Category Archives: News and Info

Spirit Merchants and The Knowledge Gap

When I’m in a Wine and Spirits store, perusing the whiskey section, more times than not I’m approached by a store clerk that really doesn’t know what they are talking about. I don’t mean that to sound ugly because most times that’s perfectly fine (I know what I want or I’m just checking things out). However a recent encounter had me thinking about a customer scanning a shop’s inventory reliant upon a store clerk’s advice or guidance to make a purchasing decision.

Let me give you an example of what I mean and the reason I decided to write this post……

Last Saturday I was in a new section of town here in Franklin, TN, and I strolled into a beautiful wine and spirits store. I make this a habit wherever I go. I’m not always in need of something, but I don’t like to pass by a liquor store without popping in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ran across some real gems that many higher traffic shops have don’t stock any longer. This store in fact had every bottle of the Buffalo Trace Antique collection from 2010. Anyone that was upset they never got their hands on a bottle of George T. Stagg or William Larue Weller (from 2010) would be very pleased walking into this establishment. They haven’t been on the shelves at many of the better stores in town in more than 10 months and the 2011 releases are coming out as we speak.

While scanning the inventory a young store clerk approached me and asked me if I needed any help. I told him I was doing fine and complimented him on the selection (which was pretty solid). That started a conversation about some of the new whiskeys they got in recently. He was doing just fine, until he said the following……

Store Clerk: (Pointing to a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel) “See that bottle of Four Roses right there?”
Me: “Yep”
Store Clerk: “That is what they start with for Pappy Van Winkle?”
Me: “What?”
Store Clerk: “The whiskey in that bottle is the same whiskey that’s in Pappy Van Winkle. It’s just aged longer for Pappy Van Winkle. It’s great whiskey.” (I am NOT joking!)
Me: “Actually you are correct it is great whiskey, but it’s not Pappy Van Winkle…..” I went on to explain that Four Roses has 2 mashbills, and that Single Barrel happens to be their highest percentage of Rye. I also explained that it is one of, if not THE highest percentage rye of any bourbon on the market. The lesson concluded with explaining the Pappy, Van Winkle, and Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon line is all wheated bourbon with no rye at all. They are on two opposite ends of the bourbon spectrum.
Store Clerk: “Oh! That’s just what the owner told me.”

This is not unusual. I’d venture to guess similar exchanges happen all of the time at liquor stores across the country. I’m sure many of you have had these types of discussions. It’s not necessarily the store clerk’s fault that he didn’t know this information. It is however the owners fault for not either brushing up on his/her own knowledge in an effort to help the store’s customers, as well as for not working with the store clerk to improve his knowledge.

We live in the information age where a clerk can look up a quick reference to the products on their shelves in an instant. Spending a little time doing this builds a stronger connection to the store and to that particular clerk when a customer has a great experience. Even if the clerk did not know an answer to a question, stopping for a moment, excusing himself and returning with more information (using the internet) would be a great way to go above and beyond.

There are shining examples across the country where effort and care has been taken by good spirit merchants, but they are the exception to the rule. As a liquor store owner or manager, think how big a differentiator that kind of product knowledge can be for your shop in a sea of sameness. Now go do something about it.

My Suggestions:
Most obviously, if you own or manage a liquor store, be sure to educate and train your staff if you indeed have the knowledge and resources. If you do not then you must first educate yourself. Here are some suggestions.

1) Use your distributors that may have intimate knowledge about the products they distribute. I’ve talked to a few that do a very good job in knowing their products in and out and what separates them. In many cases they carry enough whiskey products they can do some comparisons so you have an idea of the ranges.
2) Subscribe to publications like The Whisky Advocate (formerly Malt Advocate) and Whisky Magazine.
3) Spend time on the internet reading blogs and sites focused on whiskey that your shop specializes in or that appeal to your customers. There are lots of resources out there.
4) Invite master distillers, brand managers, and distributors to come speak to your staff and customers. All of these people want their products sold. This is a great way for them to educate your team so they are more informed while also educating your customers.
5) Attend events like WhiskyFest and WhiskyLive to experience many of these products in one single, efficient location. Perhaps not very practical in light of the other suggestions, but if this is an option for you, there are few places where you’ll be able to try so many products at once.

