Q: Were you a whiskey fan before owning a whiskey store?
Louis: When I bought the first liquor store, I was not a drinker at all. I had the typical training wheels experience; too much tequila, too much vomiting, stuff like that. So I stopped, from the time I was 22 to about 30, no drinking really, maybe a beer here and there, but not much to speak of. Then I bought the first store and my uncle was closing a restaurant at the time and had all this scotch open from the bar that he was kind enough to give to me. He had really nice stuff, so I tried it all with an open mind and I thought it was terrible. That was my first experience, I hated it. But at some point, vendors started coming in with bourbons to sample and I thought they were really good. We were selling more whiskey in the stores and soon started picking up single barrels. We were going down into Kentucky to choose them and I really fell in love with American whiskey. Soon after, a similar process started working on me with scotch. The single malt scotch business was exploding for us and I didn’t know anything about it. I thought maybe I should revisit since I now had some whiskey love under the belt. Of course, my reintroduction to single malt blew my mind and I was hooked. That was the start of the end. It’s funny how your tastes change over time.
Q: What makes whiskey special for you? What’s the magic in it?
Louis: With scotch, I think it’s absolutely magical the way you can have so many expressions consisting of the same three ingredients with such a huge difference in flavor profiles. With varying mashbills, American whiskey has a bit more flexibility so the products called bourbon and rye can have dramatically different recipes. So it’s not as surprising for that stuff to taste different. For scotch, I think it’s just amazing. How do you do that? How do you make it taste like that? I mean, there are answers to that question, but it’s still amazing. For American whiskey, I don’t get quite as geeked out. I do think there are some great ones, but I personally tend to drink more scotch.
Personally, I tend to get really turned off by the ones everybody wants. The kind of stuff we’re getting 10-15 calls a day for. There are other ones that’re really good that you can get every day, okay? They’re at an affordable price and you don’t have to offer me your kid for it. Again, sort of from a moral standpoint, that’s what turns me off to some American whiskey. And there’s some incredible world whiskey that I love too. Again, I used to love the Japanese whisky and when we could get it easily, I’d bring it home all the time. Love it, loved it, loved it. And then when people started getting crazy about it, prices started getting jacked up…I can find other stuff to drink that I like, especially in the scotch world. When I could bring home the Hibiki 12, it was an incredible bottle, reasonably priced, readily available, I’d bring it home all the time. It was great. And now we can’t get it and people are calling for it. I can find a lowland single malt I like just as much. Why bang my head against the wall?
Q: So if you were able to walk up to a bar and order a flight of whiskies, price or availability not being an issue, what would you pick?
Louis: It’s difficult, because it can vary and be situational. Price not being an issue, I was in a bar in Edinburgh or Glasgow recently that had a 56 year old Glenlivet I was very interested in trying- simply because of it’s age. It was $900 a pour and that’s outside of my comfort zone. The Van Winkle’s are nice if I’m going for American whiskey and they’re available, despite the hype. While I love some of the older scotches, I tend to find a sweet spot in the 18 year old, sherried whiskies. When I’m ordering a pour, I’ll typically look down the menu to see if there’s something I either haven’t had for a long time or that I’ve never tried. The Macallan 25 for some obscene amount per pour is usually offensive to me, but if there’s a $20-$30 pour that looks really good, I’ll get that if I’m treating myself and it’s my first drink. For the most part, I stay away from the really high end pours. We were in Ireland and there were a bunch of rare, Japanese whiskies that I’d never seen, so we did drop a few bills at that bar. If I’m out of town, I will always get pours we cannot get here, whatever it is, Irish or Japanese or scotch, or some distillery I’ve never heard of. Always. If I’m in town, stuff I can’t readily get or haven’t had for a while.
Q: Looking ahead in the next year, the next few years, what are you hoping to see?
Louis: I’m hoping people produce more good whiskey. It’s such a struggle to get some of the good stuff and there is a lot of crap being put out. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a whole lot of really young whiskey being released at inflated prices. I don’t know if they’re going to change the palate of the consumer or if people will continue to say “this is young whiskey, it tastes shitty.” There seem to be some people who like that young whiskey. If that’s what they like, that’s what they like, but my personal taste is not there. I think what they’re planning on doing is releasing these very young whiskies and then as they are able to, put out some older releases. But the problem with that is the brand is going to be tarnished and I don’t know if people will give brands a second chance after a bad first experience. If you get a bad bottle from a distillery, it’s pretty hard to go back and give them a second chance.
There is clearly a trend toward the elimination of age statements. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it will require more education for the shop and the consumer. While I wish we could hang on to the age statements, I understand this is the direction things are going whether I like it or not. My suspicion is that they’re going to start producing some really good NAS scotches and then slowly degrade in quality over time. They’re going to have to release the NAS and have people be at least initially saying “sure, it’s NAS but it’s good!” and then over time they will have license to degrade what’s going in the bottle and hope people won’t notice. That’s my suspicion.
If you’re asking me about other hopes and wishes for the coming year, I guess I also wish other shops would stop selling whiskey so that it would be more available to us. [Laughs] One can hope, right?