Latest blog entries - Beverage Journal, Maryland and Washington, DC Wed, 07 Dec 2022 23:03:02 -0500 en-gb Big Bats Café BigBats_Exterior_HOME.jpg

The Major League Baseball season may be over, but the crack of the bat can still be heard at Big Bats Café in Stevensville. This is the latest eating and drinking establishment that we are spotlighting in our ongoing series on themed bars and restaurants around the state of Maryland, and it’s certainly one of the most fun to visit. 

Big Bats Café is a 100 percent baseball-themed sports eatery that some locals have come to call “Little Cooperstown.” Owned and operated by Stephen “Steve” Garland since its opening in March 1997, Big Bats is closing out its 25th anniversary year with the same great food, drinks, and customer service it’s been known for from the get-go. Much credit has to go to Garland, who has always set the tone and pace at the business he still has a passion for at age 73. 


Big Bats Café owner and operator Stephen “Steve” Garland.

“I grew up with great parents,” he said, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. “I was taught early on that there is only one way to do things . . . the right way! After spending four years in the military after high school, I went into business for myself doing construction work. I eventually started doing custom homes. I learned through that business that you can’t afford not to do things right the first time. But that’s in every business. You don’t cut corners on anything. I know in today’s economy, you would want to. But you can’t do that. You still have to have the best of what you put out there.”

That means a menu of food items made mostly out of all-fresh products, including bar wings that have won multiple local awards. The menu is separated into sections with such baseball-themed headers as: Coach’s Choice (the specials), The Starting Lineup (appetizers), Bullpen (burgers, hot dogs, and cheese steaks), Field of Greens (salads), Sluggers (sandwiches and subs), Pinch Hitters (side dishes), and Grand Slam (main entrees). And the kids’ selections are touted as “The Little League Menu.” The kitchen staff also makes their own wing sauces, soups, salad dressings, and more.

As for beverages and spirits, Garland noted, “We have 24 beers on draft. We have over 40 different craft cans and bottles of beer [including Atlas Brew Works’ Bullpen Pilsner, of course]. We do our Orange Crushes with fresh squeezed orange juice. We have seasonal mixed drinks that our wait staff will recommend to people. In fact, we have some new selections that we’re working on right now, because the weather is about to change.”


But it’s the theme that keeps the customers coming in. In Garland’s view, there’s nothing like good food, drinks, and America’s Pastime. “The restaurant speaks for itself,” he said. “Anyone who really likes baseball, they are pretty much in awe when they come in here with all of the memorabilia. There’s a Nolan Ryan baseball jersey over here, a Pete Rose jersey over there. There is a Johnny Bench jersey on display. We have a room that has nothing but Baltimore Orioles stuff in it. I’m an Oriole fan, and we’re in an Orioles area. Chairs hang on the ceiling from the old Memorial Stadium, and there are Earl Weaver and Brooks Robinson signatures on them. I have an infield painted on the floor of the bar. The legs of our barstools are made out of baseball bats, and the seats are bases.”

He continued, “We have 27 TVs throughout the restaurant. We have a large outdoor seating area that holds about 140 people, with three TVs and a bar outside, too. We have advertisement signs on the fence all around it that makes it look like a minor league ballpark.”


And regardless of whether it is pennant race time or the off-season, Big Bats Café draws a healthy mix of locals and out-of-towners who either visit specifically because they love the place or are in town for other reasons and stumble upon the Café as a happy surprise. Garland remarked, “Just this past weekend [Garland was interviewed right at the start of the recent Astros-Phillies World Series], we were inundated with Philadelphia Phillies fans. They kind of took over the place for a while. We’re located near a large venue that does a lot of weddings from all areas and different parts of the country.”

So, why a baseball theme as opposed to football or hockey or sports, in general? Garland was quick with his answer: “Because I just love baseball. Period! I started playing amateur organized baseball at the age of 40 and played all the way until I was 67. To me, it’s the greatest sport in the world -- one that if you play the game right, it can also teach you in so many ways how to live your life the right way.”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal. 

Images by Jade Nikkole Photography

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) December 2022 Editions Tue, 22 Nov 2022 12:08:36 -0500
The Irish Inn Irish-Inn_HOME.jpg

“The restaurant business, to me, is more about people than it is about money.  You want to see people having a good time. It’s nice to see them all.”

So says Christy Hughes, owner and operator of The Irish Inn at Glen Echo in Montgomery County, Md. All the “all” he is referring to is his surprisingly diverse clientele who frequent this authentic pub and restaurant not far from the posh hamlets of Bethesda and Potomac. 

Much of that customer diversity can be attributed less to The Irish Inn’s menu and beverage selection and more to its live music programming throughout the week. Hughes remarked, “On Tuesday nights, we have traditional Irish music. So, we get a lot of younger folk in, as well as some older people. On Wednesday nights, we have more Irish folk and rock, so it’s almost all younger. On Sunday evenings at 4:30, though, we have live jazz and 99 percent of the people are over 70, even over 80! Starting the music at 4:30, our older customers can stay for a few hours and be home by 8 o’clock.”


Christy Hughes, owner and operator of The Irish Inn at Glen Echo in Montgomery County, Md.

This is the tenth in the Beverage Journal’s 2022 series on theme bars and restaurants. In past issues, we have profiled everything from a sports bar to a pirate bar to a magic-themed tavern and restaurant. It was inevitable we would get around to spotlighting an Irish pub, and few pride themselves more on authenticity than The Irish Pub at Glen Echo. 

So, what makes a place like Hughes’ establishment an authentic Irish pub and restaurant as opposed to one of the more chain-like places that shall remain nameless? Hughes was quick to answer: “The least amount of shamrocks you can put out! No, seriously. The key is to just make it real – real wood, real floors, old pictures, and good food and drinks. And we try to hire as many Irish staff as we can. That’s getting harder and harder to come by, and we have some great staff from other places in the world. The problem is our people don’t want to leave anymore. They’re doing so well in Ireland!”

He continues, “We do pride ourselves on having a fun, fun place. We’re also kind of out in the country. When you drive out to us, you almost feel like you’re driving in Ireland to get here. It’s like you are stepping a bit back into history.”

The Irish Inn at Glen Echo has a plethora of history – from a family home in the 1930s to a biker bar in the ‘80s. It was The Inn at Glen Echo in the ‘90s. It re-opened in 2003 as The Irish Inn and has been offering great Irish food and beverages ever since in its quaint setting, combining a traditional Irish pub with a white tablecloth restaurant. Indeed, it offers a half-dozen private dining rooms that are perfect for many occasions.


The fifth of eight children, Hughes was born in Ireland and attended Catering College in Athenry, Co. Galway where he learned all aspects of the hospitality industry. After working for a number of years in his native Ireland, he emigrated to the Washington, D.C., metro area in March 1974, sponsored by his sister. In November of that year, he had begun working as General Manager of The Dubliner Irish Pub on Capitol Hill.

Hughes and his wife, Libby Byrne together went on to become co-owners of Ireland’s Four Provinces in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of D.C. A few years later, they opened a second location in Falls Church, Va. They eventually jumped on their current property when it became available, and the rest is local food and beverage history.

Hughes comments, “I’ve been in the business for a total of 57 years. It’s all I know. I’m just lucky in that I like people, and I hope it shows. It’s just nice to go and sit down and have a drop of whiskey or a pint of Guinness and talk to some American customers. American people are very nice and very different. They tend to tell you exactly what they think!”

And his overall business philosophy? “Be nice and be fair to people. You don’t let people walk all over you. But you never walk over a customer. Without the customers, you’re out of business.”


Hughes and his staff definitely had that lesson reinforced to them over the past two-plus years marked by COVID-19. “Just getting people to come to work was hard,” he recalled. “Although we were very lucky in that we had great staff who did everything they could to help us stay open. But wearing masks and still being nice to everyone . . . it’s just been different. It’s just something we never dealt with. Before, if we hit a stretch where business was bad, we always found a way to make it better. With the pandemic, there just wasn’t much you could do. People didn’t want to go out.” 

But from out of hardship came new ideas and even an expansion of the business on-site. Hughes concluded, “We were luckier in that we were able to place 100 seats in the parking lot. If we didn’t have a parking lot, if we didn’t own the property, we’d be out of business now. The tents and the seats in the parking lot saved our life! It was the best thing we ever did. Now, customers have started going back inside big time. And that’s nice. If it’s nice out, we can have the music outside. But if it’s not, we can still have it inside. I give thanks to my wife, who is smarter than me. She said, ‘We have to get serious. We have to put seats and tents in the parking lot.’ And I said, “Libby, I’ll never do that.’ And she said, ‘Too late, I’ve already bought them!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal. 

Images by Home Vision Photography.

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) November 2022 Editions Tue, 22 Nov 2022 11:36:13 -0500
Halloween: October 31st Halloween.jpg

Most scholars agree that Halloween as we know it originated some 2,000 years ago, when Celtic people in Europe celebrated the end of the harvest and the start of a new year in a festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”). People also believed they could commune with the dead more easily during that time, lighting big bonfires to ward off spirits, according to The American Folklife Center.

The Celts also believed that the spiritual communication on Samhain made it easier for Celtic priests, or druids, to predict the future, according to History. To appease the deities, they built bonfires and sacrificed crops and animals. Villagers also attended the bonfire ceremonies wearing animal heads and skins as costumes.

Nowadays, many of us associate bats with Halloween — and that has its historical roots, too. The Druids’ Samhain bonfires attracted bugs which, in turn, tempted bats to come enjoy a tasty meal. In later years, various folklore emerged citing bats as harbingers of death or doom. In Nova Scotian mythology, a bat settling in a house means a man in the family will die. If it flies around and tries to escape, a woman in the family will perish instead.

The Romans conquered most Celtic territory by 43 A.D. and brought their own fall festivals with them at that time, according to History. Their October celebration called Feralia also commemorated the passing of the dead. Another holiday, Pomona, honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. That’s one reason people often bob for apples during Halloween festivities.

Fast forward a few centuries, and the festivals that would become Halloween evolved. Several Christian popes attempted to replace “pagan” holidays like Samhain with their own religious observances. By 1000 A.D., All Souls’ Day on November 2 served as a time for the living to pray for the souls of the dead. All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, honored the saints on November 1. That made October 31 All Hallows Eve, which later became Halloween.

Despite the new religious focus, people in Old England and Ireland continued to associate the end of October with the wandering dead. They set out gifts of food to mollify hungry spirits, and as time wore on, people began dressing in creepy costumes to go begging for the treats themselves. The practice was called “mumming,” and looked pretty similar to today’s trick-or-treating.

The holiday we celebrate today really started taking off in the middle of the 19th century, when a wave of Irish immigrants left their country during the potato famine. The newcomers brought their own superstitions and customs to their new homes, including the jack-o’-lantern. But back then, they carved them out of turnips, potatoes and beets instead of pumpkins.

Trick-or-treating skyrocketed in popularity by the 1950s, when Halloween became a true national event. Today, over 179 million Americans celebrate the holiday — and spend about $9.1 billion annually in the process.

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) October 2022 Editions Tue, 04 Oct 2022 19:49:20 -0400
Bard’s Bistro Bards-HOME_Oct22.jpg

Bard's Bistro Serves Dungeon Masters and Commoners Alike

These days, people will sit around a bar or restaurant and go back and forth about everything from sports to politics to the Kardashians. At the new Bard’s Bistro in California, Md., most of the customers are bandying about who is going to be Dungeon Master and what each players’ ability scores are going to be. Yes, Bard’s Bistro is a “Dungeons & Dragons”-themed eating and drinking place. Actually, it is meant to cater to gamers of all types and persuasions. But “D&D” more than anything. 

Owner Rebecca Ali opened Bard’s earlier this year as an extension of her High Tide Games store that she has been operating since March 2013. During a recent interview with the Beverage Journal for our ongoing series on themed bars and restaurants around the state, she remarked, “What makes this different is that I already knew many of the people who would be my customers before opening. Yes, they’re my customers. But I know them like they are family. I know that sounds cliché. But I really feel connected to this group of people. So when I was looking to come up with the concept for the restaurant and figure out the menu and everything, I wanted to have food and drinks that I would be proud to serve my family. It’s been a journey, but I’ve stuck with that [basic philosophy]. I’m a part of this community, and I want to make it better.”


High Tide Games welcomes gamers of all ages and playing abilities. It features a large open space for them to learn, play, and compete in card games, board games, role-playing games, and table-top miniature games. The store also offers a separate room for holding private games, parties, or classes. Ali wanted Bard’s Bistro to be just as inviting. And, indeed, the interior feels like you have stepped into your favorite game of “D&D.”

“Everybody knows about ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’” Ali said. “It’s a table-top role-playing game. It’s very fantasy-themed. We have a big community here locally of ‘D&D’ players and it’s growing. A lot of younger kids and people have gotten into it, and even that crowd is growing. The whole ‘Stranger Things’ [a popular Netflix show that has incorporated the game into its overall story arc since debuting in 2016]. phenomenon really put it into overdrive. When I was going to expand my business and open the restaurant, I thought, ‘What better way to connect the restaurant to the store than to make it a Dungeons & Dragons theme?’ One of the most popular things in ‘D&D’ is at the beginning of the game, you go into your local tavern. You’re sitting there, somebody approaches you, and they give you a quest to go on. It’s a part of the game, and it lends itself well to some fun in the real world.”

The theme has led to fun and creative business choices for Ali and her crew, too. The menu design is one example. There is the “Sharpshooterie Board” instead of the charcuterie board for an appetizer. Other food selections include the Adventurer’s Salad and the Barbarian Pretzel. 

As for beverages, the fun continues with some equally fun libations. “With people here for several hours, serving drinks is a good idea,” Ali stated. “They can relax and not have to worry about driving five minutes later. The drinks are fairly new to us. We just got our liquor license last month [this interview was conducted the last week of August]. I’m trying to stick to what a D&D tavern would be like. Some of the beers that I have on tap are not your traditional domestic beers. I don’t have Bud Lite or Blue Moon or any of that stuff. I have things like a Smores stout and a vanilla barrel ale and a blood orange IPA. These are all drinks you might find if you walk into a tavern in a D&D game.”

She continued, “Then, I have some bottles of what you’d call ‘mead,’ which my distributor told me, ‘We don’t sell mead very often. Everybody that’s tries it doesn’t sell it.’ And I’m like, ‘I feel like I can sell it.’ And [laughing] we’ve been through cases of mead! We have a scotch ale that has a really high alcohol content, but it’s smooth and people are really loving that one. I also have some wines I’ve brought in from the local winery, Port of Leonardtown. And our mixed drink menu has been a lot of fun. We’re serving them in potion bottles like you would have in a game. In some games, you buy a potion, you drink it, and something would happen. So, we’re doing fairy bottles and Alchemist’s Fire and the Potion of Healing. There’s so much you can do with the theme that it’s really fun.”


And how did Ali find the process of obtaining a liquor license? She was quick to answer: “Here in St. Mary’s County, it is a process. But if you go through it step by step, it’s not impossible. There is training and background checks. There is a petition and you have to have the community sign off on it. There’s lots of paperwork. And then you have go before the alcohol beverage board, which is made up of elected officials. It was a very formal meeting and a bit intimidating. There is an administrator for the board, and she sets up the initial meeting and lays out everything you need to do. When you have questions, she answers them for you. So, she was really helpful. It was just a matter of going through all of the procedures.”

From a distance, one would assume that Bard’s Bistro’s clientele is somewhat limited. But that is not the case, according to Ali. Yes, she was able to start with an already loyal customer base. But in the months since opening, she and her staff have noticed a growing diversity among the paying public.

“Mix is a good word for our customers,” she said. “People come into the store to play games. They are usually there for several hours at a time. And every day of the week, it changes. Wednesdays are D&D. Fridays are Magic the Gathering [a strategy card game]. Sundays are Pokemon. Every single one of those events that happens every week has a different crowd that it draws in. Pokemon tends to be younger. D&D is sort of all across the board. Magic is mid- to late-20s. Board gamers tend to be older. Also, we are right near a Navy base. So, we are getting the lunch crowds from the base. I’ve also noticed a lot of people wandering in from the community because they’ve heard our food is good.”

Looking ahead, Ali expressed positivity as her most pronounced real-life super power and ability. Part of her charm is that she never considers herself a business person. Her background is actually in computer programming. But she sounded very much like an entrepreneur when she offered this bit of advice: “One thing that someone told me early on, and it’s stuck with me, is ‘Just focus on making money.’ That sounds silly. But it’s really easy to get caught up in ideas and lose sight of how to make those ideas happen, which is by having money. Whatever it is you are doing is fine . . . as long as you are making the money!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal. 

Images by Natalie Grace Photos.

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) October 2022 Editions Tue, 04 Oct 2022 19:10:09 -0400
Turp’s Sports Bar Turps_HOME.jpg

As part of our ongoing series of theme bars and restaurants in and around Maryland, there is no more prevalent theme in this state or any state than the classic sports bar. And one of the best is Turp’s Sports Bar & Restaurant in Baltimore. Located in a historic Mount Vernon brownstone and named after one of the original managers whose last name was Turpin, Turp’s has been wooing Charm City sports fans since opening over a decade ago with a large selection of beers and cocktails and a food menu that includes everything from pizza, calzones, and chicken wings to sandwiches, subs, and create-your-own burgers.

Running the place for the past three-plus years is General Manager Brad Bloom, who grew up in the industry under the tutelage of a father (Jay’s Restaurant Group founder Moe Bloom) who’s been in the bar, restaurant, and catering biz for over four decades. Bloom believes Turp’s reaches far beyond the casual and die-hard Ravens and Orioles fans.

“One of the great things about Turp’s is that it’s a neighborhood-friendly restaurant,” he said, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. Yes, ‘Sports Bar’ is in the title. But we try to give off a great vibe for everyone. Whether you are a student or a little kid or a couple going to a show in the area or a diehard O’s fan, there is something for everyone here . . . and a big part of that something is a neighborhood feel.”

He added, “At the same time, of course, we focus on sports. We have DirecTV packages. Wherever you sit in the restaurant, you can ask to change to any specific game that you want. We have a TV personalized for every single table and booth.”

The menu features some fun sports-themed selections. Favorites include: the Ravens House Salad; the Johnny U, a grilled chicken sandwich named after the late, great Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas; the Capitals Chicken Sandwich; and the 2131, a burger that commemorates Cal Ripken Jr.’s historic consecutive games streak topped with Old Bay-spiced crab dip.

Turp’s also has a great selection of local sports memorabilia displayed throughout as its primary décor. What is Bloom’s favorite item? “I grew up idolizing Cal Ripken,” he said, “so I couldn’t tell you what Ripken piece we have that is my favorite. We have quite a few. So, hands down, anything with Cal is something I’ll always have my eye on. He just symbolized and embodied the blue-collar worker, of everything you go to work for every day.”


Brad Bloom General Manager, with Turp's Bartender, Brandon Hayes

Bloom continued, “We hope to keep adding, especially with all of the local sports in the area – the Ravens, the new crop of Orioles, etc. There are a couple of jerseys we have – one signed by former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the other a Lamar Jackson jersey – that are right there in the front [of store] that are generally the favorites. People see them when they come in. We get the most comments on those and they bring a lot of smiles.”

Like many establishments, themed or not, Turp’s was affected by the pandemic and the slow and measured rebound since. While many eating and drinking places lost staff, Turp’s used the crisis to place greater emphasis on team. “One of the biggest changes was with the staff,” Bloom noted. “We all had to become ‘hybrids.’ You weren’t just working one position anymore. You’re working multiple positions. It wouldn’t have been possible to survive these last couple of years without this team and the chemistry we have had. We pick each other up and we work different positions where needed. That was the biggest change COVID brought. No one is just a server or a bartender or a barback or a cashier anymore. Everyone sort of moves around and works as a team.”

And what a surprise it’s been to emerge from a pandemic to find a Baltimore Orioles team suddenly very competitive and in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot (NOTE: this interview was conducted in early August with the O’s on a four-game winning streak and a record of 55-51). Has the Orioles’ success translated into more customer traffic for Turp’s? Bloom was quick to answer: “We are still experiencing the comeback crowds from the slowdown we had during COVID, so it’s hard to say specifically. With the Orioles right now, I can tell you that the excitement is definitely a thousand times greater than it was the past few years. We’re definitely seeing it at the bar, getting more and more requests to have the Oriole game on.”

It helps that the bar has an exceptional beverage menu that keeps customers coming back for more. There are as many as 10 beers on tap at all times. “I try to rotate out, but we have our staples,” he said. “In this area, [laughing] you can’t NOT have Natty Bo! But we also keep on the menu Blue Moon and Yuengling. We have some local brews, too, like Brewers Art Resurrection and Dogfish Head Sea Quench Ale.”

In terms of cocktail drinks, Turp’s has a lot of the classics. But they have been tweaked and given funky names to spice them up a bit. They include a Turp’s Old Fashioned, the One Punch Drunk, Charm Titties, and Miami Ice. “We have a bomb on the menu, which I never thought we’d have,” Bloom added. “But we listened to our customers. It’s called a Robo Bomb, and it’s very popular with the regulars. It’s important to listen to the people you serve and the people you work with. Always keep an open ear. That really helps you build on things.”

Looking ahead, Bloom has a positive outlook as he and his business head into the fall and the fourth quarter of 2022. He concluded, “I always like to keep an optimistic viewpoint, regardless of what’s going on in the world. You always have to adapt and swerve. Whatever happens, we’re going to adapt and we are going to survive. That being said, I’m truly excited about the rest of the year. We have the college students who are going to be full-force back in classes. There will be more people walking around on the streets. It won’t be as deserted as it has been during COVID the past few years. And, yes, the Orioles! Hopefully, they’ll stay in [the chase for a playoff spot]. Then, people will really start believing. The Ravens are coming back, too. So, we’re on the right track.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal. 


Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) September 2022 Editions Mon, 29 Aug 2022 14:02:36 -0400
Constitution Day: September 17th US-Constitution.jpg

Citizens of the United States have celebrated Independence Day and Presidents’ Day since the 1870s, and in 2005, the nation began to celebrate Constitution Day. Also, known as Citizenship Day, Constitution Day is an American holiday honoring the day 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the United States Constitution. This historic date was September 17, 1787.

In 1939, the New York City news tycoon William Randolph Hearst suggested the creation of a holiday to celebrate American citizenship. Not only did Hearst have a wide readership of his many daily newspapers, but he had significant political connections, and in 1940, Congress designated the third Sunday in May as “I am an American Day.” President Harry Truman presented the resolution, setting aside this date in honor of the American people, especially those who had recently become citizens of the United States.

The holiday quickly gained support and popularity through the efforts of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. Additionally, in 1944, Hearst sponsored a 16-minute film titled I Am an American, which was featured in American theaters, and subsequently became a top news story. It was an immediate hit. Within 5 years, the governors of the existing forty-eight states had issued state proclamations in agreement with the national holiday.

Another important figure in the creation of Constitution Day is Louise Leigh. Leigh, after taking a course in Constitutional History with the National Center for Constitutional Studies, was inspired to spread her newfound love of the Constitution throughout the country. In 1997, she founded a nonprofit organization called Constitution Day, Inc. to help encourage recognition of the importance of this national holiday.

Through her efforts, Constitution Day became an official holiday alongside Citizenship Day in 2004 when, with the help of support from Senator Robert Byrd, the “Constitution Day” amendment to the Omnibus Spending Bill passed. In May 2005, the United States Department of Education backed the law when it announced that it would apply to any school receiving federal funds of any kind.

The two allowances of the law were that the head of every federal agency provides each employee with educational materials concerning the Constitution on the 17th of September and that each educational institution that receives Federal funds should hold a program for students every Constitution Day.

Constitution Day, along with Independence Day and Presidents’ Day, is an important part of the cultural heritage of the United States of America, because it recognizes the value of the American experiment, and the success of a nation of free people whose rights and liberties are protected by a written Constitution.

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) September 2022 Editions Mon, 29 Aug 2022 13:51:50 -0400
Bobby McKey’s Piano Bar McKeys_Marquee.jpg

There’s a great scene in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” where gumshoe detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) walks into a private nightclub in 1940s Los Angeles and quickly learns that it is a dueling piano bar. And the two musicians tickling the ivories are hurling insults at each other on stage? Rival animated fowl Daffy Duck of Warner Bros. cartoon fame and Disney’s legendary Donald Duck.

“This is the last time I work with someone with a speech impediment!” Daffy famously cracked wise.

Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD, isn’t quite that kooky. But the entertainment value is certainly just as high. Marketing Manager Beth Ketchum remarked during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, “This is a really unique concept. The name is just a little misleading. Our piano players don’t really duel back and forth. It’s more of an ‘in synch’ performance. We have at least two musicians on the stage every night . . . two to four. And they are adept at all sorts of genres and decades of music. The repertoire is incredible. The show is all requests. There are napkins and pens on each table. So, throughout the night, people are writing up song requests that they want to hear. If our musicians don’t know the tune, they’ll try to play something from the same artist or in the same realm of music or ask for a different song. They get a lot of ‘80s hits. A lot of Elton John and Billy Joel. But they also know hip-hop, country, and most everything that is requested.”


She continued, “The other cool thing is our shows have an element of comedy. There’s a lot of improvisational humor thrown in. They’ll make jokes about the artist, about the time. We try to stay away from politics. Since we’re in the D.C. suburbs, it can get really charged especially these last few years. We want to keep the atmosphere light.”

The latest featured venue in our series of theme bars and restaurants, Bobby McKey’s, accomplishes that mission night in and night out. Owner Robert “Bob” Hansan (pictured at right with wife and fellow owner Kate Hansan) got the idea for Bobby McKey’s after visiting Crocodile Rocks, a popular dueling piano bar in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He fell in love with the concept and was pretty sure nothing like it existed back in his home base of Maryland-D.C.-Northern Virginia.

“He knew our area could sustain it,” Ketchum said. “And when National Harbor was coming about, the opportunity presented itself to open it there. He loves marketing, so there is definitely a lot of collaboration with him.”

The name is a combination of two different inspirations. One, Hansan was called “Bobby” in high school. And, two, he loved the old Janis Joplin song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” which has been a great piano bar song for years and years.

The fun extends to Bobby McKey’s drink menu where the selections include such fun concoctions as the Almost Famous. Ketchum said, “The Almost Famous is a popular drink that's made with Stoli vodka, ginger ale, cranberry, and lemon. This one can also be bought as a tower in a 100-ounce shareable portion. Other popular drinks include the Bar Dancer and McKey's Tea made up of Sweet Tea Vodka, water and lemon squeeze. The trendy cocktails of the moment are our moonshine drinks. We use Ole Smoky Blackberry moonshine and have three unique cocktails. We also have a full bar that includes beer and wine. In terms of local Maryland brews, one of our drafts is Flying Dog and we have Loose Cannon IPA in bottles.”

As for the clientele? Bobby McKey’s draws both locals and guests who stay at the National Harbor for either leisure travel or conventions and trade shows. According to Ketchum, “We’re trying to reach both locals and visitors. The convention traffic is actually more of a private event aspect of ours. In terms of local traffic, Maryland and Virginia are more our crowd than DC.  Washington has so much more that is walkable and Metro-accessible. We get people everywhere from Fredericksburg to Woodbridge to Southern Maryland. People travel for us. We’re a destination. And they come to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and bachelor and bachelorette parties. You can get the celebrant on stage and kind of embarrass him or her. But we’ll take care of you.”


And Hansan takes care of his staff very well. Many of the musicians he employs fly in from other parts of the country to perform, and he has a condo at National Harbor that he puts them up in. Ketchum herself was a server at Bobby McKey’s, but has a degree in Marketing and Business. Eventually, she worked up the courage to tell Hansan she was capable of much more. What she wanted was a sales and marketing position. “They had just filled a sales position, but Bob said, ‘I have created a small business, so I can also create jobs. I want to keep you on!’ And he did. That was 2013.”

Nine years later, she and Hansan and the rest of the staff have been through a lot together. But being battle tested has left her with a positive view of the future, specifically 2022’s second half. “I’m definitely optimistic,” she concluded, “and it’s because of all the hurdles we’ve gone through in the past two years. We were shut down so many times. We fought hard for the Save Our Stages grant money. We really needed it, but it was very hard to prove we were a live music venue. Fortunately, it ended up working out for us. I think we are on an upturn. People are wanting to get out again and have that human connection, which is what our venue is all about. We sit guests at tables of 10 to 15 people. So, you’re not just sitting with the two or three friends or family you came with. By the end of the night, it’s not uncommon to see people singing together with their arms around each other. People are craving that now!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) August 2022 Editions Mon, 25 Jul 2022 11:45:22 -0400
Dead Freddies Roars to Life DF_Exterior_sign_0002.jpg

If you are going to commit to a series of articles on themed bars and restaurants around the State of Maryland, sooner or later you have to cover one that boasts a pirate theme. One such place is Dead Freddies, one of the more popular eating and drinking
destinations in Ocean City.

Stephen Carullo, managing member of Dead Freddies, is quite proud of his establishment. He stated during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal that “Dead Freddies has multiple areas to dine in that accommodate every demographic. It also has multiple kids’ areas with playgrounds for families; multiple bar areas for adults to enjoy; and multiple dining rooms, some with TV walls that are more of a sports bar theme.” Other dining rooms have no televisions, and Dead Freddies has seen fit to give those spaces more of a laid-back vibe with fish tanks as the main décor item.

Dead Freddies is perhaps best known as one of Ocean City’s most family-friendly destinations, and a big part of that has to do with its pirate theme. But the proprietors don’t go overboard with the theme. Carullo noted, “We started out as a Baltimore-style pub focused on the 21-and-over crowd. The overwhelming success of the concept caused issues from drawing too much nightlife. To better adapt to the community, we scaled back the night-life aspect of the concept and expanded the dining focus adding a kid’s playground.”


He continued, “The theme came around by accident. Our main pirate skull logo was presented to us by one of our T-shirt designers, who had developed it as a shirt design for Seacrets. When they declined to use the design, he offered it to us and we loved it! We thought it would go great, and we incorporated it by adding the logo we used for years into the eye patch of the skull.  So we try to stay true to our pub heritage while incorporating an immersive experience for kids and families.”

The pirate theme has definitely extended to Dead Freddies’ menu. For instance, its appetizers are referred to as “St-Arrr-ters” (it’s almost impossible not to talk like a pirate for at least a few seconds when you’re a customer). Fun menu items include: Black Beard’s Burger; the Captain’s Chicken; and, for the kids, Chicken Planks (not Nuggets). The drink menu, meanwhile, includes such creative concoctions as Pirate Punch, the Drunken Pirate, Freddies Pain Reliever, and the Shipwreck.


Carullo said, “The one we are most excited about is a classic we have been serving for 10 years that is being reworked & rolling out next week [this interview was conducted in early June]. which is the Freddies Shipwreck.  It features a Corona ‘shipwrecked’ in a skull mug with a frozen strawberry or regular margarita.”


He added, “The great news is we are coming out of COVID. So, this year, we are implementing new sections to the drink menu. One is Mocktails, a trend that is rapidly gaining steam. We’ll also have a Tequila cocktails section. Being beach driven, we focus on the white liquors and lighter, fruitier beers. We have a drink menu that has fish bowls and refreshing drinks, which are great when you come off the beach and need to hydrate. We also have options, like the Pain Reliever, which do the opposite. We apply the same concept of the restaurant to the drink menu to give people multiple options from relaxing to pain relieving.”

The COVID-19 crisis did its best to sink Dead Freddies. But Carullo’s savvy leadership along with the steady hands of his managers and waitstaff kept the business afloat. The team did everything from put up dividers in the dining room for in-person dining to implementing contactless curbside pickup for those customers uncomfortable with eating and drinking out. Carullo further stated, “We had to go to market pricing for a lot of items, and we had a QR code that brought you to an online menu so we could update prices as inflation rages.”

From out of this period of trial and hardship, Carullo developed a thick skin and stuck to his proverbial guns even when conventional wisdom told him not to. He remarked, “Ever since I entered the business, all anyone has ever done is question the name, the concept, the changes throughout the years, and beat us down for choosing a business or name at the time was considered taboo. Anytime you innovate or do anything outside the norms, people will question and doubt you. However, if you are not innovative, you more than likely will not stay successful. Copying others will only get you so far. You must passionately pursue your goals. My advice is:  Don’t let others get in your head. Guide your vision to achieve your goals, but always respect your customers!”

Freddies dates back to its 1949 founding. Carullo relates that the business was purchased years later and had a large neon sign that said Freddies due to a lack of funds for a new sign. “A contest for a bar tab was started for anyone who could incorporate Freddies in the name,” he recalled. “A customer walked in during the day, during construction, and said, ‘No one is here. You should call the place Dead Freddies!”

And the name stuck. Today, it welcomes people from far and wide at its waterfront location at 64th Street in Ocean City. The scenic trappings, the bayside views, the enthusiastic clientele – they all have Carullo looking to the near future with optimism. But challenges remain, and Carullo has a pessimistic side also. He concluded, “I am optimistic that the industry is starting to return to some level of normality. But I am pessimistic about inflation and the regulatory environment that is raising costs on all items and making it harder to operate and innovate.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Photography by Nick Bailey


Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) July 2022 Editions Mon, 25 Jul 2022 11:15:22 -0400
Boatyard Bar & Grill Boatyard_HOME.jpg

If you are going to do a series of articles on the top theme bars and restaurants in the state of Maryland, sooner or later that series must feature the Boatyard Bar & Grill in Annapolis. The Boatyard was founded in 2001 by Dick Franyo after he left his three-decade financial career with such firms as Alex. Brown & Sons and Deutsche Bank.  As a little boy, Franyo grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. His vision for the Boatyard was to celebrate the Bay lifestyle and rank as the best sailor bar in Maryland.

Vision achieved, mission accomplished.

Located on Restaurant Row in the historic maritime district of Eastport, the Boatyard is just a brief stroll from the Annapolis City Docks. Photos of local sailors line its walls, and fish caught by local fishing pals are hung in the Boatyard’s Pilar Bar (named after author Ernest Hemmingway’s fishing boat). 

“When we started,” Franyo recalled, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, “we really wanted a place that speaks to sailing, fishing, the environment, and the Bay lifestyle. It started with the building we constructed, which looks like a Hinckley yacht with all the woods and treatments and beams. We then filled it full of incredible art and pictures. From ceiling to floor, there is artwork.”


Indeed, there is an old wooden fishing skiff that was bought off a beach in Saint Barths. Another décor marvel is an original wooden sign from the Hogs Breath Bar in Key West. Everyone has their favorite photo or décor item. Franyo’s is the surfboard donated and signed by singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. General Manager Kevin Schendel’s favorite is a photo of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara sitting on a boat, fishing for marlin, and smoking cigars. “Where else are you going to see that?” Schendel exclaimed during the same interview.

And the Boatyard Bar & Grill has developed a bit of a celebrity following. Then-First Lady Michelle Obama visited and was quoted as saying Boatyard’s crab cakes were the best she’d ever had. “Having the First Lady come over from D.C. for crab cakes got us a lot of press,” Franyo recalled. “She came here with something like 10 cars and 35 security people. And the word from friends of theirs is they still order them! Jimmy Buffet comes when he is in town. I’ve sailed with him here in Annapolis. Kevin Bacon also comes here every time he is in town.”

Boatyard’s crab cakes have become local legend, even being named Best in the Region by Baltimore Magazine. They’ve proven so popular that Franyo and Co. ship them worldwide via By Franyo’s calculations, Boatyard sells approximately 90,000 crab cakes a year.

But it’s the beverage menu that customers continue to return for. The wine selection is extensive and features a premium “Admiral’s List.” But the cocktails are where the real fun is at, with such nautical-named and local-themed delights as Boatyard’s Bloody, the Eastport Margarita, Maritime Tea, and Positively Fourth Street. According to Schendel, “We have the words ‘Boat Drinks’ printed right on our menu. So, we’ll have drinks like a Dark and Stormy that are familiar to sailors. But we’re also in Maryland, so we have half-crushes on the menu. The pint drinks offer good value, too. When people come off the water, they want a good, large drink.”

Franyo concurred, adding, “Sailors and fishermen and people who love the water and the Bay lifestyle, they’re really of an ilk that likes a REAL drink! Such big drinks really set you apart, and it ties into our theme and philosophy.”

The Boatyard has been named by such publications as Coastal Living, Sailing World, and Sail Magazine as one of world's top sailing/boating restaurants and bars. Washingtonian Magazine once called it “the nautical Cheers." Franyo and Schendel love and accept such accolades. But what they’re most proud of is Boatyard’s commitment to the environment.


For instance, the Boatyard is a member of One Percent For The Planet, a group of businesses that donate greater than 1 percent of their annual sales to the natural environment. In terms of accolades, the Boatyard received the Annapolis Environmental Stewardship Certification from Maryland’s capital city.  Even the restaurant’s oyster shells are collected by the Oyster Recovery Program.

Franyo remarked, “So goes the Bay, so goes us. If the Bay isn’t healthy, then people aren’t going to come here.”

In addition, the Boatyard founded and sponsors four outdoor lifestyle charity events each year: Bands in the Sand for and at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; The Boatyard Beach Bash for and at the Annapolis Maritime Museum; the Boatyard Opening Day Rockfish Catch & Release Tournament, which benefits the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association MD, and the Annapolis Police Department Youth Fishing Camp; and, finally, The Boatyard Regatta to benefit C.R.A.B. (Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating), which gets those with disabilities on sailboats.

The rest of Boatyard’s success can be chalked up to good, sound business principles that Franyo and his team have put in place over the years and stuck to. “It’s people who are the key,” Franyo stated. “Treat everyone with respect. Your employees, your guests, your suppliers, the people who take your garbage away. Everyone.”

Schendel agreed, relating to how this philosophy benefited the business during the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, in particular. “When the pandemic initially hit,” he said, “restaurants were ordered to shut down and offer carry-out service only. We made a really quick transition to make it easier for people to do business with us. We had carry-out windows. But the key was being able to keep as many employees who wanted to stay on. Anybody who wanted to keep a job kept their job. We were able to keep our entire back-of-house team in place. So, when we could re-open, we were ready to go. That wasn’t the case for many bars and restaurants.”

Franyo concluded, “In this business, there are 1,000 opportunities to make a mistake every day. It takes a lot of work and training to bring that one thousand down to zero. We agonize over everything. Every detail. Our philosophy is to kick ourselves in the butt and not pat ourselves on the back. If you work hard and you do things the right way, I believe you create your own luck.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Photography by Ashli Mix

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) June 2022 Editions Mon, 06 Jun 2022 14:42:44 -0400
MSLBA Report on 2022 Legislative Session  MSLBA_Leg_Wrap_HOME.jpg

By J. Steven Wise, Esq. MSLBA Lobbyist and Legal Counsel

The Maryland General Assembly recently wrapped up its annual 90-day Session, the last one of this four-year term, and the election season of 2022 has begun in earnest for all Delegates, Senators, and statewide office holders. In fact, one of the biggest issues of the Session was the drawing of district maps, both for State legislators and Members of Congress, a process that occurs every 10 years following the U.S. Census.

Even with redistricting in play, the Legislature acted on a number of high-profile issues. First, the only legislation required to pass each year is a Budget, and that job was made easier than ever this year with a surplus larger than the State has seen in its history, thanks to federal funds sent down through COVID relief legislation and federal infrastructure monies. The Assembly also passed legislation addressing climate change, abortion access, tax relief for retirees, and sent the legalization of marijuana to the ballot.

The beverage alcohol industry had its own high-profile issues, too, as set out below. Every reader should know that our outstanding results are the product of a solid team effort: Jack Milani and David Marberger as our fearless Co-Legislative Chairs, all members of the Legislative Committee, those who testified on individual bills, and most importantly, our Executive Director Jane Springer who never fails to keep the trains running on time.


House Bill 506/Senate Bill 603
Constitutional Amendment – Beer and Wine Licenses – Retail Grocery Establishments 

This legislation would have placed a question on the November 2022 ballot asking: “Do you favor the ability of retail grocery establishments in the State, such as grocery stores and supermarkets, to sell beer and wine to individuals who are at least 21 years of age?” If voters approved, the Maryland Constitution would be amended to allow “retail grocery establishments” to obtain beer and wine licenses. The General Assembly would then have to adopt a regulatory framework to implement the law and “prioritize the issuance of beer and wine licenses for retail grocery establishments that are located in geographic areas that have demonstrated lack of affordable healthy food options.”  This is similar to legislation that was defeated in 2021 that would have allowed supermarkets to obtain licenses in “food deserts.”  The House Bill was withdrawn, while the Senate bill was soundly defeated by the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (EHEA) by a vote of 11-0.

MSLBA strongly opposed these bills, and we were joined in opposition by the public health community, specifically Kathy Hoke from the Maryland Public Health Association and Raimee Eck from the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy, who argued that putting beer and wine in supermarkets in food deserts creates one public health problem to solve another. We also were joined by Nick Manis of the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and member Dan Hoose from Bob Hall Distributors. MSLBA retailers who testified are listed below, all of whom provided excellent input on the effect this legislation would have on their businesses. Describing the hearings in the House and Senate do not do justice to the impact of their testimony, however. You should take the time to click on the following links to view the hearings:

Senate Hearing (go to the 2:17:50 mark)
House Hearing (go to the 3:08:00 mark)

Jack Milani – Baltimore County

Jeryl Cole – Baltimore City

Tom Yates – Howard County

Kim Lawson – Anne Arundel County

David Marberger – Queen Anne’s County

Jimmy Spiropoulos – Prince George’s County

Blaise Miller – Prince George’s County

Ashok Kavi -- Charles County

Dave Dent – St. Mary’s County

House Bill 858
Alcohol Beverages – Class A Licenses – Retail Grocery Establishments 

House Bill 858 also would have allowed “retail grocery establishments” to obtain beer and wine licenses, though it was even broader than the constitutional amendment legislation above, in that it included convenience store chains like Royal Farms as well. To be eligible, stores would have to offer certain food types and be 3,200 square feet or more. The bill would allow the chains to hold multiple licenses and relieve them from residency and other requirements imposed on other licensees.

Both the House and Senate Committees considered this legislation in tandem with House Bill 506/Senate Bill 603 (above) given the similar subject matter. The bill was defeated by the House Economic Matters Committee (ECM) by a vote of 19 against and 1 in favor.

Senate Bill 618
Baltimore City – Alcohol Beverages – Sales in Grocery Stores and Supermarkets – Referendum

Senate Bill 618 would have submitted to Baltimore City voters the question of whether beer and wine should be made available in chain stores and supermarkets. This legislation had an added legislative hurdle in that it was a local bill, which must first pass muster with the local delegation—in this case the Baltimore City Senate Delegation—before the Senate standing committee would consider it.

Thanks to the great testimony of MSLBA members Mike Fishman and Jeryl Cole before the Baltimore City Senate Delegation, this legislation did not garner the 4 votes needed to move out of the Delegation.

House Bill 356
Prince George’s County – Alcohol Beverages – Licenses for Supermarkets 

This legislation would allow up to 3 supermarket licenses per Senate district to be issued for supermarkets located in food deserts, as certified by the Prince George’s County Council.  While this legislation was voted out of the Prince George’s House Delegation by an overwhelming margin, the House Economic Matters Committee defeated the legislation by a vote of 17-3 because it was considered a bill of statewide impact.