While you are doing all of this, bring your staff in on the act. Give them the opportunity to learn along with you whenever possible. There are probably an infinite number of suggestions that can be made here to help improve a store’s product knowledge. The above is a good start.

As customers, what suggestions do you all have that could help stores serve you better?

More Reviews Coming Soon!

Thanks to a number of you that have been checking in lately. I’m alive and well! I’ve had a lot of summer travel, weddings, and tons of visits from family these last few weeks. It’s been great fun, but I’ve got a number of reviews in the queue ready to hit soon. With a renewed focus I should have a couple out next week. Please check back soon!

As an aside I’ve been enjoying lots of Mint Juleps and Bourbon and Branches this summer. It’s a reminder that a whiskey with some ice on a hot summer day is as refreshing as anything you can possibly drink. I’ve also made a few rye-based juleps lately with Bulleit and Rittenhouse that were stunners. Give it a try!



Critical Beach Business

I am heading for a week vacation to beautiful Charleston, SC – Isle of Palms to be exact. But don’t fret, I’ve got a couple of new reviews in the queue that I hope to have out over the coming week.

One is a great new unaged rye from a small distiller in California called 1512 Barbershop Rye. It’s one of the best unaged or “white” whiskeys I’ve had – fruity, crisp and full of great rye character all at the same time. Stay tuned for that.

In addition I have a little value bourbon faceoff between Very Old Barton (Bottled in Bond) and Old Forester.

I hope you all have a great week, and please forgive me if I’m a little late to respond to comments.

Drink your whiskey!


Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

Friday, April 29th, Buffalo Trace is making an announcement of sorts at their distillery concerning a new product they are unveiling. It’s called the Single Oak Project and it appears the folks in Frankfort, KY have been mighty busy.

To sum it up, 10 years ago Buffalo Trace hand selected single trees and had them coopered into two barrels from each tree. They identified 7 critical areas they believe make up a bourbon’s “DNA”, and varied these factors with each barrel. The result apparently is 192 different barrels of bourbon they will bottling and releasing.

Check out the website here. While not what I expected them to announce, I am certainly looking forward to trying as many as I can. Let’s all hope we can actually find them on the shelves.


Buffalo Trace has a release out this morning which explains things in a little more detail.

-Drink your Bourbon!

New or Notable Whiskey List

This is definitely my shortest post ever. I’m never brief, so this is a first for me.

I thought it might be helpful to put together an ever evolving list of some of the new and notable whiskeys that I’ve had lately. This has been suggested by a few visitors, but I’m just getting around to it. Some whiskey on the list might have received a strong review from me. Others may be whiskeys I’ve yet to fully review but still impressed me. With new American Whiskeys hitting the market every month, this list is what has my attention most. I fully intend to add additional lists as well over time.

So with that, here’s the Whiskey List. It will sit in the top navigation from here onward. I appreciate any and all feedback. If this is not a helpful resource please let me hear it.

Drink your whiskey!


WhiskyFest (2011) Chicago Recap

What’s not to like about 250+ (probably close to 300 really) pours of whiskey in one place on one evening? Add to that a gourmet “spread” of food in one of the great cities in America, and you have the recipe for a good time.

The above was a reality for me last Friday (April 15) at WhiskyFest (WF) at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. John Hansell, Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate, and his devoted team did a mighty fine job of hosting this years event. It’s not cheap to attend, but whether you are a newcomer to whiskey or an experienced vet with a 1000 bottle “bunker”, WF has something for everyone. It’s a great place to try many whiskeys from around the globe at one convenient location.

Now that I’m a back to reality I thought it might be helpful to do a little recap of what I enjoyed about the event. Of course there were also some new whiskeys being poured, which always warrants a discussion.

