Why The Legal California Retail Spirits Tastings Suck

I remember the day well. New California legislation was about to be passed, making the tasting of spirits in the retail environment a possibility. We were totally pumped. For my first few years at K&L the idea of tasting Scotch before you bought a bottle was strictly forbidden. Now, finally, we were going to get the chance to actually pour spirits in the store for our customers. This was going to be huge! What a wonderful advantage for the discerning whisky customer! There were just a few minor details we needed to keep in mind:

- only three products could be poured at any one tasting

- only 1/4 oz. pours of each spirit were legally allowed - meaning only 3/4 oz total of consumable booze

- retail employees could not participate, only distributors, importers, or brand employees

- tastings could not be held on the same day as other tastings, meaning if we do wine we can't do booze

- tastings must be free of charge and the booze must be supplied by the designated pourer

Other than that, we were free to unleash our newly-entitled booze freedom onto the public! Wow! This was going to change everything! Except for these quickly discovered details:

- distributors, importers, and brand reps do not work on Saturdays or Sundays. That means we couldn't do tastings on the weekend days.

- Friday nights were available, but most specialty wine stores have special wine tastings on Friday nights because that's when customers like to come and drink. We can't have two tastings on the same day, nor were we willing to cancel an event that allowed customers to have multiple glasses of wine in exchange for a few paltry sips of liquor.

- That left Monday through Thursday for tasting events. Unfortunately, most boutique liquor stores are not open all night long. That means we would have to conduct the tasting between 5 PM and 7 PM when we close. That's right in the middle of rush hour traffic. Who was going to sit in gridlock so that they could rush over to K&L for a 3/4 oz tease?

The initial response to our K&L spirits tastings was strong, mainly because we have an incredible customer base of dedicated spirits fans. It became a kind of social meet up. However, the tastings were not always that exciting. You might get a brand rep who doesn't know shit about dick, making the enjoyment of the product rather paltry in comparison to an enthusiastic and knowledgable brand manager. After the novelty wore off the K&L tasting attendance trickled down to a few die-hards, some cheapskates looking for free booze, or whoever happened to be in the store at that time, unknowingly finding a glass thrusted into their hand in order to increase the turnout of the event.

What a bummer.

Now that I'm in my sixth year in the booze business I've discovered one very important fact: great experiences help sell booze. How many times have we had a customer tell us: "We were in Italy last summer and we had this wine and it was just outstanding. Is there any chance you can order it?" Nine out of ten times the answer is "no." However, it wasn't the wine that made that experience, anyway. It was being in freaking Italy!! That's what made that wine taste so damn memorable. Italy!!! Not the wine. The experience. The food. The atmosphere. The people.

I'm over trying to create tasting opportunities. I'm now fully dedicated to creating memorable experiences. That's what the Salon tasting was all about. No more pedantry. No more stuck-up, educational, structured tastings with lessons and rules. I wanted to have a party. A party that made people think, "Wow, what a great time that was drinking Elmer T. Lee at the Salon." That's what engrains a true connection to booze – a good time out. Hence, we've put the K&L spirits tastings on hold, barring the occasional guest that's simply too good to pass up. What we will be focusing on now are events. Fun, enjoyable, social events that promote enjoyment rather than increase pretense.

I've got a few lined up for the next month that should please the most dedicated whisky fans, but intrigue the casual drinker as well.

June 1st is Ardbeg Day, isn't it? ArdBog is the big anticpated release, right? I think we might be throwing a giant party. A party that will create memories. A party that will involve FULL pours, FULL enjoyment, and involve retailers, brand managers, and customers together, on a weekend date during the evening hours that most working stiffs like myself can actually attend. No 1/4 oz pours. No three bottle limitation. No rush hour time schedule.

This is the future of whisky outreach – putting in actual work on behalf of one's clientele. Not some stupid, bullshit tasting license that does very little for retailers, brands, and customers alike.

It's more work on our end, but it's worth it. That last Salon event was an absolute blast. This next one should blow the roof off the place. I'm willing to make it happen. Will you come and join me?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll