A Skeptic's Interview
Have you ever Googled yourself? It's not something I recommend doing if you're even close to any sort of public figure. I'm a drop of water in a gigantic pool of industry professionals, but my outspoken demeanor can lead to a bit of controversy from time to time. Message board posts, blog retorts, Yelp reviews, etc, can all pop up when it comes to the subject of the K&L spirits department. Every now and again I have the itch to see what the internet has to say about the job we're doing. Sometimes reading the responses makes my gut turn and I feel sick. Sometimes they make my day. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they make me sigh. There's a lot of talk going on.
Rather than email me with these responses, however, or even the store, most critics will usually operate behind the veil of anonymity. They'll pose questions they know I won't answer. If there's a misperception at work I'll usually try to jump in and help clear up the confusion. However, that's not normally the issue. There's nothing to hide here in the K&L spirits department. We're not trying to fool anyone or move some private agenda. I'm pretty open with how I feel, so why not simply ask me if you've got an issue?
I've got an idea. I'll ask myself.
David - You turned off all comments on the blog a while back. Some people feel that this frees you from any sort of rebuttal or retribution for your own views. What do you have to say about this?
Great question, David! There are many reasons why I did this. Number one - no one was really commenting anyway. It was mostly robots posting information about where people could find a luxury purse or the latest designer shoes. However, because the K&L Spirits Blog is a place where K&L customers can go to find out more information about what they're purchasing, I didn't feel it was appropriate to allow outsiders a voice. We're operating a business, not a forum. On top of that, while I feel comments can lead to great conversation and insight, I see a lot of hijacking going on around the internet. What I mean is that people with an ax to grind use the opportunity to advance their own issues on someone else's space. They might have a blog, but no one is reading it, so they use the comment field as a way to bring outside attention to their website or their own opinion. That really bothers me. I am also quite sensitive to feedback, so allowing detractors to have their say would definitely alter the way that I write. With the comments turned off I can write for myself, rather than cater to the opinions of commenters. If people feel that I'm taking the easy way out, that's fine. If you've got something to say you can always email me, but that would mean providing me with your contact info. It's a lot easier for most people to say what's on their mind if they can do it anonymously. Plus, some people want their retort to be public, so that they can say, "Gotcha!"
Some people feel that you exaggerate or are perhaps too enthusiastic about your opinions. Do you feel like this will eventually lead to customers growing tired of your consistent praise or "gotta-have-it" emails?
One thing I hate about the wine world is the point system. Me sharing my genuine excitement is annoying to people, but buying something based on a stupid number is tolerated? That's crazy to me. The booze world is full of people who take themselves way too seriously as it is. Excitement is seen as naivete, but treating booze like a finals exam is seen as professional? When you sell on points you can always say, "that wasn't my opinion," but selling based on your enthusiasm requires you to put yourself out there and deal with the response. When it comes to "customers growing tired," this is something I feel can only happen if you deliver a bad product. I don't think people will ever get tired of having a fantastic selection of great booze. I think customers will respond, however, when you sell them a lemon. I remember reading a forum post about our Port Ellen when we bought that cask last Fall. People were shitting all over it before they had even tasted it because of the price. Then the LA Whisky Society tasted it and gave it a solid "A" review and suddenly everyone got quiet. They put it up against the standard release Port Ellen and some members liked ours better than the official version (as did David and I, but who's going to believe us?). Part of the problem is that we're hyping whiskies no one has tasted but us. We don't send out samples to other reviewers because we don't rely on anyone but ourselves to sell this stuff. That makes people suspicious, however, because they think we're just trying to make money. And we are trying to make money! But I don't think we ever do it at the customer's expense. Money is never our primary concern. We like to buy whisky. It's fun. We can't buy more whisky, however, until we sell what we've got. The more whisky we sell, the more we can get. It's not like we're lining our pockets with profits. It's all going right back into the program, so if you support K&L we try to keep bringing you more stuff with that support.
By purchasing the cask of Port Ellen wasn't K&L feeding right into the ever-increasing price of whisky right now? Isn't that something that you yourself have spoken out about? Some people might find that hypocritical.