There wasn’t much NOT represented at WF, whether from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and of course the U.S. If you pay the up-charge ($185 instead of the regular $135) you are able to enter 1 hour earlier (5:30pm-9:30pm instead of 6:30pm-9:30pm) on a VIP ticket. The distillers bring some pretty rare and expensive bottles to pour during the hour prior to regular admission. For me, it’s worth the head start.

Right off the top, I was really impressed with the shear number and quality of whiskeys many companies brought to WF. Buffalo Trace for example brought practically their entire family of whiskeys, including of course their namesake bourbon. Julian and Preston Van Winkle (Buffalo Trace connection) were pouring the Van Winkle 12 and Pappy 15/20/23. Even a bottle of BT’s new E.H. Taylor was tilted frequently during the VIP hour. BT also poured their entire 2010 Antique Collection throughout the evening. Pretty damn stellar.

Heaven Hill also brought practically every bottle in their lineup as well. This included two Parker’s Heritage Collection bottles (Golden Anniversary and 10yr Wheated Bourbon). Others with a great quantity of the “good stuff” inlcluded High West, Four Roses, Jefferson’s, Ardbeg, Koval, and Samaroli, and independent bottler (with some damn fine stuff), to name a few.

So what stood out? Please keep in mind there are very few “new” and mainstays in American Whiskey that I’ve not tried. By no means were these the only great whiskeys represented at WF, but they stood out in a big way for me:

Angel’s Envy Barrel Strength: This one might have been the best whiskey of the show. The port influence noted in my review from two weeks ago was not in any way compromised. In fact, the intensity was greater due to a much more syrupy and viscous texture. While a bit less easy drinking due to the proof, the chewy dried fruits, sweet, rounded flavors and spice was dialed up in ample measure. If pressed a bit, I’d say it pushes close to 9.3-9.4 territory. Look for this one maybe towards the end of this year.

Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel: This one was really unique with a blast of honeysuckle right off the top. I went back twice just to get all I could of this one. The fruitiness is scaled down a bit in favor of the floral, herbal aromas and flavors, but it’s a winner. One cool note; Four Roses, in an effort to make sure other pours didn’t throw off your tasting glass, washed out each glass with a splash of their yellow label. How’s that for thorough? This one comes out in May – be ready for it.

Redbreast 15 Year: My favorite Irish Whiskey has always been Red Breast 12. I think the 15 just knocked it off the top for me. The 12 is a refined beauty with lush fruit, honey, syrupy sweetness and well integrated oak. Well the 15 is a bit of a bully with a darker, denser, richer center, and a wonderful spicy mid palate on through to the finish. It’s a little more like The Pogues to the 12’s Chieftains (bad Irish Music reference). To me it’s less sweet, drier, and more intense. I loved it! It’s available now.

Thomas H. Handy Rye (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection): Sadly I did not get an opportunity to taste this one fully with the 2010 release. I will be picking up a bottle ASAP. While the Sazerac 18 is a beautiful rye with an elegant balance to it, the Handy is another bold bully like the Redbreast 15 above. The rye flavor pops with with spicy zest anchored by fruit and sweetness. What’s also cool is you can actually find this BTAC release – imagine that!

There were many other great whiskeys I tasted, but these stood out to me. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Finally, one of my observations about whiskey lovers is they are almost always people worth getting to know. WF did not disappoint in the people department. I was fortunate enough to interact with some folks that comment regularly on this blog or that I interact with on Twitter and other sites. That was honestly the highlight for me. I also appreciated the time that John Glaser, Jim Rutledge, Jimmy Russell, Lincoln and Wes Henderson, Craig Beam, Julian Van Winkle, David Perkins, and many other industry folks spent just shootin’ the breeze. Not necessarily pushing their wares, but rather talking shop, the industry, barrel making, distilling, and a great whiskey at the end of a long day (however you like to drink it).

Well that’s a wrap on Chicago WhiskyFest for me. As you can probably tell, I had a great time. Hopefully I didn’t sound like a ad for WF – it’s expensive and may not be for everyone. But if you have an opportunity and would like to attend check out WhiskyFest online. The San Francisco and New York events are later this year.

Drink your Whiskey!