House Bill 1406
Alcohol Beverages – Issuance of Class A Licenses 

This is legislation that we have seen introduced on numerous occasions at the request of Total Wine, allowing for an entity to hold more than one Class A license. MSLBA has always opposed these efforts. House Bill 1406 was filed after the bill introduction deadline and was sent to the House Rules Committee, an additional procedural step imposed on late-filed bills. It never emerged from there, so no hearing was held.


Senate Bill 476/House Bill 550
Alcohol Beverages – Manufacturers Licenses and Off-Site Permits – Sunset Extension 

This legislation involves direct shipment by manufacturers and has its roots in the COVID pandemic, when Governor Hogan issued an Executive Order allowing alcohol delivery and direct shipment by Maryland manufacturers. In the 2021 Session, the Legislature passed a bill codifying this privilege, but sunset it in December of 2022. Predictably, the manufacturers returned seeking to extend the privilege ahead of the law’s expiration this summer. With the passage of this bill, the privilege will expire in June of 2023 without further action by the Legislature.

MSLBA objects to direct shipment for two main reasons: 1) there is no underage enforcement with direct-to-consumer deliveries like there is with brick-and-mortar sales, and 2) allowing direct shipment of alcohol by manufacturers in Maryland may require that out-of-state manufacturers be given the same privilege under the Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460 (2005).

Sales of Other Manufacturers’ Products (FAILED)

We have seen a growing number of bills proposed in recent years giving manufacturers the right to sell on their own premises not just the products they manufacture, but the products of other manufacturers, too. This effort hit a crescendo this year, with five different bills proposed that contained this change.

In opposing these bills, MSLBA argued that manufacturers should not be bars under the three-tier system. Every year now for the better part of the last 15 years, the State’s manufacturers have introduced bills that erode the three-tier system of alcohol distribution, under which manufacturers were prohibited from selling alcohol beverages to customers at all. The erosion began with the offering of small samples of their own products on guided tours but continued with efforts to sell larger and larger amounts. These efforts were presented as a way for the manufacturers to better market their own products. But the biggest change came several years ago when brewers obtained authority from the Legislature to operate tap rooms. MSLBA resisted this change because we knew what the next step was – manufacturers selling not just their own products but all alcohol beverages, just like a bar. These bills all represent the predicted next step. These efforts are no longer about marketing their own products, but about being a general retailer of all alcohol beverages.

Thankfully, the House and Senate both appreciated the need to put a stop to this trend, and these bills were all killed.

House Bill 867
Alcohol Beverage Tax – Ready-to-Drink Cocktails 

This legislation would have altered the excise tax rate assessed on “ready to drink” cocktails (RTDs). Manufacturers of RTDs that are distilled spirits based brought this legislation, arguing that their RTDs should be taxed the same as malt-based RTDs. Currently, the distilled spirits based RTDs are taxed higher than the malt-based, just like all other alcohol products follow that scale. Oddly, the new tax rate under the bill would have been the same rate currently applied to wine products (.40 cents per gallon).

While the legislation had the potential to impact which retailers could sell RTDs, since a beer and wine licensee is not technically permitted to sell distilled spirits based RTDs, the bill died of its own weight. But this issue is bound to come back, as the Distilled Spirits Council has a broader agenda at the national level of leveling all alcohol taxes.


House Bill 1179
State Lottery – Sales of Lottery Tickets and Tickets from Instant Ticket Lottery Machines –

This legislation sought to increase the commissions paid to lottery agents from the current 5.5% to 6.0%. Going back to 2005, agents were paid a sales commission of 5.5%. That amount was reduced to 5.0% in 2009 when the State and many residents fell on more difficult times, and they remained at that level through 2013.  The General Assembly then increased the commission to 6% effective upon the opening of the Horseshoe Casino in 2014, only to reduce it back to 5.5% before the higher rate ever really took effect.

The House passed this legislation by a margin of 130-1. The Senate, however, reduced the increase to 5.75% and sent the bill back to the House, which refused to accept the Senate amendment. With some further negotiation, the Senate accepted the 6% rate with little time to spare: House Bill 1179 was the LAST bill to be voted on before the Senate adjourned.  The vote occurred at 11:59, with only one minute to spare on the final night of the Session!


While not an issue that MSLBA focused on, legislation passed establishing family and medical leave requirements on Maryland businesses. Our firm prepared a summary of this legislation under separate cover for your reference.


As these results show, MSLBA had another outstanding Session. This would not happen without our members forming relationships with and contacting their local legislators on these important issues, something we talk about often but the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) June 2022 Editions Mon, 06 Jun 2022 12:28:33 -0400
Illusions Bar & Theater Illusions_exterior-signage.jpg

Offering Customers a Magical Escape

We all could use a little magic in our lives during these tough times. Illusions Bar & Theater in Baltimore is seeking to give us just that. This is the fourth in our series of articles on great themed bars and restaurants in and around Maryland, and Illusions does what every great themed place tries to do – provide a temporary escape for its customers.

Co-founder and magician extraordinaire Spencer Horsman says that is the most important part of his job. During a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, he stated, “I perform because I like providing an escape for people. We all have things in our lives that we need to have an escape from, whether it’s the global pandemic or something more personal. If I can pull you out of that bubble for a little while, that’s great. On top of that, because of the mix of people we get from night to night, it’s amazing to see the interaction between folks from all walks of life. Because we put on an interactive show, I get people to meet each other, interact with each other, and learn about each other. At other places, you just interact with the server, maybe the bartender, and your date, and that’s it. Also, it’s a magic show. At the end of the day, hopefully I’ve also created a sense of wonder and mystery for you.”


Horsman opened Illusions with his late father, Kenneth, in March 2007. Originally, it was his family’s magic store, which opened in 1987 when he was just a small child. Spencer would eventually graduate high school and take his magic act on the road before returning to Charm City where he and his dad hatched the idea to combine a bar with a nightly magic show.

Kenneth Horsman passed away in May 2016 and, today, there’s no doubt his son is firmly in charge of all aspects of the business. “I believe in being a hands-on, on-premise owner,” he said. “I’m the first person you meet when you come in. I welcome the people, give them their drink tickets, and check them in. Then, I’ll jump on stage and perform. And at intermission, you may see me clearing tables.”


Though it may sound as if Horsman is a solo act, Illusions’ guests quickly learn otherwise.  After entering and being greeted by Horsman, guests are next introduced to Nicole Bailey.  Bailey’s official title is operations manager and while she easily fits the magician’s attractive assistant billing (and she does assist as well as take part in ‘the show’) someone needs to be the lead bartender, server, busser, and glasswasher.  While Illusions provides an escape from ordinary life, the team is also running a high-end beverage alcohol service.

In terms of a clientele, Illusions draws a wide range of customers – “everyone from 21 to 91,” Horsman touts. First and foremost, though, the Bar & Theater has emerged as an excellent night out for couples. “The first year we were open, the old City Paper awarded us Best First Date Bar,” he recalled. “That stuck. Travel guides talked about us being a first-date place because we would give couples something beyond just the typical dinner, drinks, and a movie. Illusions gives you something you can both mutually enjoy and then have a conversation about.”


By his count, Illusions has been the site of 11 marriage proposals. “I’ll get asked, ‘Hey, can you make the ring appear so I can come on stage and propose to my girlfriend?’ We’ve had a really good track record with that. So far, everybody has said, ‘Yes!’ I don’t know if they’re all still together. But they all said ‘Yes!’”

Illusions doesn’t just attract couples. Horsman said, “We have a lot of repeat customers. As a result, we change up the show so that people will come back and see new magic. But Illusions is something that is so unique that we also get a lot of out-of-towners. Baltimore is a big transplant city now. A lot of the people who live here, their families don’t live here. So, we often are told, ‘My parents are visiting, and we just had to bring them here!’”


He added, “We also get a lot of private parties, which has been a shift since COVID. Originally, we used to be able to seat 90 people for our shows. To guarantee a private event, we would have to have 40 or 50 to make it worthwhile. But when COVID hit, we started doing smaller, more intimate shows. When we first reopened, I was only allowed eight people at a time because of the restrictions, the six-foot distancing, and all of that. As time went on, I was allowed 12 and now I seat 30. Even though I’m allowed to go back to full capacity, I’m purposefully keeping it at 30. The experience is much more intimate and interactive. With 30 people, everybody gets involved as opposed to 90 where only a portion of the audience got involved. Because of that, we’ve booked more private parties than we ever had in the past. That’s been a nice, happy accident we’ve come across.”

The overall space has a 1920s, Art Deco look and feel. Everything in the bar has been custom-made for the Illusions experience. All of the lights are reproductions of 1920s-era Art Deco lighting. There are cast-iron columns that are from that time period. And the large posters on the walls are also from the ‘20s.

“I continue to pitch this as a full experience about my family and my background,” Horsman noted. “So, there is magic memorabilia on display that’s 100-plus years old. There is circus memorabilia from the time when my family was in the circus. There are other weird odds and ends -- skeletons and things like that. Everything is real and authentic. We didn’t go to some pop-up Halloween City store to get these decorations. Everything we have either has a history behind it or is a direct influence on the show itself.”


And, of course, there is Illusions’ impressive beverage selection. No food is served. Instead, the focus is on drinks that add to the experience. Horsman remarked, “Our drinks are something we take pride in. We work at a very fast pace with regards to creating cocktails. We don’t serve extreme craft cocktails that take five minutes apiece to make. Because my father came from a McDonald’s background with regards to customer service [Kenneth Horsman was hired to replace Willard Scott as Ronald McDonald. For over two decades, he represented the fast feeder for over 500 restaurants throughout the D.C-Virginia area], speed and efficiency are things that have been bred into me from Day One. We’ve tried to streamline our cocktails and ordering. But that doesn’t mean our selection is super-basic. We have an extensive liquor list at our back bar, and we also have a nice split between classic, Prohibition-style cocktails and the more accessible drinks people like.”

One thing that Horsman has avoided is naming too many cocktails on the menu after the theme. He said, “We have some drinks that are named after a specific magic trick. There is the Orange Trick, which is kind of our version of a Crush. We have one that is a layered martini called the Hypnotizing Hypnotic Martini. But we keep a lot of the other ones traditional. Everything else in the bar is heavily themed. So, we feel that you don’t have to drive the nail all the way in with the cocktails also named after magic. Then, it becomes a little bit too themed.”

That said, on any given night, Horsman or some other magician might use the bar’s shaker tins, whiskey bottles, or wine glasses as part of the act. People who are interested in seeing such feats of magic and slight-of-hand, tickets can be purchased at the Illusions website for $60 apiece. That includes the hour-and-a-half show and any two drinks from the bar. Currently, Illusions offers Friday shows at 8 p.m. and Saturday shows at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. with the occasional Sunday matinee.

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) May 2022 Editions Mon, 02 May 2022 11:31:12 -0400
18th & 21st: Stepping Back in Time  18th-21st_0001.jpg

We’re stepping back in time for the third article in our series on Maryland theme bars and restaurants. Long-time industry entrepreneur Steve Wecker opened 18th & 21st in Columbia back in 2018. The supper club is a throwback to the old jazz clubs, supper clubs, and speak-easies of the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, the bar and restaurant is named after the Constitutional Amendment that enacted Prohibition and the subsequent Amendment that repealed it. When you step through the door of 18th & 21st, you are immediately transported back to a bygone time and are subsequently treated to a tailored evening experience of food and cocktails that reflect the feel of the Prohibition era. 

But you gotta look for it first! 

As was the case with many supper clubs back in the day selling then-illegal hooch, 18th & 21st is actually located in the back of another bar and restaurant that Wecker co-owns called Cured. During a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, he remarked, “The original concept was one big speak-easy and jazz club. But my son, Stephen who is one of the co-owners and runs our beverage program, said, ‘Why don’t we have two concepts? That way, we can appeal to two markets.’ We used to say, ‘Boomers in the back, Millennials in the front.’ But we’ve actually been seeing great crossover.” 


Wecker, who is perhaps best known for the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Howard County, continued, “Cured is out front, and it’s our corner bar re-imagined. It has a rustic industrial throwback kind of feel to it. But then you walk through, make a left at the rest rooms, and then a right after that to go to the jazz club. You don’t really see the club until you open the door and come in. I’ve had people who have come to Cured four or five times and not even know there’s a jazz club in the back! When they finally do go back, they’re like, ‘Oh my God!’”

That’s because they are treated to quite a sight. The theme restaurant features about 85 seats; has Art Deco lighting; feathers in vases; classic booths; and photos of Jean Harlow, Billie Holliday, and other legends on the walls. Teal and copper is the main color scheme, with some purple thrown in. The centerpiece is a spectacular, 40’ x 40’ skylight of Chicago’s Art Deco skyline (the buildings have been shifted around somewhat for dramatic effect) backlit with 10,000 LED lights.


Steve Wecker of 18th & 21st

And, of course, there are the drinks. There is a large wall that features nearly 250 whiskeys and ryes. “And it’s not the cheap stuff,” Wecker said. “We have an unbelievable selection. We draw primarily a cocktails-and-wine crowd, and the cocktails are our takes on the classic Old-Fashioned, the Bombay martini, the Bee’s Knees, and so forth. The wine list is very nice, and we have at least six beers on draft.”

The menu features such classics as steaks, lobster, and scallops, and the experience is completed with live music. Wecker noted, “We knew from the get-go that we would have live music. We put a lot of money into acoustics. Everything in the place absorbs sound. So, you can be sitting close to the musicians, but still have a conversation with your dinner guests. Almost all of our musicians that play here are local. I think we now have a stable of 30 or 40 bands and artists who have told us how much they absolutely love playing here.”


He added, “The musicians are background. People don’t buy tickets to see a specific act. We’re a restaurant first. I’ve had to tell only a couple of musicians, mostly drummers, that, ‘Look, we play with brushes for the first two sets, and then we’ll see how things have evolved for the third set.’ I had one guy who I told to play with brushes and not sticks call out to the audience early, ‘Hey, you all would like me to play with sticks, right?!’ And I told our music director, John Chordy Teagle, ‘He’s done.’ And he’s never played here since. It’s not about the musicians showing off. It’s about them being background and providing that other element to an amazing evening.”

One of the other challenges that Wecker and his staff have run up against is some regulars have, at times, used 18th & 21st as a sort of personal clubhouse, lingering for a long time and not ordering much. “It’s pretty easy to come back here, order cocktails, and sit for three hours drinking,” he said. “We are starting to take some steps to improve that, like adding an automatic 20 percent gratuity. I won’t have my staff running around for people all night and then getting stiffed. Most people, though, get what we are doing. It’s a supper club. We anticipate that you will be dining and drinking. And you really don’t have to pay $500 a person to have an incredible experience. Now, if you want to, we’re more than happy to make that happen for you!”


One of the great things about 18th & 21st is its flexibility. Wecker and his team can accommodate a large private group and draw curtains closed. Or, they can cater to a young couple out on their first date. In terms of special events, every year on Dec. 5, 18th and 21st throws a Prohibition Repeal Party. People are encouraged, but not required, to dress up in period attire. During the holidays, the restaurant breaks a bit from its theme to do a “Charlie Brown Christmas” with live Vince Guaraldi jazz music.

Wecker remarked, “You can get great food and drinks in a lot of places. But people are out for an experience. The thing that is bringing people back to 18th & 21st is that experience. We have a hostess who goes by Pepper. She is the vice president of some company locally, but she loves doing this. She has the sequined dresses and the feathers. Pepper greets you, she goes to the door and knocks, and then escorts you in. People have said to me, ‘From the moment we walked into the back and Pepper greeted us, then let us in, we were just over the moon!’” 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) April 2022 Editions Fri, 01 Apr 2022 13:42:44 -0400
Sykesville Station: Right on Track Sykesville-Station_Exterior.jpg

This is the second in our series of articles on really cool theme bars and restaurants around Maryland. How cool is Sykesville Station in Sykesville? It actually has two themes! The first is an obvious one. The restaurant and bar is an old, former train station that was built in 1883 and is now designated an official historic building by the state. 

Sykesville Station co-owners D’Alan and Kim Baugh have embraced the history. The former stated during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, “The kids love it when the train goes by. The locomotives still come by here every day and rattle the entire building. They don’t stop and let passengers off anymore. They’re freight trains.”


The latter added, “Our regulars love the trains, too. When one goes by, we serve what we call ‘Whistle Stop Shooters’ for $1. Everybody starts screaming, ‘Shot!’ when the train goes by and takes a drink.”

Sykesville Station’s second theme is the one the Baughs play up more. D’Alan remarked, “Our main theme is ‘Bringing a Little Bit of Nashville to Sykesville.’ We play country music videos. We have live music every Saturday night. We call our menu ‘Southern-inspired.’ We have burgers and sandwiches, but we also have things like shrimp and grits, catfish nuggets, smoked meats, and so forth.”

Kim stated, “It’s all about the experience here. All of our drinks are named after country songs, for instance. We try to do things that bring people together. We have trivia on Mondays, ‘Shuckin’ Tuesdays where we have oysters, Wednesday is our special wine night. Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, we had a bagpiper and Irish dancers. Tomorrow night [this interview was conducted in late January], we are going to have a Prohibition-themed murder mystery. Each December, we also have a celebration of the repeal of Prohibition.” Customers and staff are encouraged to dress up in Roaring ‘20s-period clothes. 

After running the former Baldwin’s Station on the site for over two decades, owners Ridia and Stewart Dearie sold the establishment to the Baughs in June 2020. Yes, during the absolute height of the pandemic. The husband-and-wife team were able to start some extensive, but very much needed renovations during the time when restaurants were largely closed. 


D’Alan recalled, “We modernized it the best we could. We shut the place down for a couple of months, renovated it, and then reopened Aug. 1, 2020. We converted it from what was a fine dining restaurant into more of a family-friendly, dog-friendly, outside patio-type establishment.”

The Baughs soon found they had an advantage with the Station’s plethora of outdoor seating. According to Kim, “Since this used to be a train station, we still have the platform where people used to walk out and get trains. It runs the full-length of the building. It’s covered and seats just under 100 people. We were able to keep safe those customers who were afraid to eat inside. They could sit outside, and that’s honestly what saved us through the pandemic.” It doesn’t hurt that the view of the South Branch of the Patapsco River from the platform is both beautiful and relaxing.


D’Alan added, “A lot of the places near us also decided that the coronavirus was more dangerous after 10 p.m. and closed at that time. We stayed open later than that. Not only did locals keep coming in at 11 or 12 o’clock at night, but so did a lot of the people who got done with their work in the restaurants near us.”

Top-notch beverage service has been a focus from the get-go. Sykesville Station has also become known for its high-end bourbons. It’s also one of the few bars and restaurants in Maryland that has its own microbrew beer on tap, a Pilsner called Beer Goggles. And, as mentioned earlier, the specialty cocktails are all named after classic country songs, including: “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Red Neck Woman,” “The Gambler,” “Fancy,” “Girl Crush,” and “Guitars & Cadillacs.” 

T.C. Currence, Sykesville Station’s general manager, noted, “We have two different bars. The first one is when you walk in, and it’s well-stocked with our premium bourbons. When it gets warm out and even in the wintertime, we have an outside bar. We try and appeal to a lot of people. We’ve become known in town as the ‘events place.’”

Indeed, a lot of seniors come in during the day from nearby retirement communities. The Baughs and Currence refer to them as “The Lunch Bunch.” In the evenings, Sykesville Station draws a lot of local families and couples out on date nights. And there is also a loyal bar crowd that comes even later.  Currence said, “We have been a release for people who’ve been tied up in their houses. We became known as a place where you could forget about the pandemic for a little bit and just have a good time.”

Customer service has also endeared Sykesville Station to the local community and beyond. The Baughs often go around to tables and get feedback from their customers. Kim proudly stated, “I get a lot of people saying essentially, ‘Your servers are great!’ And I answer them, ‘They have to be, or they can’t work here.’ We have a sign hanging upstairs in what we call our ‘Team Room’ that says, ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People.’ Those are two simple things that a lot of people just can’t do.”

D’Alan believes it’s all about taking care of one’s employees. He has personally drawn on his many years working in sales to guide how he treats the people working for him and his wife today. “I’ve worked for a number of business owners,” he said, “and some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from those guys is what NOT to do! One guy I used to work for would say all of the time, ‘How much mileage do you think we can get out of that guy?’ Well, how about if we do a great job taking care of him and maybe he’ll want to work hard here and do his best job for us?!” 

And if you have a staff that is doing a great job, it makes it easier on a certain husband-and-wife team. Kim, indeed, stresses the importance of delegating. “You can’t do everything yourself,” she said. “So many businesses fail where the owners felt they just had to do it all. Put the right people in place . . . and then get the heck out of their way!” 

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   


Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) March 2022 Editions Wed, 02 Mar 2022 08:23:50 -0500
Old Bay Flavored Vodka Old-Bay-Vodka_HOME.jpg

One of the more famous statements in Western philosophy is Socrates’ “Know thyself. The unexamined life is not worth living.” Greg David, CEO, co-owner and Chief Mixologist at George’s Beverage Company LLC, has come to know himself very well in recent years. He said in a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, “I’m an entrepreneur, which sometimes make me my biggest challenge. I’m the kind of person who likes to run through walls, break down barriers, and get something to market immediately. The biggest challenge is pulling myself back a little bit, slowing my pace down, and trying to see the bigger picture just so we don’t miss any important steps in the process. The process is the most important part.”

It’s certainly been the most important part of bringing Old Bay Vodka to Maryland store shelves starting March 7th. Hanover-based George’s Beverage has partnered with McCormick & Company, Inc.’s Old Bay brand on this all-natural spirit. 


