White Christmas

We gave it everything we had on Friday. We showed up early, we filled the shelves, we opened the doors to an already crowded parking lot, and then we proceeded to get run over by a critical mass of holiday shoppers. I've never seen K&L as busy in my nine-plus years working there. At one point there was a fifty person line that wrapped all the way around the store into the spirits aisle. It was thrilling and we were running on pure adrenaline at that point. I blew off my lunch break, put on my game face, and powered through. There was only one problem: we were open on Saturday, too. I was pretty much running on fumes by the time we opened yesterday. I felt like an NBA player who had spent his energy reserve winning game six of the finals, yet still had to show up for a game seven. When I finally left the store at 4 PM to make the trek east towards Modesto, I saw my colleague Ralph in the parking lot putting some wine in his car. We just looked at each other, embraced wholeheartedly, and let out two huge sighs of relief. It felt like we had won a championship. We had survived.

We saw an increase in foot traffic at our Redwood City store this December for two reasons: 1) we're still growing as a company, and 2) we had a large competitor down the street that closed its doors this past summer. A lot of that seasonal business came our way by default (as did some of its employees who now work for us), but a lot of frustration came along with it. These seasoned drinkers of white spirits found themselves dumbfounded by our selection: mostly gin, tequila, mezcal, a few rums, and a handful of vodkas. They were blindsided by our Christmas whiteout.

"Where's your grappa department?" an older gentleman asked me at one point.

"Department?" I thought to myself, "I think we only carry one single grappa at this point."

"What do you mean? How can you run a liquor store without a decent selection of grappa?"

Now imagine this exact same conversation, but replace the word "grappa" with aquavit, moonshine, schnapps, raki, ouzo, sambuca, kirschwasser, and any other regional white spirit I might be forgetting here. These are the tough discussions I had to have on a daily basis. I had to explain to people that the spirits they grew up drinking—the ones they thought were still just as popular today as they were back then—are being phased out by modern culture. There's been a generational shift in the market. Brown booze is hot. White goods are not. Unless you're selling to a bar where they make copious amounts of cocktails, selling white spirits is an issue right now for distributors. Cheap vodka still moves, and if you find the right tequila you can do some serious business, but the problem for most of these spirits is rooted in the way we eat today. Grappa usually comes at the end of a long meal. It's a traditional way to end a multi-course affair with a small cup of espresso. I'm not sure if you've looked at how the younger generations are living today, but I can tell you one thing I've noticed: long, slow, traditional meals aren't a part of the millennial lifestyle. Kids around the Bay Area today eat pre-packaged salads before heading to the gym, then they grab Indian food or Thai takeout to eat in front of the TV after work. The only way they're going to touch grappa is if it's part of a fancy cocktail.

If you think this is just a metropolitan issue, or the result of some gluten-free, yoga-induced Bay Area fad, I'm sorry to inform you: it isn't. I've had this same conversation for years with Calvados producers, Cognac distillers, and Armagnac-drinking farmers in France. They're desperately trying to create pre-dinner apperitifs with their spirits because of the impact that France's new blood-alcohol driving limit has had upon consumption. The French are still drinking Champagne to start the meal, and you'll have to pry the red wine from their cold, dead hands. But that final glass of Armagnac? The post-meal shot of Cognac? That's something a number of responsible and health-conscious Frenchmen have decided they can live without if need be. While that's probably a good thing for France's general public safety, it's going to have an effect on what the market can bare. I often think about Christelle Lasseignou from Domaine de Maouhum when this topic arises; the girl who gave up her Parisian life to head back out into the country and help her parents with their family farm. How many other generations of Norman, Charentes, and Gascogne youngsters will want to devote their lives to traditional and increasingly-outdated distilled spirits when there's an exciting new world out there made more accessible by the internet each day?

Here's the part no one thinks about though: who in the hell is going to keep importing this stuff to the U.S.? I don't mean the cheap stuff. There's always going to be a market for cheap booze. I'm talking about the good stuff. The high end shelf. The rare bottles people ask me for about once every two years. Who's going to take a large position on grappa in a frigid white spirits market when the public is clearly clammering for Scotch? Who's going to fill a whole container with premium Scandinavian aquavit, put into custom American 750ml bottles that can't be sold to any other market if they don't work out (because the rest of the world uses 700ml bottles), and put their financial livelihood into a huge stock of white goods that sell by the bottle rather than by the case? Anyone? Anyone want to loan me $50,000 to do this? I can probably sell it all by the year 2033, so you'll get a return on your money in about seventeen years, so long as I don't have to close any of it out. Don't forget the months of formula approval, label regulations, and various licensing that will have to be done. We'll have to pay an importer to do that as well, so that's going to eat into your already tiny margins.

The scary part about this development for me is that I love grappa. I like aquavit, too. Hell, I like to drink—period. I love the traditions, the heritage, and the festiveness that surround these elixirs. But despite my taste for digestive white spirits, I can't lie: I drink grappa maybe once or twice a month. A single bottle can last me an entire year, if not years. Ultimately, that's the biggest barrier for white spirits: consumption. Gin is thriving right now because a single bar can go through multiple cases in an evening's worth of gin and tonics. But a $75 bottle of artisinal Swiss eau-de-vie? We sell maybe two bottles a year. Usually around Christmas time when someone walks into the store and needs one for a gift. Unfortunately, unless you're a seasonal retail operation, you can't make a living on annual purchases.

Making next year's white Christmas a merry one is going to take some work. I'm going to think about this for a while.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll