Monday, 6 October 2008

Absinthe, New York



Three weeks ago, I returned to New York for the first time since 1996. I was there on non-absinthe business, but with a weekend between meetings I went to see relatives in Brooklyn (including the branch of the family that had been separated from mine since 1900, but that's a whole story in its own right!). I also couldn't resist the opportunity to make a few spontaneous bar and shop calls and so on a Saturday night, my cousin, Aline, and I found the Brooklyn shop in the photo above.

From the outside, it didn't look like the nerve centre of one of the biggest absinthe vendors in the USA. And even on entering the store, it seemed more like one of those old-time liquor shops where the customer can't actually feel the merchandise before paying for it.

I was looking for Kamal Mukherjee, the owner of the shop, but more importantly the brains behind one of America's largest internet liquor vendors, Drink Up New York.



When I announced my name and my involvement with La Clandestine, we were immediately welcomed (almost as if we were re-meeting the long-lost relatives I had just met) and invited back-of-shop. And although I really didn't plan it this way, it was obvious to me that the non-confidential parts of our discussion could make a very interesting article for my blog. So we embarked on a fascinating exchange of information and views, more or less as chronicled below.

Hi, Kamal. Great to meet you. Could you tell us about something about yourself, your previous career and what led you to set up the current business?

I have been a computer geek and alcohol lover for most of my adult life. Setting up a website to sell booze seemed like a perfect way to bring these two worlds together. However, taking a few steps back, I was born and raised in Calcutta, India, got hooked on software at a very young age, and continued to live and work in India for quite some time. Moved to Singapore for a brief period and have been living in the USA for about ten years. During the IT meltdown in the early 2000's when many of my friends were being laid off, I managed to gather about $1,000 from my savings account and set up my consulting practice from the kitchen table of my rented apartment in New Jersey. The business picked up but there was always some uncertainty. For guys like me who had enjoyed the IT boom of the '90s, the honeymoon was definitely over. I was continuously looking for a "Plan B," did real estate investment for a while but moving from software to “hardware” was a big challenge. So the search for the dream job continued. Eventually, while hanging out with some of my friends who owned a liquor store, the idea of owning a store and filling up the shelves with world-class wines & spirits seemed more and more appealing. So in mid-2006, I pulled money from all possible sources e.g. the equity in my house, a cash advance from the credit card company etc etc, and bought a store in Brooklyn.

And at the end of 2006 www.DrinkUpNY.com was launched (managed and operated from the basement of the same building where a team of packers processes the orders for courier collection several times each day).

Without giving away commercial secrets, what is Drink Up New York's point of difference, and what are your business goals?

There are indeed a lot of online wine & spirits stores. Our focus has always been to offer products that are hard to find, give them an affordable price-tag and ship for free when the customers spend at least $100. We certainly want to be the “go to” place for alcohol lovers.

Within the spirits category, where does absinthe stack up in your overall sales?

It is amazing to see how well absinthe does as a category. There are far fewer brands of absinthe compared to scotch, rum etc, yet it outsells them all. Yes, Absinthe is our largest spirits category.

Do people who buy absinthe buy other spirits as well? If so, what types, what brands?

That happens all the time. Often people would buy Absinthe with Rye, Gin or Liquor. There is really no fixed pattern but absinthe consumers often venture into other categories.

You've been selling absinthes for more than a year now? Do you see the market for absinthe still growing, or has it slowed down at all?

We have been selling Absinthe since it became legal in the USA (with the initial launch of Lucid) and the market is yet to show any sign of slowing down. Many new brands have been introduced in the past year and each one of them is doing well. I think the USA is the last large market for absinthe (Editor note: apart from China, Kamal is probably right).

One or two other Manhattan-based shops aren't quite so bullish about absinthe sales: why are you doing better than them?

We do most of our absinthe sales via the web. Because we offer more variety and other absinthe-related accessories (spoons, glasses, etc), customers certainly seem to enjoy the "one stop" shopping experience they get with us.

How do you see absinthe trends developing? Towards more expensive brands, to less expensive brands ... or maybe the market is polarising in both directions?