Distributed by Breakthru Beverage, Old Bay Vodka is made from corn distilled to six times purity and then flavored with the high-quality ingredients found in McCormick’s Old Bay seasoning. McClintock Distilling in Frederick, Md., is the distiller of record.


David stated, “We wanted to make a great vodka first and foremost. It just so happened that when we chose McClintock back in 2020, they had just been voted No. 1 Craft Vodka Distillery in the country by USA Today. We also worked with the flavor solutions team at McCormick. Their scientists asked us, ‘What are you looking for?’ And we said, ‘We want a vodka that will have the essence, smell, and taste of Old Bay, but for it to have a subtle hit.’ We didn’t want it to smack you in the face, but we definitely want people to know it’s Old Bay. So, they made a clear Old Bay liquid, and that’s what seasons the six times distilled vodka.”

He continued, “It’s 70 proof, which allows drinkers to taste both the seasoning and the alcohol. We tried 80 proof/40 percent. But it was just too high on the alcohol side of it.”


David believes Old Bay Vodka’s biggest selling point is its versatility. Indeed, a lot of flavored vodkas on the market are good for maybe just one or two different drinks. Old Bay Vodka is good in a lot of drink recipes. “One of the most exciting is the Bay Crush,” David declared. George’s marketing will also include drink recipes for such tasty concoctions as a Bay Martini, a Bay and Tonic, the Reel Bay Breeze, Bay Bombs, Bay Oyster Shooters, and more.


Old Bay Vodka is made and bottled in Maryland with a price point of $18.99 - $20.99 Each bottle contains 750mL and features the unmistakable colors and lettering of the classic Old Bay cans of seasoning you find at the grocery store or in many Maryland crabhouses and seafood restaurants.

According to David, “People will see the classic, familiar label and the packaging, and they know McCormick & Company is actually involved. This isn’t some license they’ve sold or outsourced. They’ve been with us every step of the way. In Maryland, Old Bay is a powerful brand. It resonates with people. So, we think people will be excited to try this.”


With Old Bay Vodka, George’s Beverage Co. continues its commitment to sustainable practices. One of the reasons David and his colleagues chose McClintock Distilling was its commitment to the environment. For instance, McClintock utilizes a closed loop cooling system that has reduced the amount of wastewater by at least 250,000 gallons per year. They’re also one of the few distilleries in the country that is 100% renewable energy powered.


Said David, “I grew up in this region. I spent most of my formative years in the Annapolis area and in Berlin, Md. So, I’ve grown up around the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and the ocean most of my life. The sustainability of the largest ecosystem on the East Coast is massive to us.” 

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) March 2022 Editions Tue, 01 Mar 2022 13:51:34 -0500
Kaló Hemp Infused Seltzer Kalo_HOME.jpg

Kaló Hemp Infused Seltzer is coming to Maryland store shelves. And rather than start this Brand Profile with what the product is, it’s probably best to educate readers on what it is not. Ivy Wimberley, Kaló’s Director of Trade Development, said it best during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal: “On the sales side, the hardest thing has been getting people to understand the difference between hemp and marijuana. We are NOT a marijuana seltzer! We are a hemp-infused seltzer. A big part of my job has been educating people.”

She continued, “We love being able to give somebody a product that’s good for you and that can help you relax. We also love turning the skeptics. Kaló is something that will help you take a breath after a can or two. Some people think it’s a hoax. But we’re giving them an all-natural way to feel good with something that’s plant-based.”



Wimberley and her team are so confident that they’ve made Kaló’s slogan for 2022: “Feel Good Fast.” Wimberley stated, “We wanted to create something that you could drink that indeed would make you feel good fast. You have all of the positive benefits of the hemp plant in one drink. Not only do you get the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but you get 15 milligrams of CBD.”

Kaló seltzers are hand-crafted and come in eight flavors: Black Cherry, Ruby Red Grapefruit, Ginger Lemonade, Blood Orange Mango, Lemon Lavender, Raspberry Lime, Pomegranate Peach, and Strawberry Watermelon. They are sold in 12-ounce cans either individually or in multi-flavored eight packs. 

Kaló seltzers are also 100% vegan, gluten-free, and kosher certified. “I think we are the only hemp-infused or CBD seltzer that is kosher certified, which hits a nice market,” noted Wimberley. It’s also a good mixer in various vodka, gin, and rum cocktails with the website featuring such recipes as a Raspberry Refresher, Blood Orange Sparkler, Grapefruit Sunrise, and Kaló Mule.


Hillview, Kaló’s New Jersey-based parent company, is a third-generation farming business run by the VandeVrede family. They spent more than two years crafting a new way to harness all of the healthy elements found in hemp in a water-soluble form that customers can easily digest. That means no weird aftertaste.

Erin Stivala, Kaló’s Director of Marketing, noted, “It took two years because we wanted to be the best tasting [in our niche]. We tasted others and found that, unfortunately, what you get with a CBD or hemp seltzer is what’s called ‘nanoemulsion.’ They take CBD oil and spin it really fast to get the particles super tiny. But it’s still oil, and oil and water do not mix. You always get that gross, oily aftertaste. For our product, it’s truly water soluble. We’re able to extract the water molecules out of the hemp plant.”

She added, “And with our water-soluble technology, when you drink Kaló, you’re going to be feeling something out of it in five minutes. And it’s likely going to be good.”


For some, Kaló Hemp Infused Seltzer is an “outside-the-box” product in the beverage business. It has certainly come with its own set of challenges getting to store shelves in such states as Florida, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

Stivala acknowledges, “Regulations have been challenging. There is a cannabis product in it, and every state has their own legal requirements. Sometimes, individual stores have their own requirements! We have had to be extremely agile and patient. We’ve had to make sure what we are doing is all compliant. That’s been the biggest hurdle, for sure.”

Both she and Wimberley, though, anticipate success in the Maryland market. For Wimberley, this marks a return of sorts as she is a Towson University graduate and was a former star member of their competitive swimming team. “I think our product is going to do really well in Maryland,” she said. “We did over 10,000 cases in New Jersey in just our second year. Maryland is very similar to New Jersey in that you have beautiful shores, but you also have your cities and your college towns. I’m indeed a Towson University grad. So, I know from the ground that Marylanders are very eclectic and open to new products. Kaló is something Maryland definitely needs!”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) March 2022 Editions Tue, 01 Mar 2022 13:35:07 -0500
Five Iron Golf 5Iron_0001.jpg

Sitting on Top of Baltimore’s Leaderboard: 5Iron Golf.

This is the first in a series of articles on theme bars and restaurants around the state of Maryland, and the District of Columbia. The first entry couldn’t be cooler for those looking for a swinging club to swing their clubs. Five Iron Golf in Baltimore is part of a growing chain of businesses that offer golf simulators, indoor golf lessons, and top-quality food and drink choices. The goal is to re-shape urban golf culture with additional locations now up and running in Chicago, Las Vegas, Manhattan, Philadelphia, and elsewhere with more to come. 


Frank Purdy, General Manager of Five Iron Golf in Baltimore, remarked during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, “We are the nation’s leading indoor golf and entertainment experience. We don’t have a ‘thumb-your-nose’ country club vibe. All are welcome. And we combine the golf with excellent food and beverage service, as well. We have golf simulators where you’re hitting a golf ball off a matt onto a screen. But after 15 minutes, you get lost in the [virtual reality] that you’re playing Pebble Beach or one of the great courses the PGA has to offer.”

He continued, “There are a couple of courses in the city and a couple of driving ranges. But as those tend to book up on the nicer days really quickly, we offer another avenue for you to get your golf fix without having to travel outside the city 15 or 20 minutes at minimum. Five Iron Golf is a good thing to have in an urban area. They can walk over with their clubs or we have clubs for them to use. They can walk right in and get a round in.”

And, of course, customers can walk right in and have a fine meal or a round of appetizers or just drinks. The golf-themed menu has creative categories like “Go for the Green” (salads) and “The Majors” (burgers, sandwiches, and entrees). Meanwhile, the drink selection is a solid mix of beers, wine, soft drinks, and specialty cocktails. 

“We really lean into what our community likes to drink,” said Purdy. “We listen, we pay attention. We want to make sure that we are bringing them the options they want. We have a constantly changing menu. Actually, I would call it a ‘constantly adapting’ menu. We have our golfers who love their certain types of drinks. Our service philosophy is whether we’re setting you up on a TrackMan (a radar-based, $20,000 unit that gives you real-time measurements about your swing) or just bringing them a soda or a nice glass of whiskey, we want that service to be the same across the board. So, whether we’re setting someone up on a golf simulator or just bringing them food and beverage to a table, we want that to be the best.”

Purdy and his staff also offer certain drinks that golfers would expect to order if on a real course or clubhouse. “Our John Dalys and our Transfusions are our biggest sellers,” he noted, “basically because they’re ‘golf drinks.’”


He added, “We’ve also developed some great relationships with our distributors. For example, we have a great relationship with one of the craft beer breweries, and they let us rename/rebrand one of their beers. It was the Duckpin Pale Ale, but it’s now the 5i Pale Ale.” Five Iron’s Baltimore location also boasts a really good bourbon collection, with Pappy Van Winkle being particularly popular.

Before getting into hospitality, Purdy started his professional career in corporate event coordination on the audio-visual side. He transitioned into an accounting role with a consulting company. On the side, he worked several odd jobs including sales at Bay Wine & Spirits in North Beach, Md., where his mother is the co-owner.


“Five Iron combines two of my favorite things in the world – golf and a bar!” he exclaimed. “I’ve worked my way up from server to manager to eventually being in charge of our Baltimore location, and here we are. Five Iron has been a unique experience in that we’re not just food and beverage. The fact that we have the golf simulators, we were able to follow all of the rules put in place by our municipality as far as COVID restrictions. We initially opened back up as just a golf simulator and kept our kitchen and bar closed for a while. As restrictions started easing, we were able to open up with each new step and were able to serve food and drink and offer that whole customer experience. People in Maryland, they love their golf. And in the wintertime, when you can’t go outside, our loyal customers come in, and we can’t keep golfers away from hitting balls.”

Along the way, Purdy has soaked in advice from several mentors across various industries. One key piece of advice that helped him as GM of Five Iron Golf was to “develop relationships.” Purdy says he treats every interaction as an opportunity for a new relationship, whether it’s Five Iron’s members who come in frequently or the various distributors who go from location to location. Perhaps the best advice he was given was from a former co-general manager at Five Iron Golf: “He once told me, ‘The best ability is availability.’ That will stick in my head forever.”

Looking ahead to 2022, Purdy says there is reason for optimism at least with regards to Five Iron Golf. In early November, the four-year-old startup secured a $30 million investment from golf-behemoth Callaway. Meanwhile, the Baltimore location’s subscriber base continues to grow.


Purdy concluded, “I take it one day at time, especially given how things are constantly changing. We like to be adaptable. I believe we have been here at Five Iron. Given how the community has stood behind us from the very beginning of the pandemic all the way through now, I am optimistic that we are going to continue to see success.” 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) February 2022 Editions Tue, 01 Feb 2022 14:17:42 -0500
Feebs Distilling Feebs_Logo.jpg

Feebs Distilling of Milford, Delaware, is looking to make inroads in the Maryland spirits market. It not only has the right products to sell, it has the right story to sell. Co-founder Eric Fibelkorn and his wife, Stacey Arnold, had dreamt of going into the beverage business. But it took Arnold’s cancer diagnosis in 2017 and subsequent survival to convince them that life is too short not to follow one’s bliss. Feebs Distilling, whose name is based on a Fibelkorn family nickname, was subsequently born.

In a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, she recalled, “I went through all of the radiation and chemo and ended up on this side of the dirt. That’s when we decided we were going to go for it. But we were not going to mortgage the house. We don’t have investors or bank loans. We do everything out of pocket. When we started out, we would buy a barrel when we had the money. So, we only had one, 30-gallon barrel to make bourbon. That obviously has changed. We now have 30 barrels aging in the distillery.” 


The entrepreneurial couple hand-crafts small batch brandy and corn liquor. Most of their liquors are indeed classified as brandy by the federal government due to their distilling process and chemical makeup. 

Arnold stated, “We have five flavored brandies and then the corn liquor. What’s the favorite? So far, there is not a top seller. I pull the report every Monday, and they’re still neck and neck. Peach is a fan favorite. My favorite is blueberry. Eric’s favorite is apple. We also have a strawberry and a blueberry brandy.”


She continued, “We offer the most bang for your buck. We call it ‘real deal liquor.’ Craft is a whole market of its own. It’s never going to sell like Jack Daniels or Absolut. But there’s a whole market of people who appreciate what we do – the time, the cost, the ingredients, all of those things. We put in the work to create a product that is true to tradition.”

From the get-go, Fibelkorn has been insistent that all of Feebs’ liquors are made using the Tennessee method for making moonshine. Feebs Distilling gets all its fruit from Fifer Orchards in Camden-Wyoming, Delaware, and all of their grain is sourced from the nearby town of Laurel. Arnold said, “Our label says ‘moonshine,’ and we honor that tradition. So, if it doesn’t grow on the ground or on a tree, we don’t use it. We don’t use any artificial colors or flavors either.”


Feebs Distilling may be a relatively young company, but its first years in business have been a trial by fire. The business is located in an old warehouse owned by Penco Products. The couple rents the 1,762 square feet of space for the distilling process, along with a small tasting room they open on weekends for tastings and sales.

Most of its time in business, Feebs has been operating amid the pandemic. “We got started on May 30, 2019,” said Arnold. “By the time we had enough of everything to bottle and open the doors, it was the third week of December. People came, the business picked up in January 2020, and it was all going great in February. And then March happened, and everybody shut down.”

The husband-and-wife team immediately switched to a “call ahead-pay-curbside pickup” model. The result? Business went through the roof! She marveled, “Every time our governor extraordinaire went to give a new speech on the virus, people were like, ‘Oh my God. What if he closes down liquor stores? I usually get three bottles. But I’m going to buy five bottles!’ It was insane. Word of mouth really kicked in. People who couldn’t come in and sample ended up just buying our products. We stayed closed until September. Finally, when we did re-open, there was this whole new group of people who were suddenly our core customers.”


Feebs Distilling is indeed now looking to gets it products on the shelves of Maryland’s packaged goods stores. It helps that Arnold is a Maryland native, originally from Harford County. “I’m a transplant, who’s been here for 16 years,” she declared. “I still have friends from Maryland who come and get our liquor. It’s not unheard of any weekend to have customers from Dorchester County or Salisbury.  . . . What we’ve realized with Feebs Distilling is everybody wants good liquor, and they want it triple-distilled and clean so they can still get up the next morning and function.”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) February 2022 Editions Tue, 01 Feb 2022 13:52:11 -0500
A Beverage Biz Look Ahead ... The 2022 Legislative Session Leg_Preview_Jan22.jpg

With new variants popping up, it’s clear that the coronavirus will be a factor in all aspects of our lives for some time to come, whether it’s personal or professional or political. But the wheels of government grind on. I’ve been penning these annual legislative update features for the Beverage Journal for a decade now. Last year’s edition was unlike any I had ever written up, with 2020 being the birth of COVID-19 and the absolute height of business restrictions statewide.

So, with the vaccines and booster shots and eased government policies, was 2021 really any better? Compared to 2020? Of course, it was! But two years of this now are starting to constitute an “era.” And Annapolis has adapted to these times, as have beverage industry interests looking to have their voices heard in the state capital.

For this year’s update, the two Legislative co-Chairs of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA) agreed to go on record and chat about the year ended and the year to come. David Marberger of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis proudly declared, “This past legislative year, we were able to defeat chain stores from being able to sell alcoholic beverages. They were trying to disguise it as ‘food deserts,’ a term we have to deal with from now on, I guess. One of the arguments was that there are some underserved areas throughout the state that don’t have access to quality food, fresh fruits and vegetables, good meats, and so forth. In an attempt to lure supermarkets and grocery store chains into those areas, there was a bill proposed that would have allowed alcohol sales in grocery stores to help bring national chains to those ‘food deserts.’ From a public health perspective is the angle, I guess, they were taking. Fortunately, we were able to defeat that.”


MSLBA’s other Legislative Co-Chair Jack Milani also applauded the victory. But he acknowledged that the discussion about supermarkets, grocery stores, and other chain retailers like Target selling beer and wine will certainly come up again. “It is a constant and never-ending battle that I am sure we will have to look for in 2022,” he remarked. “Last year, there was also an attempt at an alcohol tax increase. I’m not sure if we’ll see that again. But if it does come around, we’ll be ready for it. I don’t know. Maybe in the year to come in Annapolis, it will be other businesses and industries in the headlines.  That’ll be fine by me!”

Nevertheless, Milani and Marberger are indeed prepared for battle, and they want others to be ready also. So, too, does attorney and MSLBA lobbyist J. Steven "Steve" Wise, who noted that beverage industry interests should be particularly aware that the year ahead is one where voters will eventually be going to the ballot box. He said, “It may not be on people’s minds yet, but 2022 is an election year in Maryland where the statewide offices of Comptroller, Attorney General, and Governor are all up, as well as all 188 seats in the General Assembly. That will be in the backdrop of everything that occurs for January all the way through the election in November.”


Milani, proprietor of Monaghan’s Pub in Baltimore, added that the bigger picture may be comprised of smaller snapshots. “Some of the issues that go under the radar each year are local issues, county by county,” he explained. “That brings to mind the importance of every retailer to get involved at the local level. You should not only get to know your elected officials and talk to them well before session even starts ... also attending your liquor board hearings. Everybody should be doing that. That’s when you hear these things first pop up that no one else knows about. The only way you are going to find out about it is if there is someone there at the meeting to hear what’s being proposed. Then, you can possibly stop it at the very beginning if it’s going to be detrimental to the rest of the state. Most things start out on the local level and they turn into a statewide issue.”

Another issue that will likely draw attention in 2022 is direct shipping, specifically from distilleries but wine and beer also. “As retailers, when we open our doors every day, we are susceptible to stings and undercover operations,” explained Marberger. “With direct-to-consumer, there are very little – if any – compliance checks. How do you make sure packages are delivered only to those people who are 21 years of age or older or make sure the person who ordered it is 21 or older. There is none of that. It’s certainly not a fair system, and there could be a lot of underage people getting their hands on alcohol that way.”

One positive that all three men say has happened in the COVID era, and that they are hopeful will continue, is state legislators becoming more sympathetic of the plight of small business owners and their importance to the communities these elected officials serve. Milani said, “They’ve heard from a lot of folks who have talked about small businesses and the importance of looking out for them. We just hope they keep that same attitude and urgency once COVID passes, where they do look out for the small, independent-owned, family-owned type businesses. Hopefully, they saw how much the general population was supportive of their small, local businesses during troubled times.”


He continued, “I had customers who sent checks to our waitstaff while we were going through the worst of COVID. A lot of people tried to help, and a lot of legislators saw how small businesses have that connection with their neighborhoods. When you live in a neighborhood and work in a neighborhood and that’s where you are from, you have a different sense of how things should operate. I do think legislators enjoy hearing from regular folks. They hear from lobbyists all session long. They need to hear from the people who are actually doing things every day in their communities.”

Marberger concurred, adding, “Last year was not a typical year in terms of the Legislature. Everything was done virtually. You couldn’t roam the halls and see your legislator and talk to him [or her].  But I do think there was increased opportunity for all of us to work with the Legislature to make whatever changes or tweaks needed to come, such as drinks to go. I personally had a difficult time seeing our business boom so much while our neighbors – specifically the restaurant operators – were dying on the vine. Retailers didn’t do anything right or wonderful to warrant doing all of that extra business, and restaurants didn’t do anything wrong to warrant having to fight for their lives. Drinks to go was put together to help those on-premise accounts, and that was done with constant communication with our elected officials to craft something that would get them through the times, but eventually have to sunset.”

As for what’s ahead, both Milani and Marberger cited a certain amount of fatigue trying to plan for what challenges await their businesses even a week from now, to say nothing of what will come during the entirety of the new year. 


Milani commented, “I’m cautiously optimistic. People are certainly going out more to restaurants. Hopefully, more people will be going into their offices, and that will help restaurants with their daytime business. We’re all just hoping the vaccines stay ahead of the virus, and we can continue to try and return to normal. Again, if this article could stress one thing, it’s the importance of getting the retail community to try and form relationships with their elected officials to the point where they know who you are, they actually expect you to call them about certain issues, and maybe they’ll even reach out to you and ask your opinion on those same issues.”

Marberger remarked, “I’ve stopped trying to guess what’s coming next in this industry. I think things are going to get worse on the supply chain side before they get better. We’re still experiencing a lot of out-of-stocks and limited quantities. All of the shipping costs have doubled even tripled for products coming from overseas. Even products that are being moved around the country domestically are getting more expensive. So, we’re going to start seeing higher prices. It will get worse before it gets better . . . but I do hope it gets better soon!”

Wise is still buzzing over the successful year just concluded that the beverage industry had in Annapolis and is hoping the momentum will carry over to 2022. “We were able to defeat the beer and wine in supermarkets bill, and there had been discussions about increasing the alcohol tax, and that turned out to not happen. Given the great uncertainty we went into last Session with, we came out tremendously well. I’m cautiously optimistic for the year ahead.”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) January 2022 Editions Fri, 31 Dec 2021 16:25:51 -0500
2022: Here we go again...? 2022.jpg

As we say adieu to 2021 and ring-in 2022, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the past and (do our best to) plan for the future.  Unfortunately, in this era of covid, our elected -- and unelected -- leaders have added an extra stratum to the already volatile beverage alcohol marketplace.  

The Maryland General Assembly will convene on January 12.  There is little doubt that legislation allowing chain stores and supermarkets to obtain retail liquor licenses as well as some beverage alcohol tax increases are going to be proposed during the 2022 legislative session. Beverage Journal staff writer Teddy Durgin has interviewed industry insiders on what to expect and how to combat this looming threat.  Check out his piece on page 26.

