charged much more) had they sold it directly to us.  If the future of American whisky retail is going to be sold directly from the barrel, then it would seem wise for the Scottish distilleries to find a way in.  However, like all industries, change comes slowly to the liquor world.  In this case, though, it's more of a regression.  The very first American whisky retailers bought a barrel and put it right in the middle of the store for easy access.  Wouldn't that be nice?

-David Driscoll



The Politics of Selection & Personal Taste

You'd be surprised how seriously people can take the selection on our spirits shelves.  Like other people use bestseller lists or box office sales to validate their own personal taste, some people take comfort or offense by merely perusing the available bottles in our Redwood City store.  If their favorite gin is represented, then I get complimented on my fine job as spirits buyer.  However, if they don't spot their beloved product among our modest offering, then it can be as if I have personally insulted them - especially if I am confronted about it.  "Why don't you carry Bombay Sapphire?  Are you really too good for Bombay Sapphire?"  You would think that answering that question would be perfectly easy, but one must be wary because it is a path full of landmines, a veritable egg shell walk. Let me explain.

Customer service is maybe the most underrated art of all time.  Everyday that I think I am providing quality customer service is a another day that I realize I really have so much more to learn.  Your emotional state must be prevented from interfering in your interaction and the feelings of your customer must be your only focus.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we don't feel it is on the same level as the other gins we are offering."  WRONG!  The customer's taste has just been insulted and they are deeply offended.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we simply don't have the space to add it to our selection."  Somewhat well played, but this still might not satisfy the customer or make them feel any better about the fact that a major liquor store is not carrying their brand of gin.  In fact, it might make them uneasy and insecure that we'd rather carry a bunch of gins they've never heard of instead.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we cannot offer a lower price than Costco and we want to be able to offer you the best price on it."  This answer usually works the best, but it isn't foolproof because sometimes they'll end up saying, "Well, I guess I better start shopping at Costco instead." 

The truth of the matter is that all three of those responses are factual.  As the spirits buyer, it is impossible for me to remove my personal taste from what we do and do not offer in our spirits selection.  In fact, my personal taste is exactly what I am getting paid for - it is the fundamental aspect of my job.  When I'm buying spirits at my desk, I'm using my own opinion of products to select what we sell at K&L and shape our department towards a certain taste.  When I'm on the sales floor helping customers, however, I have to be careful.  If a customer asks me, the gin buyer, what my favorite gin is, then I simply give them an answer.  "Try the North Shore #11, it's a fantastic gin."  No sweat.  However, it's not so easy when the question is: "Bombay Sapphire is my favorite gin.  I see you don't carry it, so does that mean you don't like it?"  The honest answer to that question is: YES!  It's not so much that I don't like it, as it is I don't think it belongs in our store.  On our shelf right now are at least ten artisan, hand-crafted gins that, in my personal opinion, blow Bombay Sapphire out of the water.  I like supporting small companies and small distilleries that make really good gin, rather than carrying the usual commercial options.  I also feel that our selection should be different from Safeway or the liquor store on the corner, or else why would you come specifically here?  Regardless of whether I feel our store philosophy is innocuous or not, this explanation is not something I can say out loud in this moment.  To eschew it at this point would be insensitive and reek of condescension, smuggery, and elitism.  It would be enough to turn someone off from ever shopping with us again.  It would be bad customer service.  Instead, I must resort to option #3: Costco sells it for less than we do.

What we offer in our selection of spirits should never be used as a commentary on anyone's personal taste other than my own, but the politics of selection and personal taste are very tricky.  Sometimes people ask you a question, but they're not really looking for a truthful answer.  It's the liquor store version of "Does this dress make me look fat?" Being a good liquor buyer means considering more than just your own opinion, however.  It can also mean making people feel comfortable with their own.   

-David Driscoll


Aberlour 18 Year Open In The Bar...

After putting aside the corked bottle I intially opened (see previous post), I finally got back together with a whisky I had previously met a few months ago.  Our own Aberlour 18 Year Cask Strength Single Barrel bottling has finally hit the shelves and is available for pick up and purchase.  Getting to taste this whisky without any sherry influence is a rare treat and this bottle doesn't disappoint.  The nose is a soft blend of malted barley, vanilla, and stone fruit with more on the palate.  I really like this whisky because it simply tastes like good, old fashioned Scotch.  No sweet toffee from the sherry wood, no wine cask enhancements, and no peat.  Just the barley and the used barrel aging slowly for eighteen years.  This dram needs a bit of water to tame the 53% alcohol, but once you dillute it down to the right strength, you get an old school single malt from one of Scotland's most beloved distilleries.  I hope you like it as much as I do.

-David Driscoll


Corked Whisky

Many people have experienced the funk of the dreaded cork taint when sitting down to taste their favorite bottle of wine.  You pull the cork and there it is, hitting you square in the nose - musty, dirty earth penetrating your nostrils, bristling your nose hairs.  The disappointment sets in as you realize that the TCA (short for the responsible bacteria) has likely ravaged the flavor from every molecule of the wine, rendering it useless and, more importantly, tasteless.  TCA cork taint can manifest itself in a powerful and obvious form, or be so subtle as to be nearly untraceable.  If a wine is almost tasteless, but no TCA aromas are present, the wine may still be flawed and affected.  A "corked" bottle of wine has nothing to do with the quality of the cork, but rather the bacteria growing inside of it - a cork that crumbles and breaks from age is expected, but not one that reeks of shower mold. 

While cork taint is an inconvenient, yet necessary part of wine bottling (unless you buy screwcaps!), few people associate it with whisky.  It is rare, but it has been known to happen.  For example, a few hours ago I opened a bottle of our new Aberlour 18 Year Single Barrel Cask Strength whisky and gave it a nosing.  My worst fears were confirmed when I tasted the malt and was left with a finish of stewed vegetables and dirt, rather than sweet grains and honey.  Remember, that TCA can ruin high alcohol products like whisky as well.  I've had a corked bottle of Bruichladdich "Rocks" before, but this was my first encounter since then.  Don't hesitate to bring a bottle back to us for testing if you're ever unsure about the flavor.  If there is cork in the bottle, there is aways the possibility of bacteria in the cork.

-David Driscoll


Clynelish 27 Year In My Hands...

Isn't that label beautiful?  It has our classic logo on it and A.D. Rattray labels have maroon coloring as is, so the partnership was destined to happen!  I'm always nervous that my selections won't be as spectacular as I remember them being, so I rushed over this morning to pick up my bottle of Clynelish 27 Year Cask Strength Single Barrel whisky and taste it once again.  Bottled at a whopping 60.1%, this dram has a massive strength despite being aged entirely in hogshead.  With a bit of water added, the nose is a pungent barrage of sweet grains, juicy stonefruit, and candle wax.  The palate is a hotbead of peach puree, oily textures, and heather with a spicy kick in the teeth on the finish.  I'm so happy to finally have this whisky in my own home to sit down with and really get to know.  I have now tasted it three times and each meeting shows me different flavors than the previous one.  These decades-old, unpeated, unsherried single malts are far more interesting in my opinion because they are dense, complicated, and unyielding.  It's like reading Moby Dick or Infinite Jest - intimidating and intense.  These things take time to unlock so I hope you're all up for the challenge.  Unfortunately, these sold out during our pre-arrival campaign so if you didn't reserve one I have no more to offer.  Please email me your own opinions as I am dying to see what others think!

-David Driscoll