At present consumer curiosity is a big factor. However, when you see customers keep coming back to the same brand again and again, there is a winner. While we all have a budget, brand loyalty is extremely important for this category. There is a very strong fan following for many of the producers. Consumers have been importing these brands from Europe for decades and now when they can legally buy them in the US, the excitement is really heart-warming.

Like all categories, absinthe will eventually plateau but we are quite a long way off that point. Lower quality absinthes would certainly flatten the market growth (so neither of us would welcome that!). Some of the (higher quality-focused) US spirits producers have already started working on Absinthe. This is really a very exciting time for the Absinthe category, both as consumer and member of the trade.

Any time a new drink comes out from a known US producer, it creates a buzz. Absinthe is no exception. We have seen that with St. George and I'd expect this trend to continue with the upcoming US brands as well. (Editor note: of course Lucid is also owned by a US-based company although it is produced in France).

How can suppliers work with you (and people like you) to grow and develop the category?

We are the first point of contact for end-users and for the most part customers don’t hesitate to provide feedback. Keeping close contact with the retailer is always a good practice. When there is a customer complaint or concern, provide us with the information and tools so that people don’t lose faith in the brand.

What should the industry be careful about?

There is indeed lot of mystery about Absinthe as a product. We must always discourage the drug myth.

..................................................................................................

For me, this was a great first meeting. I told Kamal that I had worked in India for three years (1996 to 1999) while selling brands like Remy Martin, Cointreau, The Macallan and Krug Champagne. Afterwards I recalled meeting in 1996 with the owners of probably the biggest liquor shop then in India (Shah in Mumbai). They and Kamal share the same entrepreneurialism, sure, but also gave the same warm welcome that is second-nature for some, but alien for most of us in the West.

Of course I've also got a background selling absinthe over the internet, although we have now closed US sales from the the shop I was most recently involved with (absinthe-suisse.com). So it was really interesting for me to see how Kamal has taken over this business so well ... and apparently so effortlessly!

As far as absinthe is concerned, it is great for the industry to know that Kamal obviously cares so much for the sector. With his internet business, he probably interacts with more absinthe consumers each day than most "absinthe salesmen," so his knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for the category is crucial. The USA absinthe business is already off to a great start, thanks to professionals like Kamal. Now if only we could hand-craft a few more like him ...

I've asked Kamal if he would mind answering any questions my readers have, so if you have questions to ask him, this is the place to do so. I doubt that he will reveal confidential figures but his views of and vision for absinthe are fascinating to explore. Over to you.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

More sycophantic self-serving twaddle from the MossMeister! Did you also interview the hostess selling duty free on your flight?

Keep up the good work!

Alan said...

Typical.

If I write an article that is perceived to be negative, I get hate mail. If I write an article that seems to be polite, I am accused of sycophancy (try writing that after a few drinks).

Kamal is an important and influential guy for the entire absinthe business. To try to put him on the level of the hostess on my flight is absurd. Her legs were a lot nicer.

But thanks as ever, anonymous.

Lokahi said...

Hi Alan,

I appreciate the article. I've relied on DrinkUpNY for my absinthe for over a year and their service has been excellent.

Kamal has been more than helpful on several occasions and he will always have my business, especially since DrinkUp will now be offering l'Clandestine and, I'm sure to follow, Jade's NO.

Hey, if people don't like it, they can open their own online store and do a better job. I'd welcome it!

Alan said...

Thanks for your comments, Lokahi!

The Absinthe Review Network said...

Ah yes, a few questions for Kamal:

1.)What's this I hear about a DUNY Myspace page? You should divulge some more info on when it will be up!

2.)I realize you cannot divulge sale numbers, but do you think when the Jade NO arrives it will outsell even the Lucid at the time of its debut (my prediction: No.)?

3.)How can a business owner like you look like such a nice guy? This a cutthroat business, you know?

Thanks in advance for your time! Your service has always been top-notch, my friend!

Ben Lopez
Founder, The Absinthe Review Network

Alan said...

Kamal has asked me to post his response:

Thanks for the kind words Ben.

1. We do need to get back on that project. Last few months have been hectic with the launch of our second website but we are planning to have MySpace live by the end of this year. We will be sure to inform you.

2. Jade as a brand most certainly has a great fan following. However, due to limited availability, it won’t out-sell Lucid on a national level. However, in our store it is expected to outsell most other brands in the initial few weeks.

3. I guess my Hair dresser is doing a great job ….. thanks dude.

The Absinthe Review Network said...

Great business sense AND a keen sense of humour? I see you becoming a global monopoly in the next 5 years, without a doubt.;)

Keep up the great work!

Ben

Anonymous said...

hello,

I'D like to introduce you a brand new website from one of the most furnished absinthe shop in Paris, France. He now sells on internet and has rare absinths such as Wormwwod or Belle Amie!
the link: www.cavesduroy.fr! very affordable prices too...

Alan said...

Merci, anonymous.

There's another very good Paris absinthe shop that I covered in a previous article:

http://realabsinthe.blogspot.com/search/label/France

Anonymous said...

This blog is like a Frenchman's towel...unused. Is absinthe really "so 2008"?

Can we have one of your Mystic Meg prediction posts for the New Year, Alan? Get your crystal ball out!

Alan said...

"Get your crystal ball out!"

Coming soon, Anonymous. I wouldn't want to let my loyal readers down ...

Anonymous said...

Kamal is selling low-thujone absinthe? Why do you call this Real Absinthe Blog, and then talk about fake absinthe like Lucid.

Alan said...

Welcome back, Anonymous.

Champagne is not defined by having to have a minimum number of bubbles per bottle.

In the same way, absinthe is not defined by having to have a minimum thujone content.

There is nothing in the 19th century distillation manuals that specifies a minimum thujone content.

I have tasted very good absinthes that have less than 1 ppm of thujone. I have also tasted very bad "absinthes" with less than 1 ppm of thujone and one equally bad "absinthe," that apparently had over 300 ppm of thujone. Thujone content is not a determining factor in what makes a good absinthe.

So would you like to specify with hard facts why you think Lucid is fake absinthe?

Anonymous said...

facts about absinthe in America that the marketing guys won't tell you:

Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) regulation at 21 CFR 172.510 means that "absinthe" must be thujone free.

The term "absinthe" may not stand alone on the label; it must be accompanied by additional or dispelling information so as not to appear as the class and type designation. 27 CFR 5.42(a)(1).

This new breed of "absinthe" has no thujone and may not even call itself absinthe !! (but only a fanciful name with the word absinthe included) Is it real?

Brands like Lucid proclaim "Prohibition is finally over" and yet no law has actually been changed. This version of absinthe has been technically legal since the 1970s!!

Anonymous said...

Oh yes it must be just like the old stuff then. I must rush out and buy a bottle and commune with Rimbaud, Verlaine and Hemmingway. La Fee Verte awaits!

It is such great news! The maker of Lucid absinthe has suddenly discovered that old absinthe didn't have much thujone in it after all! So what he is selling is just like the old stuff. What a timely "discovery"! Almost unbelievable! What great luck!

Alan said...

I suspect that Anonymous knows very well that Lucid IS an absinthe, and can be described as absinthe ANYWHERE in the world (apart from France where it would have to be called Extrait d'Absinthe or similar).

He/she is probably also well aware that the FDA definition of thujone-free means less than 10 parts per million of thujone. Not zero.

But as I already commented: "Thujone content is not a determining factor in what makes a good absinthe." Indeed what makes a good absinthe is the same as what makes a good Scotch, a good Cognac etc. TASTE.

Which absinthe(s) do you like, Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

If you drink absinthe for the taste alone, fine. Just don't expect to dance with the Fairy :-) What irks me is there may individuals out there who want the true absinthe experience and end up falling for this rather dishonest marketing scam of low-thujone absinthe

Alan said...

What absolute rubbish, Anonymous.

If there is any dishonest marketing scam, it is by those vendors who hype their "absinthes" by hinting that they may possibly produce interesting effects and, even, something akin to ... "hallucinations."