Your Livelihood Depends on It

If you believe the happenings and decisions made at your local liquor board and in the Maryland State House do not influence your business, I’m afraid you may not be long for the beverage alcohol industry.  The era of covid has spotlighted the affect the regulatory and legislative process can have on the bottom line of a small business.  Here’s a CliffsNotes-style 'How-To' on political involvement and influence: 

You will need to know what proposed legislation is coming down the pipe and how it will affect your business.  Becoming a member of your county association as well as the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association ( is a necessary start.  The MSLBA was formed, in part, because the association's leaders understood that actions in the Maryland State House directly impact the operations of your businesses.  The MSLBA tracks such proposed legislation.  

Next, you will need to build a relationship with your local and state representatives.  Start attending your local liquor board meetings … you can find a comprehensive list of local liquor boards for the entire state of Maryland at  

You will need to know who your state elected officials are.  Go to and type in your, or your business’ address.  Make note of your State Senator and State Delegate(s).  You will want to build a relationship with your state representatives.  Introduce yourself and your business as being in their district.  Make sure they are on any communications (electronic or otherwise) you distribute to your customers/community.  Make sure you are on their lists as well.  Sending a hand-written letter of introduction with a request for a meeting is a great way to begin building a relationship with your representatives.

When the opportunity arises to interact with your representatives, it's a very good idea to be knowledgeable as to the contributions you and your business make to the community. American Beverage Licensees (ABL) has a way for you to quantify the significant contribution you make when it comes to jobs, taxes and economic impact.  Through the ‘resources’ area of the ABL website,, ABL members can create reports and download data that details the number of jobs and amount of taxes related to their communities, as well as more in-depth economic impact information at the state legislative district level.  This is a very powerful tool.  By utilizing this economic study data, you can communicate the overwhelmingly positive impact you have in your community to your representatives in Annapolis.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal. 

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) January 2022 Editions Fri, 31 Dec 2021 15:52:32 -0500
Litchfield's Fabulous Baker Boys Litfield_Brothers_Dec21.jpg

Hollywood once featured “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” about two brothers (Jeff and Beau Bridges) who are struggling musicians until they meet singer Michelle Pfeiffer. Litchield, Conn., has its own terrific Baker brothers in the form of David, Jack, and Peter Baker, co-founders of Litchfield Distillery.

Their line of bourbons, gins, vodkas, and canned cocktails are making their way into the Maryland market, and the siblings are hoping for big things. “We think our relationship with Constantine Wines is going to be a great one going forward,” said Peter Baker, the youngest of the three. “I think the demographics of Maryland are very attractive. We lose a bit of our local story the further we get away from Connecticut, but we’re pretty proud of what we do here.”


Middle brother Jack Baker thinks their Connecticut ties are still something Marylanders should appreciate and know about. “We’re lucky to have the great resources that are our local farmers,” he said. “Connecticut has great soils for grains. Our corn is known everywhere. Our rye and barley are grown in the state. The New England climate is different than, say, Kentucky.”


Litchfield Distillery’s ready-to-drink, canned cocktails should prove especially enticing to drinkers across the Old Line State. The Batcherita is the brothers’ newest concoction. This tasty, Margarita-inspired offering is crafted from a recipe with spirits distilled from agave, agave syrup, lime juice, and natural orange flavor. According to Peter, “we call ourselves ‘batchers,’ because we make small batches of things. That’s where the word ‘Batcherita’ comes from.”

Additional canned cocktails include a Spiked Lemonade and “The Litchfield,” a crowd-sourced cocktail that is a blend of the distillery’s straight Bourbon whiskey, local maple syrup, and lemon juice. Jack Baker remarked, “It’s kind of like a New England whiskey sour. It’s 7 percent alcohol, so it’s light and easy to drink. It’s very versatile and appeals to both bourbon and non-bourbon drinkers.”

Other spirits in Litchfield Distillery’s lineup include multiple bourbon whiskeys (everything from double-barreled bourbon aged five years to such flavored variations as cinnamon and coffee) and numerous flavored vodkas (apple, blueberry, and more). 

Founded in 2014, Litchfield Distillery has grown steadily and recently completed an expansion of its distillation capacity with the installation of a second fermentation and distillation line. The equipment for the second line includes a new hybrid still and five fermentation tanks. “It’s going to increase our total footprint by 50 percent,” Peter said. “We’re busting at the seams. We’re doubling our output of product, so we needed to plan for that and have plenty of room to store those barrels.”

So, what’s the secret of the brothers’ success? And how do three siblings work so closely together and still get along? The youngest was quick to answer. Peter replied, “We were in a three-generation family business [water] prior to this. So, we’ve got a lifetime experience of working together. We’re hands-on here. We are physically on the floor every day. It’s not just a couple of guys who got together, threw some money into a venture, and have had other people doing all of the distilling and sourcing. We do all of that ourselves. The upside is we have each other’s back. I tell most people who come through here, ‘Hey, at least we don’t get into fistfights anymore like we did when we were younger!’” 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) December 2021 Editions Wed, 01 Dec 2021 11:40:08 -0500
With Workers Scarce, Frederick Bars and Restaurants Stay Open as a Labor of Love Were_Open-Frederick_Dec21_HOME.jpg

Frederick, Md., is known for many things. County music legend Patsy Cline lived there in the 1950s. Francis Scott Key is buried there. The city’s minor league baseball team, the Frederick Keys, is named after “The Star-Spangled Banner” composer. The town has a symphony orchestra, some of the most beautiful historic churches in the state, and was briefly Maryland’s capital city in 1861 when the legislature moved from Annapolis to vote on the secession question.

But it’s also known for its eating and drinking establishments, some of the best of which are located along Market Street. Frederick is the latest in our series of articles about the Great Reopening of 2021, and it has a mostly positive story to tell coming out of the pandemic. 

One such Market Street favorite is Brewer’s Alley. General Manager Jamie Ellis-Ade remarks, “I think Frederick is doing great now. It’s a wonderful little foodie town. We have some awesome chefs, and the local community has really rallied around the restaurants during this time and supported us. For those people who have not taken the time to come to Frederick and dined their way down Market Street, they really should come! You can have an appetizer at three different places, an entrée with us, and still have dessert at a few more places.”


Things have definitely improved throughout 2021 for Brewer’s Alley and its various competitors. One such establishment that has seen an upswing is Showroom. General Manager Matt Josephs states, “The COVID fear is not so over-arching compared to this time last year. People seem to be more willing to dine inside restaurants now. As a result, we have redoubled our efforts on creating a guest experience that will be a memorable one -- one that people will want to return for.”

That’s not to say certain COVID-era challenges don't linger. They do. Chiefly, an ongoing labor shortage has both GMs frustrated. Josephs laments, “Retaining and finding employees has, by far, been the biggest challenge over the last year.”

Ellis-Ade concurs, adding, “Staffing has been such a big test of my leadership. Twenty years in this business, and the past year and a half has been the hardest stretch to find people who can and/or want to work. Sometimes it’s hard to come to work and be positive when you set up interviews, and only one person out of 20 shows up.”

Josephs says one of the keys moving forward will be “motivation.” There has always been a certain psychology to managing staff in service industries. But the pandemic era has made it even more imperative that employers know what’s going on with their employees and what is important to them. 


He explains, “It’s not just monetary that’s the sole or primary motivating factor anymore. People’s priorities have clearly realigned. Those of us who manage need to understand that our employees are people who need to be led in a way that they know they’re being taken care of and looked out for.”

Ellis-Ade states, “We’re now in the fourth quarter, and the world is short-staffed, short-stocked, and a year behind. We’re just living in a different world now than two years ago. But you have to adapt. You have to roll with the punches. You have to find new ways to do things that you’ve been doing for decades.”

Both were quick to point out that not everything that has come from the COVID-19 crisis has been bad. Brewer’s Alley, for example, has made increasingly smart use of technology. “We’re getting more tech-savvy,” Ellis-Ade declares, “which I feel wouldn’t have happened if the pandemic wasn’t a thing. I really like that we’ve gone to QR code menus. It’s easy for us to make menu changes now and update prices. And if we want to change specials three times a day, we can. It’s that easy. We’ve also updated our computer system during COVID to allow for greater online ordering.” Brewer’s Alley now uses the Toast online ordering system, which allows guests to order takeout directly from the restaurant.

Josephs, meanwhile, has observed an increasing comfort level among staff and customers with wearing masks: “The benefit of wearing masks has not just been to combat the coronavirus, but it has also helped to prevent other airborne illnesses. I wouldn’t be surprised if some restaurants or individuals continue wearing masks well into the future.”

Finally, Frederick bars and restaurants have discovered newfound value in features they already had. Ellis-Ade concludes, “Fortunately, we have many patio areas for dining, and that’s really helped us. Our rooftop bar, in particular, has been a real game-changer! Unfortunately, there are still customers who don’t feel comfortable sitting inside.” 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) December 2021 Editions Wed, 24 Nov 2021 09:16:28 -0500
BCLBA ... Rockin’ at the Races  BCLBA-RR_HOME.jpg

Members of the beverage alcohol industry recently gathered for the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association’s (BCLBA) Rockin’ at the Races event at the Timonium Fairground Grandstand Concourse.  Industry members from all over Maryland joined the fun.  Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to gather and take part in corn hole competitions, beer, wine and liquor tasting stations, local restaurant tasting stations, pig on a pit, pit beef, raw oysters, money wheels, liquor wheels, betting on the ponies and much, much more.

 Click Here to check out all the fantastic pictures from the event (thank you Ashli Mix Photography). 

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) December 2021 Editions Wed, 24 Nov 2021 08:53:51 -0500
2021 Holiday Gift Guide Holiday-Gift_0001.jpg

It seems the world is still in flux from COVID-19, but one constant remains: people are still buying beverage alcohol. This holiday season, make sure your shelves are stocked for the ultimate buying experience. The Beverage Media Holiday Gift Guide remains a staple resource for the industry to showcase a sample of value-added packs and gift boxes available this season. From whiskies to sparkling wine and everything in between, we've featured an array of products. Remember, availability and prices vary by market. Please check with your distributors.

Have a happy, healthy and prosperous holiday season! 

Click Here to check out al the exciting value-added packs and gift boxes available this season.   

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) November 2021 Editions Wed, 03 Nov 2021 13:03:25 -0400
The Barking Dog of Bethesda Barking-Dog_0001.jpg

Has The Pandemic Taken a Bite Out of The Dog?

Establishments that depend on commercial-district employees as their patrons encounter unique obstacles in their attempt to return to normal.

This is the fourth in a series of articles I’ve been writing on the Great Reopening of 2021. And while the previous installments covered the successful returns to form of Baltimore, Ellicott City, and Ocean City, Md., this month’s market – the office-heavy, Montgomery County city of Bethesda – has not fared as well in the ongoing pandemic.

John McManus, co-owner of The Barking Dog located in the heart of Bethesda’s commercial district, is one of those proprietors who has felt the sting. “There’s no one down here!” he exclaimed, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. “There are crickets. You could throw a grenade down the street and you wouldn’t kill anybody. Now, there are some people who have returned to their offices. I’ll give you a perfect example. My wife is in a brand-new office half a block from here. She just started going back three days a week. But her office is 60 percent empty. People are coming back, and they’re going out. We did have a big Happy Hour last night [this interview was conducted in late September] with an office that brought 35 or 40 people. But that is, by far, the exception and not the rule. Things are NOT back to normal!”

The biggest loss of revenue for The Barking Dog has been substantially fewer corporate events and office parties. “It’s where we make our money,” McManus said. “Selling beer and burgers is fine. But I need the parties to make the money.”


John McManus, co-owner of The Barking Dog

He continued, “I just don’t think people are comfortable yet, especially in Bethesda. Bethesda is highly vaccinated. Yet you see people wearing masks in their cars by themselves. I don’t have a problem with personal safety, and we are starting to get some parties. But I literally just had a lady call me. She asked about windows being opened and mask mandates, and I said, ‘Listen, it sounds like you need to stay home! I can’t guarantee you anything.’”

Other nearby eating and drinking establishments have been going through similar upheaval.  Among the once-popular businesses that have closed during the last 18-plus months are Booeymonger, Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, George’s Chophouse, Gusto Farm to Street, Jaleo, and Prima, among others.

“For us,” McManus noted, “things are about 90 percent back to where they were. Yes, a lot of that is a function of the fact that many places have closed. And there’s a lot of weird patterns going on here in Bethesda, and I can’t figure them out.” Indeed, Muscle Bar is closed two days a week. By most accounts, the Silver Diner is hurting for customers during the week, but quite busy on the weekends.

The Barking Dog has advantages, though, that some of these other places lack. “We are in a little different situation than others,” McManus conceded, “because we’re privately owned. My partner [Bob Brooksbank] and I have owned it for 21 years. We own the building. We own everything in it. We don’t lease equipment. We don’t have any bank debt. The only thing we have is an SBA loan, which is what saved us during the pandemic. Had we not gotten that loan, we probably would have been out of business.”

McManus stated that the biggest test of his and Brooksbank’s leadership has been managing finances. “But let me tell you,” he added, with a big grin. “I was on the ball with the grants and the loans! The minute they announced them, I filed. The difference is, if you weren’t legitimate, you weren’t getting money. If you were paying people under the table, you weren’t getting money. If you weren’t paying yourself, you weren’t getting money. A lot of places that operated in the ‘underground economy’ where they don’t pay people on a payroll, they weren’t going to get Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money and they sure weren’t going to get a grant if they couldn’t prove income. We’re real. We have an accountant. We have a bookkeeper. What the government did saved a lot of small businesses in America. People can say what they want. PPP wasn’t a perfect program. A lot of people abused it. But it saved my family business. It was instrumental. The government mucks a lot of things up. But, man, they did it right with that.”


"I literally just had a lady call me. She asked about windows being opened and mask mandates, and I said, ‘Listen, it sounds like you need to stay home!  I can’t guarantee you anything.” ~John McManus

On the local level, he added, “The minute Montgomery County would announce a grant, I would apply. I got multiple grants from the county. They weren’t a lot [of money], but they helped! Navigating the PPP was a [female dog], but we got both our loans forgiven. Also, Montgomery County did us a solid when they allowed off-premise alcohol sales. That is something I really hope stays. I was also very lucky to have an outdoor space with picnic tables that we added literally right before the pandemic. I obtained a permit for outdoor dining and seating, which I had for years. But until I got picnic tables, it was never a big thing for us. It worked out really well. It was the best thousand dollars I ever spent! The return on that has been awesome.”

Speaking to other operators reading this who are struggling with the still lingering coronavirus, McManus stressed the need for personal dedication to the job and the business during such times of crisis. “I’ve been here 21 years,” he said, “and the only reason I’ve survived is because I’m here every day! My partner and I have worked together a total of 31 years, and he and I are here every single day.”

But even he can see the day coming when he might step away: “I have my last kid in college. My wife works. I’m 57 years old, and I bought my first place when I was 25. I haven’t been afraid to gamble, and I think I’ve managed my money well.”

Nevertheless, McManus remains an optimist. “The glass is always half-full and not half-empty with me,” he concluded. “I’ve also had a lot of help, and I give credit where credit is due. As far as I’m concerned, if you can survive the pandemic up until this point, you can basically survive anything. It has required people to work harder, make less. But, ultimately, if you came out of it, you were a Hell of a lot stronger.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) November 2021 Editions Wed, 03 Nov 2021 12:48:09 -0400
Tips for the Holiday Selling Season SFD_Holiday_Selling_Tips_by_Christy_Frank_Hero_CO_Wolfes_Wine_Shoppe_DecantSF_Center_Wines_and_Spirits_2520x1420

Retailers are gearing up for the year’s biggest months. Here are eight essential rules for reducing headaches and increasing profits 

By Christy Frank

Despite lingering pandemic concerns, persistent staff shortages, and supply chain woes, retailers are looking forward to a holiday season that could almost feel normal—at least compared to last year. 

We spoke with retailers across the country to get their top tips for ensuring the season goes as smoothly—and profitably—as possible. 

01 – Get A Head Start With Your Corporate Clients

When it comes to assisting clients with their gift lists, there’s no such thing as too early. “This year, we were very proactive,” says Jeffrey Wolfe, owner of Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe in Florida. “For the first time, I mailed an actual letter to former, current, and potential clients focused on tips for stress-free holiday personal and corporate gift-giving. I laid out the required timing, the info I need, and what I can do in terms of selection, gift notes, and delivery.”

“We contact our clients in October letting them know that gifting early is the new late,” explains Karen Williams, proprietor of ACME Fine Wines in Napa Valley. She also lets them know that they’ll need to use the ACME company spreadsheet. “We have a proprietary format that speeds up the gifting process so that unnecessary, precious, unavailable time isn’t spent deciphering or reconfiguring hundreds of business and personal spreadsheets. It has allowed us a streamlined holiday bliss of our own.”

And don’t forget the virtual get-together. “People are still working remotely and companies are finding unique ways to keep the team together,” says Sunshine Foss, the owner of Brooklyn’s Happy Cork. “You definitely want to take advantage of this.” Check in with existing clients to see if there’s interest in offering a virtual tasting to their team or their own clients. This can be as simple as conducting a Zoom tasting focused on the wine your client is already gifting, or as complex as working with a food purveyor to do a combined tasting. While it may be too late to schedule something for the holidays, you can also lay the groundwork for events in the new year.

An impressive gift box at ACME Fine Wines resonates with shoppers who want to make a splash for the holidays. Courtesy of Emma K Morris

An impressive gift box at ACME Fine Wines resonates with shoppers who want to make a splash for the holidays. Courtesy of Emma K Morris

02 – Consider Supply Chain Issues In Your Buying Decisions

Supply chain disruptions have made stocking up on core items a challenge for over a year—and the holidays will only put more pressure on this stressed pipeline. It will be particularly problematic for key categories like Champagne. “We are locking in Champagne buys much earlier than we might otherwise,” explains Jill Bernheimer, owner of Domaine LA. She ordered Champagne for her December wine club in September. “I can’t risk not being able to get product which is exactly what might happen if I hesitate even a few days.”

This year it will be critical to have a list of backup options—the more, the better. “This year, we are moving a bit beyond the well known names of Champagne and trying to find more delicious sparkling wines from around the world,” says Cara Patricia, cofounder of DECANTsf. “We are bringing in a greater variety of SKUs from the smaller growers whom we’ve built relationships with over the years.” 

03 – Buy Deep (And Familiar) To Keep Margins Healthy

‘Tis the season to buy deeper on key items. Analyze past sales history and “for fast-moving wine, if you don’t always buy the deep deals, Q4 is the time to do it,” says JT Robertson, general manager at Le Du Wines in Manhattan. “There is often an opportunity to save five to 10 percent on the bottle cost at larger quantities. This might not make sense during slower quarters, but in Q4, a dollar here, a dollar there adds up very quickly.”

“Consider strategically overbuying,” suggests Erin Bender, general manager at Irving Bottle in Brooklyn. “We’ll stock up on higher-end items to take advantage of seasonal deals, knowing we’ll sell some during the holidays and the rest throughout the next year.” This does tie up cash, but if the discounts are deep enough, the positive margin impact can be worth it.

This is also the time to focus on the classics. ”We always increase our collection of cru Beaujolais, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Barolo, and Brunello beginning in October,” says Patricia. “The meals prepared in the fall and winter just seem to love those wines.” Customers gravitate to these familiar regions as well, which makes life easy. Once the holidays are over, and customers and shop staff have more time, retailers can return to hand-selling their shop’s quirkier wines.

Courtesy of Emma K Morris

Courtesy of Emma K Morris 

04 – Let Your Displays Do The Talking—And The Selling

Set up your displays so they make it easy for your customer to grab and go. Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe offers grape variety-focused six-packs as well as an “everything you need for the holidays” case that typically includes a mix of crowd-pleasing reds, whites, and of course, bubbles. Marissa Ocasio, wine consultant at Center Wine & Spirits in Glastonbury, Connecticut, suggests displaying cocktail ingredients together; for example, group a popular gin, Campari, and vermouth together for shoppers to make Negronis, and consider including accessories such as large ice cube trays. At Copake Wine Works, we keep a table full of small-format bottles available as stocking stuffers.

David Ucci, head of sales at Vino di Vino in the Boston area, recommends a “good, better, best” approach, showcasing wines from three different price points within a category. “This could be variety, region, country of origin, or producer,” he explains. “Then I can easily point to something that’s understandable for the customer.” This allows the customer to choose the price point that’s right for them, which may be higher than you think. Remember, this is the time of year to “sell fearlessly,” Ucci adds. “The last thing you want to do is undersell your customer and not give them the option to give the perfect gift that they want to give.”

05 – Don’t Forget The Go-To Gift Card

Gift cards are a holiday staple, so make sure you offer them in some form. While virtual certificates that can be used both online or in-store are the holy grail, old-school paper cards tracked on a spreadsheet can also work. No matter what format you use, be sure to clearly communicate the expiration date. “Make sure you train your staff on how to sell them, how to redeem them, and where you store them—before the season kicks into gear,” stresses Irving Bottle’s Bender.

06 – Be Strategic About Gift Wrapping

Gift wrapping options can range from intricate and involved, to simple and efficient, and retailers should seriously consider the space and staff required for prep work and storage before developing their strategy. Branded elements add a special touch but require longer lead times to order and involve higher costs. “We use gift bags instead of traditional wrapping to keep things moving,” suggests Ocasio, “and we pre-curl the ribbon.” 

TJ Douglas, who owns Urban Grape in Boston with his wife Hadley, invests in a more elaborate gifting set up and then brings in additional staff to manage it. “We make sure that only a few people are doing gift wrapping and that they are trained the same way so that every single package comes out looking beautiful,”he shares. 

