All photos by Maggie Kimberl.
It probably comes as no surprise that the holiday season is pretty busy at the liquor store. It’s not just the regulars stocking up on holiday gift packs, either. This is the time of year when people who don’t usually shop at liquor stores stop by and ask for advice on what kind of wine pairs best with their turkey or what kind of bourbon they should put in the egg nog. What you probably don’t know is that your local liquor store is preparing for these holiday shoppers for months in advance, setting up tastings and training staff and coordinating special events. Lots of people are pulling lots of overtime hours to make your gatherings merry.
“The real holiday prepping begins in mid-October,” says Binny’s Spirits Consultant Joe McEwan. “That’s when we begin to receive the bulk (pallets) of holiday gift sets that immediately get set up after Halloween. However, that’s also when we start to see BTAC [Buffalo Trace Antique Collection] begin to roll through. This year was a touch different, due to delays we didn’t get it until closer to Thanksgiving. Allocations depend greatly on store traffic and no matter how much we get, it is still never enough. We get one bottle for about every 20 or 30 people who ask. It gets stressful dealing with both of those on top of the onslaught of Thanksgiving and Christmas shoppers at that point.”
At the stores near my home there are shelves of gift packs near the front doors. Gift packs are a nice touch for holiday gifting because it’s a little something to go with a bottle and it’s also a lot easier to wrap a box than it is to wrap a bottle. I even saw Manhattan and Martini cocktail gift sets at my local Costco.
Shopping for gifts at the liquor store is nothing new or unique, but in the epicenter of bourbon during the bourbon boom many people are looking for a special bottle to gift this holiday season. On nearly a daily basis you can bet someone is walking into their local beverage alcohol retailer and telling a sob story about how they have to get a bottle of Pappy because this is probably my great aunt’s cousin’s neighbor’s last holiday season on Earth and it is her favorite. So how do stores handle it when the customers come in looking for something that has already been sold out for weeks?
“We recommend they take a look at the secondary market, if money is no object,” says Westport Whiskey and Wine owner Chris Zaborowski. “For the more down-to-earth customers, we ascertain their budget, their tastes and then jump in with recommendations. Many times, when the budget is $100 or so, we focus on providing two bottles to combine their total price. We do not have one or two specific brands. It depends as much upon the person’s answers to our questions as it does to the personal tastes of our staff members.”
In the midst of these daily requests for special allocated bottles the staff are also handling requests from non bourbon drinkers and making sure you get everything you need to make your gatherings just right. This often includes wine tastings or wine and food pairing seminars. At Westport Whiskey and Wine alone there are beer, wine, and whiskey tastings several times a week through the end of the year.
“We do several different tastings throughout the months of November & December, across a range of styles and categories,” says Zaborowski. “However, something we do every year is a wine tasting focused on wines for the Holiday Table. This is a selection of wines that we feel are affordable and will pair well with the traditional menus. And we always do a great Champagne tasting just before Christmas, and a “Bubbles” tasting in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.”
Meanwhile in the Chicago area. McEwan reports: “We have multiple tasting events and seminars going on in each store. I recently had a fantastic Glenfiddich tasting focusing on their IPA Cask and Project XX which might be the best Glenfiddich I have had to date. Black Friday I had a tasting set up for Novo Fogo Cachaça as well. I really like seeing things like this. It’s important to be able to highlight the guys starting to make a stir on the market and challenge palates.”
For those looking for a special gift, the liquor store is a great place to look. “We host bottle engravings and bottle signings for bourbon brands as gifts. We are offering a special promotion for Gift Card purchases that provides up to four Riedel wine glasses or four bourbon glasses for a $100 purchase,” says Zaborowski. Anybody can pick up a bottle of bourbon on the way to a gift exchange, but getting it engraved or even picking up some new barware shows you really planned in advance.gift boxes at Westport Whiskey and Wine
You’ll often find private barrel selections (the store chooses its own barrel and typically offers special pricing) at your local liquor store in bourbon country, and if you have a bottle shop near you that specializes in bourbon and other whiskeys they are likely to have a few as well. Westport Whiskey and Wine has a multitude of private barrel selections:
- Maker’s Mark Private Selection #5
- Knob Creek Rye, the first barrel commercial release
- Old Forester
- Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve
- Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
- Elijah Craig (2 different barrels)
Binny’s Has Several Private Selections Including:
- Kelsey Creek by Sazerac
- Plantation 15 year old Trinidad Rum
- Gordon & MacPhail Scotch
- Whistle Pig Old World Cask Finished 12 Year Rye
This holiday season when you stop in your local bottle shop, take a minute to notice all the hard work that has gone into making your “quick stop” easy and your festivities more festive.