That's a tricky question. If you're talking about the Port Ellen cask it was either going to us or back to Diageo. We thought, "well, it might as well be us." At least that way the money made was going to support a smaller retailer like K&L who would use the profit to send us back to Scotland in search of more whiskies that more people could enjoy. Plus, the whisky is delicious. Find me someone who doesn't like it! I've had nothing but rave reviews from the people who purchased a bottle. I think the biggest misconception here is that we're in any sort of control when it comes to price. We didn't set the price of the Port Ellen. Douglas Laing did. It wasn't negotiable. It was a "do you want it or not" type of decision. We're a whisk(e)y shop and it's the job of a whisk(e)y shop to buy whisk(e)y. If you buy everything the market offers, then you're a pawn for the industry and people think you're just another profit-hungry merchant. If you say "no" to everything based on the expense, then you've got no whisky to sell. Again, going back to the lemon comment, I don't think we've ever offered anything that's out of whack with what most specialty stores are offering. At least I hope not. We're not marking these whiskies up any more than we usually do. When David and I go to Scotland we look at what we think we can sell and there's not one producer who isn't marking up their booze right now. Not one. To take a stand against egregious, profiteering price increases is one thing. That's what I've done from time to time when the moment warrants it. But that just means that I'll help people to find products that do provide value. It means that if you want my opinion, this is it. It doesn't mean that we as a store are going to stop selling Diageo products because they're more expensive - unless we don't think they'll move, like when Talisker 18 came in at $150. That was simply us saying, "We can't sell it at that price, nor will we try to." That goes back to selling people a lemon for what they're paying. However, we're not going to prevent people from buying any product we think offers quality. The Spirits Journal is just ammunition for consumers to make their own decisions based upon what we personally think. We might suggest something else, but we still have Johnnie Black on the shelf, you know what I mean?
You tend to put pressure on people to buy quickly with some of your promotions. Again, don't you feel like this is only adding to the hysteria surrounding things like Pappy Van Winkle?
This is where outside readers can misunderstand what's happening locally around K&L in California. The Spirits Journal has turned into a defacto booze news site simply because we update so often. I'll post a notice that Black Maple Hill is back in stock and say, "Hurry up! BUY BUY BUY!" because that's literally what you have to do if you want to get a bottle. I really don't give a shit about making it happen faster, so there's no inside need to move things quickly. It's not like if I didn't say "BUY! BUY! BUY!" the Black Maple Hill wouldn't sell just as fast. It's still going to sell out within 48 hours, even with a one bottle limit. I'm just trying to stress to customers the urgency with which they need to act because they've asked me to let them know when it's back in stock. Outside readers assume we're exaggerating because maybe they can go down to their local shop and get the BMH whenever they want. It doesn't work that way here, however. Remember that the K&L Spirits Journal is only referring to what happens at K&L. The hysteria is already there and you should see what happens when I don't do it. My inbox will fill up with, "YOU SAID YOU WOULD POST WHEN THE BLACK MAPLE HILL CAME BACK AND YOU DIDN'T!!!! NOW IT'S SOLD OUT!!!" People depend on those posts for information about their shopping. That's literally what the blog is for. People ask me every single day, "How will I know when it's back in stock?" "Read the blog," I say. If the situation at K&L doesn't gel with what's going on elsewhere then so be it - this isn't the Texas, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky Spirits Journal. Again, I do my best - my very, very best - to get people to try new things, give up on the same old options, and maybe branch out. Try some sherry! Try some rum! Try something inexpensive and of value. But it doesn't mean I'm going to turn down my allocations of Pappy, BMH, or any other whiskey simply because they've become ridiculously overvalued. It means I'm going to do my best to help people who want one get one. That means, "BUY! BUY! BUY!!"
You seem to have an answer for everything. Don't you feel like some of the criticism here might be vaild?
I'm a loud, talkative, dramatic person. The blog is a mirror-reflection of my own personality. It's an honest one, as well. There is and has never been any attempt to profit by misleading, or misrepresenting any product at K&L on my behalf, or on the behalf of David OG (as far as I know), while writing on this blog. I think that people have a natural tendency to assume others are out to get them. I also believe that, since the creation of the comment field, people have a general inclination to shit all over each other just for the sake of it. I fight that battle everyday. If I sell you a crap whisky, then you can shit all over me all you want. When that happens, I'm ready for it. I've got my rainjacket and galoshes. At least you're dealing with a real person here.
Any other questions? If we're gonna do this, let's do it. Make sure you've got your full name and contact info on the email.