For shops that have the necessary space, Allegra Angelo at Vinya Wines in Miami suggests “making a boxing station that is grand and over-the-top. Make it an experience. Have a pitcher of homemade drinks, one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic. For example, we’re serving a twist on Coquito, a creamy, rum-spiked Puerto Rican drink.” This sort of display can highlight your gift wrapping offerings and entertain your customers while they wait.

07 – Be Totally Honest About Shipping Deadlines

If your shop ships and you haven’t already ordered your materials, stop reading this article and go order them now. 

Next: It’s critical to know the most current cut-off dates for all common carriers. UPS and FedEx aren’t guaranteeing arrival dates for many of their services, so retailers shouldn’t either. “It is always better to be upfront with a customer about limitations and possible delays,” says Le Du’s Robertson. “Even if it means you lose the sale because you’re telling someone the truth about what could happen, it’s always better than failing their request because of reasons beyond your control.”  

While ground shipping is more economical, be sure to offer expedited shipping for reasons of weather and timing. “We let guests know that if they’re worried about the extra bucks it costs for expedited shipping, we recommend that they call up a wine shop more local to their recipient and place an order with them,” says DECANTsf’s Patricia. “We’re always happy to recommend shops that carry comparable wines.”

08 – Make Sure All Staff Members Stay Happy And Healthy

Even for shops that have the relative luxury of being fully staffed, it’s still going to be a wild ride. “The temptation is to go full throttle from morning until night,” says Ucci. “But it’s really important to build in down time for your teams so that everybody can maintain a high level of reserves. They need to have something at the end, because that’s when it’s the hardest.”

At my shop, Copake Wine Works in upstate New York, we kick off the season with an all-hands-on-deck training session to review store procedure and holiday-specific processes—as well as eat pastries and drink the first of many coffees. At ACME Fine Wines, “We’ll have pizza and Champagne gifting parties if we go late into the after-hours work day,” says Williams, “It keeps morale high.” Whatever you’re pouring, make sure to include everyone—salespeople, cashiers, delivery teams, stock people, and gift wrappers—because nothing makes the holiday season go more smoothly than a well-trained—and well-fed—team.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) November 2021 Editions Wed, 03 Nov 2021 12:43:21 -0400
What Delivery Drivers Wish You Knew Titus Laie, courtesy of Last Mile Hillebrand; Abbey Koenig, courtesy of T Elenteny Imports; Ovren Anderson, M.S. Walker; and Edward DeVito, courtesy of Martignetti

Titus Laie, courtesy of Last Mile Hillebrand; Abbey Koenig, courtesy of T Elenteny Imports; Ovren Anderson, M.S. Walker; and Edward DeVito, courtesy of Martignetti

Distributor drivers and warehouse managers from across the country share their tips for restaurants and retailers on how delivery logistics can run more efficiently

By Christy Frank

The truck drivers who deliver wine and spirits to shops and restaurants may clock hundreds of miles each week crisscrossing their state, or battle snarls of urban traffic (or both) while moving hundreds of cases each day. While many accounts see their delivery driver more often than their sales rep, these interactions are often taken for granted. 

“While that final step of bringing the wine to someone might seem really simple—you placed an order and now you’re receiving it—there’s so much backend coordination that goes into getting you that wine,” says Grant Richardson, owner of Pangea Selections in Texas. “People want to be taken care of, but they don’t understand all the moving parts and planning that goes into that 10-minute interaction between the receiver and the driver.” 

Beverage Media spoke with truck drivers for distributors across the country to learn how the delivery process can be improved. 

Provide Clear, Precise, and Up-To-Date Delivery Instructions 

Drivers really do read these and depend on them in order to plan their route throughout the day. It’s critical for buyers to specify accurate receiving windows of time and to note the days the business is completely closed. Titus Laie, a driver with Last Mile Hillebrand in California, stresses the importance of also providing detailed instructions on which door to deliver to and how to find it, as well as information on one-way streets or side streets that make for better entrances. Details on specific staging areas within the account are also very helpful. Laie also stresses the importance of listing telephone numbers that will be answered (and won’t be directed straight to the business’s answering machine). 

The Importance of Process and Well-Trained Staff 

“I’m invading your space—I know that,” says Emmanuelle Barbe, a driver with Kellogg Selections in North Carolina. “I’ll try to make it as smooth as possible, and please do the same for me.” Ideally, every staff member should be trained and authorized to receive deliveries and know exactly how to handle incoming cases. 

“Drivers are creatures of habit. When a location has everything clearly marked, where to drop product, where to drop paperwork along with who to go to for a signature, this is when things run the smoothest,” says Rob Martin, also with Last Mile Hillebrand. 

Developing seamless processes pays off for everyone on both sides of the transaction, says Edward DeVito, SVP warehouse operations and delivery at Martignetti Companies in Massachusetts: “Going to an account with nice receivers who know what they are doing, those are my favorite accounts.” 

Accept the Order. Don’t Ask Drivers to Come Back

Asking a driver to come back later may seem like a simple request but it makes walking the logistical tightrope even more challenging. “A lot of accounts aren’t available during their provided time windows and we must then reattempt several times to make the delivery,” Laie shares. “This impacts all the other deliveries scheduled for that day.”

Accounts may not realize the logistical nightmare this can create. “You have to figure out how you’re going to navigate to go backward,” says Orven Anderson, a driver with M.S. Walker in Massachusetts. This involves constantly reworking his route and physically reshuffling hundreds of cases in his truck multiple times a day. 

This isn’t simply considerate to drivers—it keeps costs down. “Being flexible on receiving windows and attentive and prompt when signing for deliveries helps us be more efficient,” says Charisse Tolano, dispatch manager at Last Mile Hillebrand . “This keeps delivery prices lower. Delivery companies like FedEx charge three times the price we do, and that’s without offering specific time windows or temperature control.”

Fintech Is Your Friend

If you’re in a market that requires payment upon delivery, drivers urge you to have checks ready and waiting. If available, explore an online pre-payment system such as Fintech, which ensures that anyone can accept delivery—without needing to track down a check or someone authorized to write one. Those “few minutes” quickly add up. “In the big scheme, it’s nothing,” says Kellogg Selections’ Barbe. “But in our day, 25 minutes plus 25 minutes plus 25 minutes will make the difference between a happy customer at the end of the route and a very angry customer who’s not receiving his wine on time.” Besides, as Temez Isaac, a driver with Rive Gauche Wine Co. in Georgia, adds, your driver “won’t need to worry about carrying this little slip of paper that might be worth thousands of dollars.”

Check the Invoice—Always!

“It would be great if the receiver knew exactly what the buyer had ordered,” says Barbe. This may seem like wine receiving 101, but nearly everyone we spoke with complained about the frequency of delivered products not matching the invoice, and the mis-ship not being noticed. 

“Even if you discuss it verbally with the driver,” says Elly Hartshorn, the founder of Sidekick Delivery, which joined forces with Hillebrand in 2017 to form Last Mile Hillebrand, “always note any discrepancies with your signature on the Bill of Lading (BOL).”

It’s time well spent to save headaches later. “A BOL is a legally binding document and a huge piece in determining when things go awry,” explains Abbey Koenig, senior account manager at T. Elenteny Imports. If an issue isn’t marked at the time of delivery, an account can request an investigation at the warehouse, but if a physical inventory can’t confirm it, “there is not much we can do.”

Prufrock driver Seth Dixon, who listens to the Dollup podcast while driving.

Prufrock driver Seth Dixon, who listens to the Dollup podcast while driving.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

“As drivers, we are on the front line and we take the heat for the salespeople, office people, wine producers, and warehouses when they make mistakes,” explains Laie. “We are human and sometimes we make mistakes too, but most of the time we are at the end of a long telephone chain.” 

“I’m happy to help and answer questions if I can,” says Seth Dixon, a driver with Prufrock Wines in Oregon, “but no, I don’t know what you talked about with your salesman. All I know is what’s on my invoice.” Make sure you have general guidelines in place so anyone receiving an order will know what to do—receive it as is, refuse it entirely, or try to reach you (and if they can’t, what to do then). If this varies by distributor, make sure you have detailed instructions accessible.

Build Relationships—Acts of Kindness Are Noticed

“We’re all in this together” was a common refrain during all our conversations with drivers. Delivery drivers recognize that they’re tightly tied into a codependent supply chain network, even if the accounts don’t. Get on a first name basis with them and take time for some small talk to build trust and respect. 

“The customers we have good communication with make our jobs so much easier,” says Anderson. “Those are the customers that you don’t mind going the extra length for every now and then if they need it.” And yes, drivers have favorites. “All accounts, big or small, are important for us, but the accounts that treat us with respect, not as delivery guys, are always our favorites,” shares Gardy Dumesle, the long-time warehouse manager at New York’s Rosenthal Wine Merchant.

“When you are on the road all day, you don’t have a breakroom, per se, so accounts that offer water or use of their bathroom makes you feel like a human,” explains Last Mile Hillebrand’s Hartshorn. “Those acts of kindness make the job worth it.” And don’t underestimate the power of a good snack. Rive Gauche’s Isaac fondly remembers a mind-blowing basil cake with strawberry sorbet and Martignetti’s DeVito recalls a thank you sandwich after wrapping up a 300-case delivery. 

Most accounts wouldn’t think twice about offering this sort of hospitality to their customers and should be offering it to their drivers as well. As Barbe put it, “Everybody is a customer for everybody. Treat everybody with respect.”

And please, don’t forget to check your invoice.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) November 2021 Editions Wed, 03 Nov 2021 12:19:30 -0400
It’s No Seacret: Ocean City Roars Back Seacrets_001.jpg

Vacation destinations have seen their share of hurdles in an attempt to return to normal.

Written By Teddy Durgin  |  Photography by Ashli Mix

This is the latest in a series of articles I’ve been writing on the Great Reopening of 2021. And while the previous installments covered the successful returns to form of Baltimore and Ellicott City, nowhere has this year differed from last year in such a big and positive way as Ocean City, Md. 

And one of the biggest beneficiaries has been Seacrets, the massive Jamaican-themed bar, restaurant, and nightclub that has been a mainstay in Maryland’s most popular resort town since 1998. General Manager Scott Studds has kept a steady hand at the wheel throughout the entire pandemic, and he and his staff have been reaping the rewards since May.


"A huge goal of this summer was to not close any days and not cut back on any of our normal business hours.” ~ Scott Studds General Manager

“Honestly, it hasn’t taken a lot to get people back,” he said, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. “I say that very appreciatively. But it was apparent that people were ready to come back out. We’re fortunate in that the majority of our business is outdoors, so I think people feel a certain comfort level in that respect. Two-thirds of our place is exterior, the majority of our dining is outdoors. If you’re someone who hasn’t been around a lot of crowds, knowing that we are open air and you won’t be limited to a certain spot is comforting. We have a 4,600-customer capacity, so you can imagine how big we are. You can find a spot at Seacrets based on your comfort level that’s a little less crowded or just a little off to the side that you feel safe at. It’s leant itself to a great summer.”

It’s certainly been a far cry from summer 2020 when COVID-19 was raging through the state, the country, and the world, and there were no vaccines in sight. Rules and regulations kept changing. Information and misinformation was rampant. People were staying home.  And if they were heading out for a beach vacation . . . it was for a true beach vacation! The tourists stayed on the sand, stayed outdoors, and mostly ordered take-out and curbside food and drink and took their eats and treats back to their motels and timeshares.


Matthew Morrison, Bartender

Studds recalls, “Last year obviously, so much more was unknown. There was the beginning of the pandemic, the shutting down of almost the entire business for a few months, then rolling into limited capacities. People had to be masked and distance-seated. It changed our business model in terms of how we ran the place, because we were and are a live entertainment complex. But live entertainment, dance floors were not possible, and we really had to adjust. It made things quite different. We went from being a free-flow, walk-around, stage-to-stage place to where we were physically seating every single customer who walked into the door the entire summer of 2020.”

Seacrets scaled back its entertainment offerings, putting on stage more solo acts and duos. Nothing really high energy. “It was nice to hear live music,” Studds remarked, “but it wasn’t performers that really made you want to get up and dance or up moving around. We didn’t want to create an issue that we didn’t have at that point. There was the whole not knowing how to deal with the ever-changing rules and the landscape of the pandemic itself as far as what we were supposed to be doing to protect not only your customers, but also your employees.”


Robert Gordy, Bartender

He continued, “As far as this year goes, we had a pretty good idea of what the restrictions would be because they were being timed with the vaccines going out. We knew we would be allowed to open up more. We’ve been pretty fortunate this year with comparatively low numbers on the Shore and the state in terms of positive [COVID] cases.”

Staffing issues locally have helped Seacrets, too. Some eating and drinking places weren’t open as much or as often this past summer. “I think we benefited from that to a certain point,” Studds acknowledged. “We’ve felt the same pressures and struggles. But we’ve done our best to work around those. A huge goal of this summer was to not close any days and not cut back on any of our normal business hours. Up until this interview [in late August], we’ve been able to accomplish that. We’ve had to shrink certain areas. There have been some nights where we’ve said, ‘Well, we’re not going to open this section or this bar’ at certain times. But it wasn’t too noticeable. And if it was, customers were understanding, even if they’ve had to wait a few minutes.”


In addition to Seacrets being known as a bar, a restaurant, and a nightclub, it also boasts its own distillery where it makes Seacrets’ own signature spirits. There is even an on-site radio station. 

So, while Seacrets has fared well, the question was posed to Studds, 'How has Ocean City fared, in general?' He was quick to answer: “This year, I feel like Ocean City has done very well. You can tell there has been an uptick in people. After Memorial Day, you would typically have a lull for a time in June. This year has been steady from May on. People have wanted to be out, they’ve wanted to be dining. In fact, today was the first day all summer I’ve actually noticed that hotel parking lots are just a bit thinner. It’s Aug. 30th! But it’s about that time. Schools are going back.”

This means, of course, there will be additional tests of Studds’ leadership in the weeks and months to come. “Nobody is foolish enough to think this is over,” he said. “We’re going to keep plugging along as much as we can. There are some concerns that once we start getting into the colder times, how will that affect things? Will people’s mindsets be, ‘OK, now that I am back indoors, I’m not as comfortable.’ Going into next year, we hope to be a little more proactive in terms of overstaffing. Not that there wasn’t an attempt for that this year. But you try and build in a ‘couple-of-people buffer’ wherever you can. I think staffing issues are going to be something that’s going to continue that we need to get ahead of.” 


Geoff Ernst, Bartender  |  Scott Studds, G.M.  |  Kelly Schumacher, Bartender

Moving forward, Studds says it’s all about people. The people he serves, and the people he manages as employees. It’s a balancing act, for sure, but one he and his fellow management are up for. 

He concludes, “You come into work, and you’re so focused on work that sometimes you don’t realize there is so much other stuff going on. Everybody has had something going on, whether it’s somebody in their family getting sick, someone not having child care, and so forth. I guess I can say I’m now more aware that these times have affected everyone in different ways, and it’s not all physical. A lot of it is mental. We’re pushing our people hard, we’re asking a lot of them, and we know we are asking a lot. But these are all human beings, and I have to be more aware of what they’re going through.  . . . I am more aware of what they’re going through!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) October 2021 Editions Wed, 29 Sep 2021 14:55:10 -0400
Building a Successful Wine Club Leon & Son offers wine clubs in New York and Michigan. Photograph courtesy of Leon & Son

Leon & Son offers wine clubs in New York and Michigan. Photograph courtesy of Leon & Son

Independent retailers across the country share their tips for running a profitable subscription-based wine club

By Christy Frank

In addition to adding robust ecommerce platforms and enhanced delivery programs, retailers have found opportunity in creating subscription wine clubs. 

While a subscription-based model may seem like a stream of easy money, launching one and ensuring it operates smoothly is anything but. As with so many things in the small shop world, the wine is only a small part of the formula. SevenFifty Daily spoke with independent wine shops to get their insights on logistics and strategy. 

Mom & Pop Wine Shop in Oregon includes work from local artists in her mailings. Photograph courtesy of Mom & Pop Wine Shop

Mom & Pop Wine Shop in Oregon includes work from local artists in her mailings. Photograph courtesy of Mom & Pop Wine Shop

First Things First: Know Your Laws and Set Your Goals

“Understand how you’re getting wine to your customer … not just logistically, but legally. If you can’t answer that, you’re going to run into major headaches really quickly,” says Chris Leon, owner of Leon & Son in New York City and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Also, how will your customers pay for those wines? And how will you pay for them? If you need to commit to club-related purchases before your members have made their subscription payments, this could impact your shop’s cash flow, especially if your state requires cash payment on delivery. Make sure you understand your state’s specific laws regarding delivery options, online payments, quantity discounts, and distributor payment terms.

Give some serious thought to how your wine club program will tie into your shop’s philosophy. Will you be offering value, discovery, or exclusivity? At Le Dû’s Wine in New York City, general manager JT Robertson explains one of the goals of their monthly Grand Crew club was to promote lesser-known wines. “There are wines we taste which are delicious and intriguing but are super limited and often obscure. We wanted a home for wines which would otherwise languish on the shelf,” he says. 

Telina Rohrer, owner of Portland, Oregon’s Mom & Pop Wine Shop, says she felt a lack of connection when she closed the shop’s doors to walk-in customers during the pandemic. To build that connection into her club program, “I wanted to create something that was a little more heartfelt,” so she began including artwork, digital winemaker portraits, playlists, and artisan-made goods created by her local peers in her shop’s monthly offering.

Determine your goals and build your club program from there. Remember that the more club selections you offer, the more likely that you’ll need additional staff members to help run it, adding costs before you have the revenue to support it.

Houston's The Heights Grocer offers a diverse selection. Photograph courtesy of The Heights Grocer

Houston’s The Heights Grocer offers a diverse selection. Photograph courtesy of The Heights Grocer

Determine Your Margin and Price Targets

A clear focus on price and margin targets will ensure that a wine club program doesn’t turn into a money pit. Do this before starting to shop for wine and falling in love with bottles that the club—and its members—can’t afford. 

To determine pricing for a wine club, first consider what customers typically spend on a bottle of wine and make sure the per-bottle club price is in this general range. Consider the total spend the club is asking of customers each month and, if you expect they’ll have sticker shock, scale back the number of bottles.

When setting margin targets, be sure to take into consideration any extra collateral pieces, packaging materials, processing fees, and delivery costs that you may be regularly absorbing, as well as the additional work involved with preparing notes on the wines. If it’s possible to buy wines on a quantity deal, decide if you’ll pass the savings along to the customer or add it to the bottom line. 

Track club margins each month and on a rolling basis so if you miss your target one month, you can make it up over the next couple periods. “There are months when we will sacrifice margins for selection since this past year has been utter madness with shipping delays,” explains James Havens of The Heights Grocer in Houston. Eric Moorer at Domestique in Washington, D.C. also notes, “I’ve had months where I should have left a little bit more there, but if it’s a wine that brings new subscribers in, then it’s worth it.” Working on a lower-than-normal margin can also make sense if you’re making it up on volume.

Leverage Strong Distributor Relationships to Maximize Bottle Selections

Smaller clubs may be able to shop around to see what’s currently available to meet their membership targets, but growth requires planning further in advance. Working three months ahead of time is a good starting point, but if you’re planning to lock up limited bottles, longer lead times may be needed even for smaller clubs. If the club is focused on a specific region or narrowly defined theme, make sure there’s a decent selection of relevant wines available that meet price and margin targets. 

Sarah Pierre, owner of Atlanta’s 3 Parks Wine Shop, recommends putting together an editorial calendar and a prospective wine wish list to help manage the selection process and ensure a deep slate of options.

“Maintaining really good vendor relationships gives you the opportunity to have a little more flexibility,” notes Mom & Pop’s Rohrer. Distributors can hold a few extra cases while you finalize your monthly numbers, keep you updated on wine arrival dates, help sort out the logistical hoops of locking up highly in-demand wines, and put a special deal in place (where legal). The bigger the club gets, the more important these relationships become—especially if membership gets to a size where you can line up exclusives.

Convive partnered with Cote Korean Steakhouse sommelier Victoria James to launch the club Cote+Convive. Photograph courtesy of Cote+Convive by Gary He

Convive partnered with Cote Korean Steakhouse sommelier Victoria James to launch the club Cote+Convive. Photograph courtesy of Cote+Convive by Gary He

Formalize the Billing Process

A service such as Recharge can automatically bill customers each month while allowing them to access and manage their own accounts. However, these services add additional costs, including higher processing fees, monthly service fees, and upfront development work to integrate with your existing payment platform. If your club doesn’t have the scale to warrant these costs, most retail payment processing systems (Square, Shopify, Stripe) offer some form of secure invoicing or a recurring charge function which can be combined with a simple tracking spreadsheet to get the job done. 

If the processing system charges members every month on the same date they originally signed up, set a cut-off date so it is clear which month the charge applies to. If you are sending out monthly invoices or manually processing payments, communicate when this will happen. Consider choosing a day of the week (such as the second Wednesday of each month) rather than a date (the sixth) so that your billing cycle doesn’t take place on the busiest day of the week.

Bianca Sanon, co-owner of Paradise Books & Bread in Miami, launched her program with a billing system that focuses on accessibility and eliminates surprise charges. “I’m not going to automatically charge you unless you want me to,” she explains. Once members sign up, they are sent monthly invoices which they can pay or pass. After three passes, they’ll need to sign up again. Her system has worked so well that, though she plans to shift to an automated system, she will still maintain a three-day lag between sending the invoice and charging the member’s card. Operators can also consider offering trial or fixed-term memberships for customers who aren’t comfortable with automatic billing. 

