California is Stiff Competition

I just finished having lunch with my local LVMH rep and one of the main topics of discussion was about how the California market is cutthroat when it comes to small batches of booze. California is the biggest state in the nation and, from everything I've been told by brand managers and sales people, we drink a lot of hard stuff out west. There are many, many key accounts - as in stores who get the good stuff for being solid supporters. When Sazerac has to divvy up their Pappy Van Winkle they have to divide the booty between us, Beltramo's, D&M, BevMo, HiTimes, Wally's, Cask, Ledger's, SFWTC, and a ton of other retailers that are just as serious about selling their hooch as K&L. Then you've got to include all the trendy bars and cocktail lounges. On top of that, the Bay Area is one of the geekiest places in the world about wine and food, if not the geekiest, so there's an educated and passionate base of spirits fans who keep up with all the latest news and release dates.  People live to drink hard-to-find, special, in-the-know liquor around here. You've got a large number of top liquor stores all competing with each other to get the booze and then an even larger number of customers competing with each other to buy it.

I read a lot of whisky blogs. I peruse the message boards and the comment fields. Take the Whisky Advocate Blog from yesterday, for example, or even SKU's post about the Four Rose's Small Batch 2012.  You've got people chiming in from all over the country, mentioning availability about this bottle in their neck of the woods. I get emails from customers who don't even shop with K&L, but read the blog and are looking for guidance regarding their own local selection. According to them, there seems to be a good amount of the Four Roses left in other parts of the country. I can tell you right now that this is not the case in California. Our local distributor, Wine Warehouse, got their supply of Four Roses about three weeks ago and we blew through our allocation in less than two days - and we never even put it on the shelf! That was merely through a mention on this blog and our insider email list - it all sold online in a flurry. When we sold out, I checked the stocks at other local stores and directed customers to various other locations that still had a bottle or two. Now it's gone forever and still there are plenty of people who want one, but couldn't get one (although I think Wally's still has a bottle left for $100 if you want to pay a little extra).

I can't even imagine putting something like Pappy or Stagg on the shelf. It would be absolute mayhem if that happened. There are literally fifteen to twenty people who call here every day to ask about these bottles, and another five to ten who send emails. Yet, I'm hearing from customers on the East Coast or in the South who can apparently just walk in to their local store and get these bottles off the shelf. Some stores even have last year's special editions as well! Even if I never mentioned the Pappy to our insider customers, or took it off the website for in-store-only sales, we would still sell through it in a day or two simply because of the amount of calls we get from people simply inquiring. They would be texting their friends if we said "yes," telling them to call the store immediately and we would be buried under a sea of requests (like when our website got overloaded during last year's Pappy sale).

I don't know if there are simply too many retailers, bars, and restaurants that are eating up our allocations or if it's just a greater public demand, but I can tell you right now that the demand in California for Bourbon seems to be crazier than any other region I know of. I don't know this for a fact, but it's what I've surmised by reading the accounts of other websites.  When it comes to the BTAC or Pappy releases, as well as the Parker's Heritage stuff, our demand is so great  that we have to raffle off the right to buy one.  That's right - you have to actually be granted permission to give us your money. It's nuts! However, I heard from a customer last week who can get a bottle of Jefferson's Ocean at his local shop in Virginia whenever he wants. It's just sitting there he told me. As we all know, that bottle sold for $1000 on our auction site because no one had any in California.

If you live in California, you definitely have access to some of the greatest booze in the world, especially with so many quality retailers working hard on your behalf. It appears, however, that you need to be a bit more diligent to actually get it. There's some stiff competition out here. The demand has been so hairy with the Four Roses 2012 that I'm actually relieved it's over.  When customers ask me if I can get get them a bottle of Pappy 15, the answer isn't technically "no." It's just that the odds are very, very low. As long as there's a chance, I'm willing to offer it to every loyal customer and they're more than happy to take it. Sometimes, however, it's simply easier to just say, "we're sold out," than to manage a wait list that will inevitably leave some customers out of the picture.

Now that John Hansell has given the Four Roses his personal seal of approval (ranked higher than anything in the BTAC), I'm sure there will be even more demand for the whiskey all over the U.S. It won't do anything to affect our sales out here, however, because we're already sold out for the year.  We may have a reputation for being laid back in California, but we're anything but relaxed when it comes to Bourbon. We're rabid. We're insatiable. We're very competitive and we're always on the hunt for more.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll