Monday, 6 October 2008
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.
The drinks business has helped to create a number of different bodies that award prizes each year for a growing number of categories.
The International Wine and Spirit Competition is one of the most famous and highly regarded organisations in this sector. They judge many hundreds of different categories with a who's who of the UK wine and spirits trade included among the judges.
In the USA, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition awards are highly regarded, while the Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute also has its supporters with its database of over 1400 spirits (including 290 vodkas and just 2 absinthes). Personally I am not aware whether the judges in all these competitions and tastings really know their absinthes, or maybe even how they should be served, so I remain just a little bit sceptical about some of the scores and awards given by some of these organisations. Reading this thread on the Wormwood Society, it seems that others are even more sceptical.
I am less sceptical about the awards given in Pontarlier to the best absinthes at the Absinthiades. October 2008 saw the eighth such event. The tasting event held here (as part of a weekend of activities) is unusual in that the judges who make up the professional jury include many of the who's who of absinthe: including David Nathan-Maister, Peter Schaf, Claude-Alain Bugnon, Markus Lion, etc. It is for this reason that I have always thought of the Absinthiades as being the Absinthe Oscars with the best absinthes selected by those who really know their absinthes. The weeekend's events are covered on the Les Amis du Musée de Pontarlier website: scroll down on that site for details. Here are accounts of previous events in 2005 and 2006
The Absinthiades awards three Golden Spoon prizes: two for distilled absinthes, and one for macerated absinthe.
The full 2008 results (copied from the French absinthe forum, Heure Verte) are as follows:
1. Versinthe 45°
2. Ulex ordinaire 70°
3. Absinthe des Alpes 55°
4. Green Bohemian 55°
DISTILLED CATEGORY - JURY N°1
1 - Fée XS Suisse 53°
2 - Doubs mystique 65°
3 - Angélique 68°
4 - Verte Maison du Pastis 60°
5 - Pernot 68° Blanche
6 - Libertine Blanche 58°
7 - Libertine 55°
8 - Libertine Amer 68°
9 - Blanche de Fougerolles 74°
DISTILLED CATEGORY - JURY N°2
1 - Artemisia Clandestine 55°
2 - Fée XS Française 68°
3 - François Guy 45°
4 - Versinthe Blanche 57°
5 - Kübler 45°
6 - Duplais Blanche 68°
7 - Opaline 68°
8 - Charlotte 55°
9 - Verte de Fougerolles 72°
10 - Blanche Maison du Pastis
11 - Roquette 1797 75°
Some absinthe lovers may be surprised by some of these results, but the judges are remarkably consistent here. It is interesting to note that La Clandestine 55%, otherwise known as Recette Marianne, won the Golden Spoon for Claude-Alain Bugnon for the fourth consecutive year. This recipe is only very slightly different from the original La Clandestine and is made specifically for the French market where the regulations on fenchone content are more restrictive than elsewhere. And La Fée XS Suisse won a Golden Spoon for the second consecutive year. Two fine absinthes, both produced in the birthplace of absinthe in Couvet, Switzerland.
I suppose that the French may be feeling a little green that the Swiss "bleues" keep winning their top absinthe awards. What do my readers think?