Don’t Underestimate the Logistics of  Prep, Delivery, and Shipping

Wine clubs take up a lot of room. You’ll need space to store the cases when they arrive, a place to prep and assemble everything, and somewhere to hold club packs until pick up or delivery—and that can take awhile. As The Heights Grocer’s Havens notes, “we operate as a wine storage facility as most guests are an average of two months behind on their pick-ups.” If you completely outgrow your space, a bonded warehouse may give you additional wiggle room. Leon & Son recently began leasing such a space. “It’s made our lives so much better,” says Leon, “even if we’re still learning to live and work out of a different location than the shop.” 

Delivery and shipping, if legal in your state, will add another layer of complexity—and cost—to a wine club operation. If you already have standard minimums and policies in place, you’ll need to decide if your wine club will follow them or operate under a different set of rules. Do the math to determine if offering these services at your target margin will wipe out all of your profit and consider charging a fee to cover costs.

Expect to spend a lot of time educating your members on your prices, fees, and policies. Mark Grimaldi, owner of Cellar d’Or in Ithaca, New York, recommends that club websites are as detailed as possible. For the inevitable questions, he recommends a dedicated email address to ensure club-related questions don’t get lost in the regular email shuffle. While product-specific questions are best answered with a personal touch, having standard scripts for frequent issues such as declined credit cards, shipping delays due to weather, and upcoming billing notices can streamline the process. 

Clearly communicate any fees incurred if a package needs to be returned if no one is available to sign for it. A robust reminder system will help minimize this, but it will happen—and repeat offenders can quickly eat into your profits. You’ll also need to have a plan in place to deal with the inevitable extreme weather situation. Leon automatically consolidates July and August shipments together and notifies members that June and September decisions will be made according to weather.

Develop Member Perks and Collateral Materials

While wine and producer notes, discounts on wine and classes, and early access to allocated wines are standard member benefits, you will want to offer additional perks that tie directly into your club’s goals. At Domestique, where the focus is on fostering a more open wine conversation, members receive playlists, participate in IG Lives, and are invited to join DEMI, an app-based platform for food and wine communities. Mom & Pop’s includes artwork, playlists, and featured items from local artists and makers in her community. At Vinya Wines in Miami, a combination wine bar/wine shop, Allegra Angelo is launching an Uber Credit program for members, “so they can visit us in the store and feel good about getting home safely.”

To reward recycling, Vinya Wines has a box recycling program—members get a free bottle of wine for every two customized boxes they return to the company’s drivers—and Domestique encourages members to bring their own bags for pick up to promote a sense of community.

Growing the Membership Base

Jesse Warner-Levine, owner of Convive Wine in New York City, recommends focusing the initial membership drive on regulars who are more likely to tolerate the inevitable learning pains that will take place in early months. To drive ongoing membership, make it as easy as possible for potential members to learn about your club and sign up, by featuring it on your website and social media. “We have permanent signage around the shop that mentions the club, especially by the checkout area,” explains Melissa Zeman, owner of Chicago’s Bottles Up! “Word-of-mouth is the best marketing, so anything you can do to get members talking positively about your club is a good thing.” 

Jessica Green of Down the Rabbit Hole on Long Island recommends “educating the staff and making sure they are knowledgeable about promoting the membership.” She also offers an incentive for each new member they sign up. Cellar d’Or’s clubmaster Eden Mayora is about to launch a QR code program to drive potential members to the website.

Consider a Co-Branded Club to Expand Reach

Partnering with sommeliers or restaurants can help both parties reach a broader base. Warner-Levine, who just launched Cote + Convive in partnership with Cote Korean Steakhouse’s Victoria James and Mia Van de Water, stresses the importance of a shared vision: “We have similar outlooks and interests. It’s something that’s built around trust and an understanding of service.”

Make sure there is clarity and agreement on who does what, how costs are allocated and shared, and how the club’s various service elements are handled. Cellar d’Or partners with Lenn Thompson’s Cork Club and there is a clear division of labor: Cellar d’Or establishes defined cost parameters and Thompson selects the wines. While the shop team fields any logistical concerns, Thompson is forwarded questions about the wines. 

Keep Evolving

Processes that were manageable for a certain membership base may need to be simplified as the program grows. Paradise Bread & Books’ Sanon says of her current approach, “I wouldn’t recommend this for a 200-member club!” Only one month into operating, her club has 50 members spread across two different club offerings—and she’s already considering ways to streamline.

Every wine shop is a work in progress. “Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to change it as you go,” advises Andrea Hillsey, owner of Square Wine Company in Madison, Wisconsin. “Don’t get stuck doing the same thing. You wouldn’t do that for your shop overall, so don’t do it for your wine club.” As long as your wine club program remains tied to your shop’s overall strategy and mission (and you’re watching your margins), it can live a long and healthy life. 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) October 2021 Editions Wed, 29 Sep 2021 14:50:49 -0400
The Quest for Heritage Grain Whiskey Laws Whiskey uses only Colorado-grown grain. Photograph courtesy of Laws Whiskey House

Laws Whiskey uses only Colorado-grown grain. Photograph courtesy of Laws Whiskey House

From Tennessee, Texas, and Ireland, distillers in search of distinctive flavors are reviving near-extinct heirloom corn, wheat, and barley varieties

By Jack Robertiello

As a young man, Fugitives Spirits’ Jim Massey puzzled over why heirloom corn wasn’t being used to make whiskey. His father—head of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association—grew heirloom varieties such as Tennessee Red Cob and Bloody Butcher, and Massey long believed they had promising potential in distillation. “When you ate the different corns, they all had different flavors,” he explains. “So why wouldn’t the whiskey?”

Massey, who established his Fugitive Spirits distillery in Nashville in 2016, is joined by a growing number of other producers devoted to the revival of heirloom grains. Motivated both by the search for more distinctive flavor profiles as well as the desire to save fading strains from the brink of extinction, these distillers are broadening the scope of whiskey, and pushing the farming focus from quantity to quality. 

“Using heirloom grains is a smart choice for distillers, both for the environmental reasons that I do, and also because—now more than ever—whiskey drinkers tend to be interested in the process and ingredients that go into their spirits,” says Jamie Biel, director of science and sustainability at Treaty Oak Distilling in Dripping Springs, Texas. “The more heirloom grains gain popularity, the more the farming industry will respond and make these grains more accessible, which will shift the focus of agriculture back to a smaller scale. This will encourage more environmentally-responsible practices while infusing diversity into our food supply.”

And consumers are open to them. “Many Acme customers are self-described ‘whiskey geeks,’ so they love it when we introduce them to a new product,” says Jennifer Seidman, owner of Acme Bar & Company in Berkeley. “I think the concept of heritage grain whiskey is geared toward smaller producers and smaller production, so I think it will stay more of a niche market. But that does not mean it will not grow.” 

The impact of corn other than the standard yellow dent is something Kentucky distillers have been thinking about for awhile Buffalo Trace in Frankfort has grown different strains including Boone County White, Japonica Striped, and Neon Pink Popcorn—and there are rumors that a heritage grain Pappy Van Winkle is in the works. 

Treaty Oak has made whiskeys with Green Oaxacan (a variety that Biel says yields a roasted, earthy flavor) as well as Hopi Blue, White, and Bloody Butcher. “Each variety confers a slightly different bouquet of flavors to the whiskey that we distill from them. The Hopi Blue and White kernels tend to be very mellow, while the Bloody Butcher has a strong starchiness and robust grain flavor that translates through distillation.”  

High Wire's Jimmy Red corn. Photograph courtesy of High Wire Distilling

High Wire’s Jimmy Red corn. Photograph courtesy of High Wire Distilling

Big Flavor, Low Yields

According to the research chair at Vanderbilt University, the greater depth of flavor found in heirloom corn comes from hundreds more congeners than standard whiskey corn. The proof is in bottlings like Fugitive Spirits’ Grandgousier Tennessee Whiskey crafted with Hickory Cane corn, one of the oldest varieties grown in the south and known for its abundant flavor and hardiness, Massey describes. 

The challenge facing all distillers in search of heirloom grains is supply: Because of their low yields, these grains rarely produce enough to entice farmers to grow them. Often, distillers must form collaborations with growers to ensure any quantity at all. Massey began distilling with Tennessee Red Cob, but couldn’t secure enough and switched to Hickory Cane when he found a farmer growing it. Then, other distillers joined in creating a swell in demand. “Twenty years ago I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me about this sort of thing; this year we’ve got 250 acres of Bloody Butcher in the field and another 50 acres of Hickory Cane.”

Prioritizing flavor over volume is a switch that very few farmers have made, says Payton Mason, the CFO of Laws Whiskey in Denver, which uses only Colorado-grown grain. “The grains we’re using are not grown for yield; they’re grown for flavor, so it’s not as efficient to grow them for us. If you’re going to sell to a commodity exchange they don’t care,” he says. “They pay by the bushel and that’s it.”

By working with family farmers, Laws was able to develop a Colorado-only four-grain bourbon. “We didn’t set out to make whiskey with a certain heirloom variety,” Mason recalls. “But through our journey as a distillery we came across these farmers and grains and thought, ‘These are amazing flavors.’” Using soft Centennial White wheat rather than hard grain red winter gives Laws whiskeys a softer and gentler character, Mason describes, and the rye, grown 8,000 feet above sea level, yields uniquely concentrated, more pronounced flavors.

Scott Blackwell, cofounder of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, South Carolina, has been growing Jimmy Red corn since 2014, and he recently took steps to protect the source, working with geneticists to isolate seed grow-out and phenotyping.

“We have been working with our farmers on seed security,” Blackwell says, explaining how growing for seed must take place in a controlled environment to prevent corruption from other outside pollens. “We’re able to more or less fingerprint the Jimmy Red and keep that DNA consistent going forward; the unique flavor we are getting could be lost as the plant drifted or changed over time.” 

The team at Whiskey Acres in Illinois. Photograph courtesy of by John Fedele

The team at Whiskey Acres in Illinois. Photograph courtesy of by John Fedele

The flavors these varieties impart—wheat, cinnamon, brown sugar, and honey from the Jimmy Red and floral, sweet, tropical fruit from the Abruzzi rye—are worth the effort. “We consistently find in the corn a compound called cinnamic acid, basically what is found in cinnamon. We have a spice quality even before it goes in the barrel. It’s also got a lot of oil and a lot of beta carotene which the yellow and white corn varieties don’t have. We consistently get what I describe as a wheated whiskey flavor. Then we get spice like you would from a rye whiskey from the cinnamic acid. A lot of people will drink it and think there’s wheat or rye in our whiskey when it’s 100 percent corn.” 

Other hybridized but unusual whiskey grains are also gaining traction. At Whiskey Acres in DeKalb, Illinois, father and son farmers Jim and Jamie Walter, along with partner and head distiller Nick Nagele, make a Blue Popcorn whiskey. “I know it sounds cliche, but it tastes like buttered movie popcorn: robust, sweet, flavorful, not sugary sweet, very soft, and with a nice viscosity,” describes Nagele. “It makes a high-quality, high-value whiskey.” And it’s been a hit—after starting with a couple of barrels, they now have 50 to 60 aging. 

As a farm distillery, they grow their own grains, which gives them some experimental freedom. For Whiskey Acres’ Artisan Series, they first tried Oaxacan Green. “It almost tastes like rye whiskey, with a sort of corn chip spice that makes it unique,” Nagele says. Next up is a Bloody Butcher bourbon, and they’re also working with the multi-hued Glass Gem Popcorn. “The challenge is the ears are small, so it’s difficult to get kernels off. And the seed is cost prohibitive, so we’re working on growing our own seeds. It’s a unique way for us to carve out a niche, to really showcase and capitalize on the fact that we have a farm and can go from seed to spirit.”

Recovering Lost Barley

At the Waterford Distillery in Ireland, owner Mark Reynier has embarked on an ambitious project to prove the existence of terroir in whiskey with a series of single-farm whiskeys. He’s also committed to resurrecting a number of lost Irish barley strains, an effort he began with an ancient variety called Bere years ago at the Bruichladdich Distillery on the Scottish island of Islay.

“At Waterford, I wanted to explore this further,” Reynier says. “The modern varieties of barley that we are obligated to use by the industry have not changed flavor-wise in 50 years.”

From a seed bank, he collected tiny amounts of a variety called Hunter, popular in the 1960s, and Goldthorpe, a grain successful in the 1900s. The distillations from these barley strains won’t be available for another two years, but he intends to “analyze what flavors those three varieties have, what levels they occur in, and how they are influenced by Ireland’s terroirs. It seems to me to be common sense that if you’re going to make Irish whiskey with Irish barley, it sort of ought to be suited to Ireland’s terroirs and climates. And then perhaps we may be able to identify what those flavor compounds are and breed them with modern varieties to try and reintroduce some of those older flavors in a more economically realistic way.”

Like all the grain pioneers, Reynier realizes that the future depends on the economic viability of farming these rare strains. With more consumers eager to explore the world of heritage grain whiskey, and more farmers willing to grow them, he’s hopeful that the niche category could reach a place where everyone profits.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) October 2021 Editions Wed, 29 Sep 2021 14:30:46 -0400
Pickles Pub: What the Great Reopening Looks Like in Baltimore Exterior_001.jpg

Pickles Pub is a family-friendly, game-day institution that has been serving classic pub fare since March 1988. Located across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards and near M&T Bank Stadium, it has become a Baltimore favorite among Orioles and Ravens fans, tourists, and downtown regulars. Bustling and teeming with customers before the pandemic? For sure. Empty seats and tables during the pandemic? Co-owner Tom Leonard and his staff had to pivot greatly. 

“Because we have a good brand name and we’re right across from the ballpark, the business always came to us,” he said, during a recent Beverage Journal interview. “Our whole business acumen was ‘How can we maximize this?’ and ‘How can we get more people in here and make them happy?’ Online ordering, having a social media presence, and all of that stuff – we did it, but it was an after-thought. When the pandemic happened, we didn’t transition incredibly well, because we thought like so many others, ‘Oh, by the latest, things will get back to normal in June or July.’”


He continued, “We had to up our online ordering game and our social media presence! Once you’re behind on that, it’s hard to catch up. We’ve updated our website twice, but so has everybody else. We’ve improved our online ordering system, but so has everybody else. Places like Jimmy’s Seafood, which had online ordering and mobile food trucks before the pandemic, were much more ready for it. Places like ourselves, we not only had to deal with paying the bills and keeping the staff engaged while working very limited hours, we also had to play catch-up.”


From out of hardship, though, came invention and a willingness to try new things. “The great thing has been the increased use of QR codes,” Leonard declared. “We can now change menus quick and automatically. If we’re out of a beer or a [food option], I can jump on my phone or my computer and change the menu on the online format, upload it to the QR code, and done! People then just scan the codes at the table, and – BOOM – updated menu. It was a tool that had been there for a while for us to use, but we were just too old school. Now it’s here to stay.”

And now with the “Great Reopening” taking hold even amid the COVID-19 variants, Pickles Pub is welcoming back customers . . . sometimes in droves. “It’s been 100 percent better than last year without a doubt,” Leonard acknowledged. “A good metric for us is stadium attendance. The Orioles are probably averaging – what? – 8,000 a game? Camden Yards can get up to 47,000. So, it’s a pretty small number. But, for us, the dollars spent by people going to the games are the highest they’ve ever been! From that metric, we’re doing well. People like our outside seating. It’s more important than air conditioning. And there’s a lot more table service in what we’re calling the post-pandemic era. We probably have more staff now than we did in 2019.”


Leonard further observes the changes in Pickles Pub’s clientele. People are different now than they were prior to March 2020. “That middle person doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “It’s either, ‘I want incredible service! Give me everything I want and then some!’ or ‘Thank you SO much for being open! We’re here to support you. We’ll over-tip, and we don’t care if it takes longer to get food and drinks to the table.’ It’s literally those two things. The middle customer, I suppose, is our die-hard regulars who were set in their routine, and they’re just so happy their routine is happening again.”

Through it all, Leonard has had to keep a steady hand at the wheel. It hasn’t always been easy, of course. But he’s hopeful the worst is over. “My partner and I are really vested in the business,” he concluded. “We own the building. So, there was no way we were going to fail! It was the same thing as, ‘Hey, are you gonna lose your house?’ ‘No! Where would I live?!’ The big revelation that we had going through all of this was . . . we really, really like what we do! Because it definitely tested every color of our rainbow. There wasn’t a single thing that didn’t come into question during 2020. We had to deal with supply shortages, staffing issues, when you could do business, how you could do business, increased inspections. Every protocol, every procedure – everything you could imagine – was tested to its limits. And I think we’ve passed.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) September 2021 Editions Tue, 31 Aug 2021 18:14:57 -0400
The Sun Rises on a New Career for Mike Fratantuono Mike_01.jpg

If you are reading this article and you have ever eaten at the Sunset Restaurant in Glen Burnie, then right now you are probably fondly remembering the iconic eatery’s cream of crab soup. Or maybe their shrimp salad. Or you’re just smiling at the memory of some leisurely meals you enjoyed with your friends, family, or colleagues.

Chances are, Mike Fratantuono was somewhere in your orbit during those meals. He was one of the three long-time proprietors of Sunset along with Dave and Gary Fratantuono. The family operated the restaurant for 60 years until pandemic times forced its closure at the end of last September. 

It didn’t take long for Mike to land on his feet. Another restaurant? According to him, “No, never.” Instead, he is now an agent for Passauer & Miller Insurance Inc. in Manchester, Md. One of his specialties? Selling policies to restaurants, bars, and packaged goods stores, of course. 

So far, his clientele has appreciated his background and experience. During a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, Fratantuono remarked, “I understand what people who are in the bar, restaurant, and liquor store business are going through. Whether it’s trying to hire employees or preparing for a kitchen inspection. From a safety protocol, are their fire extinguishers up to date? Do they have mats on the floor for safety? Is your refrigeration in good order? Is everything up to fire code? Has the hood system been cleaned? By doing all of that myself for 32 years, I just need one eyeball and I can see what’s going on. Once I show them that I had been in the business for 32 years and that I speak their language, they know I understand things pretty well.”


Fratantuono and his firm offer a wide range of insurance products. In particular, bars and restaurants need general liability coverage, fire insurance, and liquor liability insurance. “They’re also going to need insurance for the building,” he added, “They’re going to need liability in case somebody experiences food related injury. In today’s world, they’re also going to need employment practices insurance, to protect them from employment related claims in dealing with their staff.”

As much knowledge and experience Fratantuono has brought over from the foodservice industry, he has also drawn on qualities from a whole different part of his background and being. “One of the things I stand behind is I have 50 years of scouting experience,” he says. “It sounds kind of corny, but I try to follow the Scout Law Principles. A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. If you cover all 12 of those, both sides are going to be OK. Insurance agents should always try and have a positive attitude with the customers. And if someone is happy with their current insurers and says, ‘No, I’m happy with what I’ve got; or a family or friend is their agent,’ you should thank them for their time and move on.  However, when they let us take a look, often times cost savings or coverage gaps are revealed.”

He went on to state that the favorite part of his new job and lifestyle is he now works Mondays through Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “I have all my nights off and all of my weekends off!” he declares proudly. “I also work in an office where everybody is great and extremely knowledgeable. Dave Miller is a fantastic person to work for. He’s there to help you and understands the insurance inside and out, as does the remainder of the staff.  Everybody, in our organization is willing to help out. 

In addition to bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, his clients include landscapers, auto shops, and so forth. So, would he ever go back to his old profession? Fratantuono gave a quick and emphatic “No! After so many years, it’s been good to sign the back of the check rather than the front.”


The restaurant industry has changed so much. The customers’ expectations are totally different. Every restaurateur will tell you that people generally don’t ‘dine’ anymore. There is a difference between ‘dining’ and going out to eat. The experience now seems to be more about ‘how fast can they get it, how fast can they eat it, and how fast can they get back out the door.’ Dining used to be an event. People would get dressed up to go eat out. The average person doesn’t do that anymore. There’s no time to enjoy the dining experience. A lot of the chain places are really pushing that. Now it’s all about the turnover. The Dining “experience” is something that’s been really lost in the industry these days. 

At Sunset, we always said, ‘Take your time, sit back, enjoy yourself...Dine!’”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) September 2021 Editions Tue, 31 Aug 2021 18:09:33 -0400
Cutting-Edge Sustainable Packaging The Green Gen Bottle is made of woven flax fused with bio-resin. Photo courtesy of Green Gen Technologies

The Green Gen Bottle is made of woven flax fused with bio-resin. Photo courtesy of Green Gen Technologies

A new generation of products aims to shrink the beverage alcohol industry’s carbon footprint for a more sustainable future

By Betsy Andrews

As a drinks writer, I get sent a lot of bottles in a lot of packaging. Among recent deliveries: three mattress-thick, plastic-wrapped slabs of molded foam cushioning a single liter of boxed wine; a styrofoam shell made for three 750-milliliter bottles containing one half-bottle of vermouth; a heavy glass bottle of “sustainable” Malbec in a bed of styrofoam peanuts; and eight tiny, unbreakable Burgundy samplers in 20-milliliter plastic bottles nested in a shippable box that was itself swaddled in bubble wrap and tucked inside a much larger carton.

I like my profession. It’s a privilege to write about interesting beverages. But my heart breaks at the amount of waste involved in getting them to me. An estimated 91 percent of plastic packaging—the material that cushions bottles—ends up in the environment, or in landfills where it leeches harmful chemicals. Then there’s the carbon footprint of making and sending glass. 

The drinks media has tended to focus on earth-friendly production. But the biggest burp of CO2 comes afterwards, in the glass bottle production and shipping that comprises from 51 percent to as much as 68 percent of wine’s carbon footprint. Glass is impermeable; it’s great for preserving beverages. But it requires inferno-like heat to make and loads of fuel and packaging to ship. Cans are lighter and less delicate, but aluminum alloy production billows with greenhouse gases. 