Which absinthe(s) do you like, Anonymous?

Alan said...

Anonymous writes: "Kamal is selling low-thujone absinthe? Why do you call this Real Absinthe Blog, and then talk about fake absinthe like Lucid."

So not content with the libellous attack on the manufacturer and seller of Lucid, Anonymous is also accusing Kamal of dishonesty?

No wonder then that Anonymous won't reveal his/her true identity: he/she's afraid of someone taking legal action!

Anonymous said...

Could there not be more than one "Anonymous"? This tawdry affair scuppers any remaining hope that Stateside thujone regulation over absinthe will be rescinded. This closes the door to the real artisnal absinthe range, and allows in only non thujone absinthe mutants. Shameless blog..

Anonymous said...

Alan, unlike you I am not pushing any brand of Absinthe and have no ulterior motives, so don't ask

Alan said...

"Could there not be more than one "Anonymous"?"

Virtually all today's visits to this page have come from two locations (and one of them is mine!).

"This .. allows in only non thujone absinthe mutants."

Anonymous refuses to read: US-legal absinthe is NOT non-thujone.

Anonymous said...

I have not attacked anyone and certainly not this Kamal, I simply inquired as to what type of absinthes he sells. And you resort to childish threats? Your attitude disturbs me, Alan. Consider me inaccessible

Alan said...

"Consider me inaccessible"

Done. I'll miss you.

Brian Robinson said...

Anon (or should we just go by your real identity, maybe absintheur, or Tom Boyd, etc),

I'm surprised you're back! Haven't you sullied your name enough already? Maybe that's why you don't display your real name?

I doubt it would be a surprise to you if I told you that many of the 'high thujone' brands you keep trying to defend tested at much much lower levels than claimed. So, not only are they fooling the consumer into believing thujone is a drug, they also are fooling the consumer into thinking they are buying something that has 'high thujone'. Lastly, they are fooling the consumer into believing they are actually drinking absinthe!

What's also not much of a surprise is how many of those same products are now claiming much lower levels of thujone than previously claimed. They hop on any bandwagon they can to make a buck. Does that sound like honest business to you?

I'm sure you've read this before, but for those people who are less educated on the subject, I recommend they read several of the following blogs. They are written by someone who has experienced first-hand, how underhanded people like 'Anonymous' are.

http://absinthedrinkers.org/The%20darkest%20shadows%20only%20make%20the%20light%20that%20much%20brighter

Once you've read that one, go back and read the Marketing blog and the 'Psychology of Absinthe' blog.

It will give a very good idea of what the reality of the situation is.

Give it up. You're losing the battle. Why? Because people care about truth. And the truth has come out. People have been duped into believing myths about absinthe by unscrupulous marketers. Those marketers, and their proponents such as you, can't produce a SHRED of evidence that your position is the right one, whereas the people who spread the truth about absinthe can produce mounds of it.

Have a wonderful weekend, Anon. ;)

Alan said...

In case Brian's link didn't work, you can read all the articles he mentions here:

http://absinthedrinkers.org/blog/1

Anonymous said...

From another "Anon"

"What's also not much of a surprise is how many of those same products are now claiming much lower levels of thujone than previously claimed."

So Century Absinthe is now Decade? Did I spell that correctly?

Ciao Hound said...

Excellent article Mr. Robinson!

It seems the Czech swindlers have marked themselves into a corner.

Having alienated themselves from modern science with false and antiquated claims, and having subsequently seperated themselves from legitimate markets, it seems they are faced with eating crow or watching what little is left evaporate.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. Same old, same old from the thujone fan club I see. I'm actually a little disappointed that Dr. Arnold has yet to be brought up.

Regardless, the bizarre and wild claims of thujone induced mind bending are bogus on every level. Eat some stuffing spiced heavily with sage. Feel it? Feel your mind bend? No? Didn't think so.

So why is it logical to believe that absinthe (that contains any level of thujone) would cause any different result? It isn't. However, if you don't believe me do this:

Whiz 200+ bucks down your leg by buying some. Drink your fill and wait.

I'm sure you'll find it to be just another lame f*** around.