As the CO2 index rises above 415 parts per million and temperatures soar, as cargo ships languish in COVID-paralyzed ports and shipping costs skyrocket, isn’t it time for us to rethink the way beverages get to consumers?

Luckily, I’m not the only person asking this question. Box wines, TetraPak wines, and bulk shipments in large plastic bladders made for bottling or kegging at their destination avoid the transport of glass. But ever-more creative ideas are emerging. With engineers devising alternatives and drinks companies supporting them, we’re looking at a beverage packaging revolution. 

It comes at a good time for consumer adoption. Seventy-three percent of consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, a number that rises to 83 percent among younger buyers. 

Given shortfalls in recycling and composting, none of these solutions is foolproof. But innovation is crucial to the future of the industry and the planet. Here’s a look at the alternative packages here and coming soon.

Hardys packaged in Garçon Wines bottles. Photography courtesy of Garçon Wines

Hardys packaged in Garçon Wines bottles. Photography courtesy of Garçon Wines

New-Wave Plastic

An estimated eight million tons of plastic ends up in oceans each year, wreaking havoc on ecosystems, the food chain, and human health. Why would we want to keep using it? For Santiago Navarro, founder and CEO of the British packaging company Garçon Wines, it’s a matter of triage. 

“Our home is on fire,” he said on a recent panel for Porto Protocol, an organization seeking climate action in the wine industry. “We must act like it’s a climate emergency.”

Navarro’s response is what Porto Protocol’s Marta Mendonça calls “a really disruptive bottle.” It is made of recycled PET. The food-safe, BPA-free plastic commonly used for containers, PET is 87 percent lighter than glass. More important, though, is the shape of Navarro’s bottle. It holds 750 milliliters of wine, but unlike glass bottles, it’s flat. In Bordeaux and Burgundy versions, it packs tightly into cartons without need of additional packaging, fitting 91 percent more product on a shipping pallet. 

Better utilization of space, less loading time, and speedier deliveries add up to savings for wineries, at a 50 percent reduction in emissions over glass. Though permeable PET isn’t appropriate for wines that need long aging, with a nylon-based oxygen barrier inserted between its walls, the flat bottle gives up to 21 months of shelf life. That’s perfect for wine that’s produced and consumed within the same vintage, which is 85 percent of the total global volume, says Navarro. 

Australia’s Accolade Wines was an early adopter for its eco-minded Banrock Station label, following it up with its British mega-brand Hardys and its Chilean label Anakena, as “part of our strategy to take the sustainable packaging option to a broader consumer base,” says chief marketing officer Sandy Mayo. U.S. companies can try it when Navarro opens a bottling facility outside of Los Angeles in 2022. 

“The wine industry is unnecessarily hampered by a bottle that is no longer fit for purpose for the vast majority of wines,” Navarro declares. “Ours is a 21st-century bottle.”

It does have a 21st-century drawback. Recycled PET has a much lower carbon footprint than new plastic, and unlike the coating on TetraPaks and the bags inside boxed wines, it is, in turn, easily recycled. Still, under 30 percent of PET containers are recycled in the U.S. That’s a failure of policy and infrastructure. “It does not, in my view, justify not using PET when you need it,” Navarro says. 

With labs working on infinitely recyclable varieties; think tanks promoting radically expanding plastics recycling; and beverage behemoths like PepsiCo promising 100 percent renewable packaging, the days of throwaway plastic might be ending. Bacardi has announced that, in 2023, it will replace 80 million conventional plastic bottles it uses annually with a novel plastic that “swaps crude oil for seed oil.” Made by fermenting canola and other seed oils, the Nodax PHC biopolymer biodegrades in any environment containing microorganisms, including home compost bins and fresh or saltwater, within 18 months. That’s as long as Bacardi is holding an exclusive contract with Danimer Scientific, the biopolymer’s maker. After that, it will share the design with other companies. Imagine a flat version of this biopoly bottle for your poolside rosé, and you’re seeing a much more sustainable future for your wine.

Cellulose-Fiber Solutions to Replace Glass

Even in containers designed to lower plastic use, plastic is involved. “Though we use 77 percent less plastic than a plastic bottle, plastic is the enabler for all we do,” admits Malcolm Waugh, CEO of the British-based Frugalpac, manufacturers of the paper Frugal Bottle.

Similar to a bag-in-box but molded with heat and moisture into a shape “more acceptable to a traditional wine drinker,” the Bordeaux-style bottle is 94 percent chemical-free, recycled paperboard fused with water-based glue. Five times lighter than an average glass bottle, it resists spills, humidity, and breakage from a five-foot drop, giving beverages a 12-month shelf life. The polyethylene metallised polyester laminate film inside it is removable for recycling—if your municipality accepts it. 

“Film, to be fair, is not well recycled in the world,” says Waugh. “The infrastructure is not there, but we felt the benefits of bringing the bottle to market now outweigh the small cost of our liner not being recycled.”  

The Frugal Bottle’s carbon footprint is 84 percent smaller than that of glass. But the real innovation is its localized production model. “Where, historically, there was a glass maker in every village, now there are super companies. Most North American wine glass packaging comes from China,” says Waugh. “We’re thinking of bringing the machine that makes the Frugal Bottle to the winery or the region.” Local printers can truck paperboard sheets to wineries or bulk-wine packers to be assembled on Frugalpac equipment, getting five times the “bottles” onto trucks and further reducing the container’s carbon footprint.  

Italian winery Cantina Goccia, British gin maker Silent Pool, Scotland’s NB Distillery, and a Japanese sake brand are among early customers, with the first stateside user, Signal 7 Wines, launching it in the U.S. this year. 

But Frugalpac’s product is not the only paper-based bottle. Sustainable Swedish paper company BillerudKorsnäs and Austrian plastics manufacturer ALPLA have formed the Paper Bottle Company, or Paboco, creating a bottle using FSC-certified paper and a plastic-film liner for a 65 percent reduction in plastic content from standard plastic bottles. Carlsberg, Absolut, and Coca-Cola Europe are pioneering it, while Paboco is working on a polymer-free version with a tethered cap that can be recycled entirely as paper.

Other brands are innovating with fiber for secondary packaging. Corona introduced a recycled barley-straw six-pack holder, and the Eco Six Pack Ring, E6PR, that Florida’s Saltwater Brewery debuted in 2018 has expanded its reach to more breweries, kombucha makers, and other artisan drinks companies. Made of renewable fibers from food production, the circular product breaks down in compost bins. For Don Julio’s Don-on-the-Run Margarita Kit, the design firm Spearhead Group nixed typical thermoforms and plastic windows in favor of a pressure-fit clamshell case made out of bottle-hugging BillerudKorsnäs cardboard. Cheaper and 20 percent lighter than thermoform, it ups the elegance and sustainability of cocktail kits. Ruinart has introduced a similarly sleek “second skin” that is nine times less heavy than their former gift box. 

At its La Maison des Startups in Paris, the Champagne producer’s parent company, LVMH, is also supporting the incubation of a fiber-based liquor bottle. The brainchild of France’s Green Gen Technologies, the bottle is made of woven flax fused at low temperatures with a bio-resin to create a durable composite. Requiring a tenth of the heat of glass and less than a third of glass’s weight, the Green Gen Bottle is so sturdy that you can throw it off a 20-story building. Green Gen is revolutionizing closures, too, fusing grape residue from wine production into a composite that can replace 40 percent of the plastic in a T-top. 

Frugalpac molds bottles from recycled paperboard to create a bag-in-box-style vessel. Photograph courtesy of Frugal Bottle

Frugalpac molds bottles from recycled paperboard to create a bag-in-box-style vessel. Photograph courtesy of Frugal Bottle

In its original form, the Green Gen Bottle is 100 percent compostable, but only in the high-heat facilities that process “compostable” plastics. Of course, not every municipality has one of these facilities. “That’s a disconnect between what the consumer really wants and what the industry has organized of yet,” says CEO James de Roany, “and we are stuck in the middle of this.” 

Gotham Project's Return and Reuse Bottles. Photograph courtesy of Gotham Projects

Gotham Project’s Return and Reuse Bottles. Photograph courtesy of Gotham Projects

The Return of Returnables Creates A Circular Economy

Even with glass, only 31 percent of containers are recycled in the U.S. Perhaps the best solution is one that circumnavigates the recycling and composting rut altogether. Co-creator of the first TetraPak brand, Bandit Wines, and co-founder of wine-on-tap pioneer The Gotham Project, wine entrepreneur Charles Bieler has made a career out of newfangled sustainable packaging. Now Bieler (who is married to SevenFifty Daily editor-in-chief Kristen Bieler) is reaching back in time for his latest concept, to the days when we left bottles on the stoop for the milkman. 

Having built the national infrastructure to clean, refill, and recirculate wine kegs, Bieler and partner Bruce Schneider realized they could do the same with glass. Employing a customized bottle sanitizer from the dairy industry, they’ve rolled out returnable glass bottles in five test markets. The hope is to use each bottle 10 times and reduce the carbon footprint of Gotham Project wines by as much as 90 percent—all while giving consumers the “full decadent experience” of serving from glass.

 “If you’re a sophisticated wine person over a friend’s house and they’re serving wine in a bag-in-box, you’re not accustomed to that,” Bieler says. “I think people look to wine and wine packaging to project a bit. There’s an emotional thing. There’s a potency to traditional glass bottles.”

Gotham Project’s bottle is particularly potent. To withstand multiple uses, lightweight eco-glass won’t do. So the custom vessel, embossed with “Return and Reuse,” must be “reasonably stout,” says Bieler. And to work, it must be reliably returned, so Gotham Project incentivizes returns with a 25-cent credit. Once a buyer hits $2, they’re asked over email if they’d like to cash out or donate the money to an environmental non-profit. Still, with returns less frequent than they’d hoped for, the partners have shifted focus to restaurants, where it’s easier to stow, drop off, and pick up empty cases.

“Returnable, economically, is not a business yet,” says Bieler. But he’s sanguine. “We feel it’s complementary and the right thing to do,” he adds. “And the wine industry is watching us. People are hoping that this is a viable option.”

The folks at New York–based Good Goods have worked on the customer experience to ensure returns of the bottles they make. Taking lessons from earlier experiments with grab-and-go meals in returnable containers, they give a $1 store credit on each bottle brought back. 

“Instead of an obligation, it’s a reward,” says CEO Zach Lawless. Delivered digitally, the credit allows “additional touchpoints, so you can communicate with customers,” opting them into branding messages and shoring up loyalty. A three-month pilot program had an 88 percent return rate among 4,000 users at 10 New York stores. The hope is to have the bottles at thousands of venues, from natural wine shops to big box stores, by 2022.  

Unlike The Gotham Project, Good Goods doesn’t produce its own wines. Instead, it sells bottles to wineries, where they are filled. A bottle might hopscotch from winery to winery, acquiring and being scrubbed of labels as it goes. The more wineries that sign on, the bigger the impact. The pioneers are niche brands—the Hudson Valley’s Wild Arc Farm, California’s Las Jaras Wines—but with the Good Goods bottles outperforming prior sales by 71 percent, the company has potential to create a circular glass bottle economy of scale.

Shrinking the Product to Shrink the Package

Not all solutions are about the bottle. Colorado-based BrewVo seeks to better draft beer’s unwieldy kegs. “You’re shipping a lot of water and stainless steel, and shipping back air for reserve logistics,” says BrewVo CEO Gary Tickle.

BrewVo loses the keg by losing the water. Using a membrane to separate out water and alcohol while capturing the aromas of multiple fermentations, BrewVo winds up with a non-alcoholic beer that has six times the flavor density of regular brew.  

At that concentration, the beer can be shipped in a small bag-in-box, reconstituted with water, and spiked with grain alcohol or more beer at its destination. Beer makers can specify the mashbill and then dial up the ABV when it arrives, and they save money and carbon emissions on the shipping. BrewVo’s Next Draft system for reconstituting the beer saves on taproom space and refrigerant because there’s no need to store kegs. 

Deschutes is using BrewVo for its non-alcoholic Irish Stout, and the non-alcoholic brand Grüvi uses it, too. Purists might argue that the grain alcohol–enhanced beverage the BrewVo system creates is not really beer. But BrewVo’s own Neologik non-alcoholic brew won a gold medal at the 2019 Best of Craft Beer Awards.  

“I don’t think the judges had any clue of what they were tasting, but that’s a proof point,” says Tickle—at least for the non-alcoholic version. And given 86 percent less weight and volume than kegs, beer makers and drinkers might be willing to give these brews a whirl to ease the emissions of shipping. Along with packaging innovations, players in the cargo ship world are working, in turn, on zero-emissions vessels. 

For the sake of the planet and, and in the eyes of new generations of consumers, the solutions can’t come soon enough. “They do have different criteria for how they select [beverages], and sustainability is a factor,” Gotham Project’s Bieler points out. “Increasingly brands will have to be meaningful. Companies are going to have to be better, brands are going to have to be better because we’re dealing with a more educated and activist consumer.”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) September 2021 Editions Tue, 31 Aug 2021 15:22:16 -0400
The Financial Case for Organic Chile's Emiliana produces one million cases of organic and biodynamic wine. Photograph courtesy of Emiliana.

Chile’s Emiliana produces one million cases of organic and biodynamic wine. Photograph courtesy of Emiliana

Vineyard longevity, higher quality, and consumer demand create a healthier bottom line for organically farmed wines

By Pam Strayer

From $4 Trader Joe’s organic wine to high-end Bordeaux, growers and vintners are seeing that organic farming costs are not the barrier they were once considered to be. More experience and know-how, improved materials, and new equipment have created better production methods that can make organic as financially profitable as farming conventionally. 

In the past, financial experts assumed that organic farming meant extra input costs: extra tractor passes, extra labor, extra materials, and extra equipment. It could also mean lower yields during transition years. While cost estimates range widely, rising consumer demand and longer-lasting, healthier vines are proving to offer a healthy return on investment for organic grape farming.

Pam Marrone conducts research on organic plant protection products. Photograph courtesy of Pam Marrone

Pam Marrone conducts research on organic plant protection products. Photograph courtesy of Pam Marrone

Cost Perceptions

It’s tricky to pinpoint the cost of organic farming versus conventional on a broad scale. Some growers say it costs 20 percent less for inputs to farm organically, while others say it costs 30 percent more for inputs. For some, challenges like leafhoppers and mealybugs cannot be overcome, while for others, they can. Site, climate, terroir, and experience of grower are all also significant factors.

But across California, organic farming is rapidly gaining ground. In Monterey County, Scheid Vineyards is in the middle of a 3,000-acre conversion to organic, with plans for distribution partner Whole Foods to sell the newly minted wines. Inland in the San Joaquin Valley, wine giant Bronco Wine Co. converted 8,000 out of its 40,000 acres to organic for its $4 Shaw Organic wines sold at Trader Joe’s. 

“Organic weed control is pretty much the same cost,” says Luca Brillante, Ph.D., assistant professor of viticulture—Bronco viticulture chair at California State University, Fresno and a key advisor to Bronco Wine Co.’s conversion. “Conventional herbicides are costly. Fertilizer is a little more expensive in organic, but fungicides are a little bit less expensive in organic. So overall, the management costs are actually about the same.” 

The number of tractor passes has traditionally been a point of contention in organic farming cost comparisons. Conventional growers say that by using more synthetic materials, they make fewer tractor passes, which means lower labor costs and diesel use. 

But according to experienced organic growers like Steve Matthiasson, proprietor of Matthiasson Wines in Napa, using preventive measures eliminates extra passes. “If you look at our organic clients, we’re spraying five to seven times—just like at our conventional clients—but we’re being really smart about disease risk and plant resistance to reduce our sprays,” he says.

Nonetheless, one high-end vineyard consulting company in Santa Barbara County charges 30 percent more to farm organically. “Ridiculous,” says Matthiasson. “We charge our conventional and our organic clients the same.”

Focusing on soil health at Emiliana. Photograph courtesy of Emiliana

Focusing on soil health at Emiliana. Photograph courtesy of Emiliana

Achieving Comparable Yields

However, the yields for Bronco’s organic vines (previously pumped up on synthetic fertilizers) are slightly lower, producing 30 percent less in a region known for pushing the max on tonnage.

Yields here are often 10 to 15 tons to the acre for conventional or 10 to 12 tons for established organic growers. (A grower in conversion may only get 7 to 10 tons per acre for vines that have previously fertilized with synthetic nitrogen.)

In Chile, Emiliana CEO Cristian Rodriguez says yields are always the big fear when a grower contemplates going organic. The company produces one million cases of organic and biodynamic wine with rising profits. The second-biggest organic brand sold in the U.S., their Natura wines retail for $11. “I can tell you after 25 years of farming organically, we know our yields are comparable to conventional,” says Rodriguez. “With good clones and compost, and good farming on the right site, organic vine yields are competitive.”

In comparing organic versus chemical farming, Rodriguez says labor is the biggest expense for all wineries—a factor that isn’t impacted by organics.

 “In vineyards, there are two seasons in which we spend the most money—pruning and harvesting,” he says. “And we harvest more than 80 percent of our grapes mechanically. So for labor, there is no difference if you’re organic or not.” 

The Payoff of Vineyard Longevity

Vineyard longevity is another huge cost consideration, and organic growers anecdotally report that organic vineyards typically last longer.

“There’s a concept problem here: a lot of people think that you get less crop, which is not true. The organic vines live longer, and they’re actually more resistant to disease progression,” says Mark Neal of Jack Neal & Sons in Napa.

“When you’re using synthetics and you’re using herbicides, you’re hurting not only your soil’s microbiome, you’re hurting the plant that you’re farming,” adds organic champion Carlo Mondavi, proprietor of Sonoma-based Raen Wines. “If you are farming a perennial with chemicals, chances are that you will have to replant in 15 years or 20 years versus having organic vines that can last a lot longer, because they’re healthier and sturdier.”

“If you gain a decade more in your vineyard, obviously, that’s a really good economic model,” adds Mattthiasson. 

Better Organic Materials and Tools 

As organic farming has grown, so have the products that support it, making organic farming more feasible and profitable.

“When it was just North Coast hippies, we had such a small amount of organic materials available to us,” says Matthiasson. “Now more and more tools are available. For example, we now have really good phosphorus fertilizers. A decade ago, we didn’t.”

Credit former Monsanto entomologist-turned-biopesticide entrepreneur Pam Marrone in Davis, California for bringing many of the new organic, biological plant protection products to market. These organic products are gentler and safer, and are now widely used by many conventional growers, too.

Opting for organic materials is also attractive to consumers, who have changed the way they feel about the popular herbicide Roundup after recent, widely publicized trials that found it caused cancer. 

“No one wants to get caught using Roundup these days,” says John Roncoroni, a top weed control expert in Napa and farm advisor emeritus at University of California Cooperative Extension.

Organic growers are also excited about the advent of the electric, self-driving Monarch Tractor, which can be powered with on-farm solar panels. Led by former Tesla execs and organic champion Mondavi (who is also Monarch’s chief farming officer), the company’s powerful $58,000 tractor has state-of-the-art cameras, sensors, and robotics. 

California wineries are lining up to buy them, many with subsidies from the California Air Resources Board, which enables growers to purchase the Monarchs very inexpensively. 

“I don’t know one farmer on this planet that wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to go out and farm conventionally, I want to use chemicals, I want to use herbicides,’” says Mondavi. The new tractors, equipped with cameras and smarter sensors that enable better data collection and intelligent systems, can flip the culture of using pesticides to advantage organic. 

“It’s all a matter of economics and convenience,” says Mondavi. “If we can get rid of those economic divides, which is what the Monarch tractor does, that is literally my dream.”

Competitive Advantages in the Market

But profitability isn’t just about costs—it’s also about revenue. Recent studies suggest that the market for organic wines is stronger than for conventional ones.

A recent study conducted by wine economist Olivier Gergaud, a professor at Kedge Wine Business School in France, surveyed more than 7,000 producers in the Vignerons indépendants de France (VIF) in 2019 and found that organic and biodynamic producers did better financially than conventional and sustainable vintners.

“It’s usually more profitable in France to produce organic wines or biodynamic ones than conventional wines,” he says, noting that the flow of profits is generally more stable for organic and biodynamic wines than for conventional ones.

“Demand is higher and growing at larger and stronger speeds than the supply,” he adds. “In some places, when you talk to some wine storekeepers, it’s hard for them to secure access to these wines because they are in high demand.” 

Organic and biodynamic wines were also shown to achieve higher scores in a 2021 study published in the journal Ecological Economics (also by Gergaud along with Magali Delmas of University of California, Los Angeles). Looking at 128,000 wines ranging in price from $5 to $450, it found that more than 30 French wine critics over a 20-year span rated certified organically grown wines six points higher on average than conventional or sustainable wines. For biodynamic wines, scores were 12 points higher on average than conventional or sustainable. 

While French growers can earn much higher prices for their organic grapes compared to conventional, organic growers in the U.S. have faced advantages of a different kind: Having welcome buyers in a time of oversupply. Dave Koball, a long-time vineyard manager in Mendocino, says organic growers there were worried when a major organic wine brand started buying its organic grapes for cheaper elsewhere in the state.  

But Mendocino’s organic growers are seeing that new smaller labels or direct-to-consumer brands promoting “clean wines” want their grapes. “The guys say, in the last couple of years, if it was organic, we could sell it,” he says. “But conventional—it won’t even get touched.” 

Carlo Mondavi, chief farming officer for Monarch tractor, believes new technology can convert more growers to organic farming. Photograph courtesy of Monarch Tractor

Carlo Mondavi, chief farming officer for Monarch tractor, believes new technology can convert more growers to organic farming.
Photograph courtesy of Monarch Tractor

Healthy Profits Ahead for Organic Wines

Putting it all together, organic and biodynamic vintner Robert Eden of Château Maris in Languedoc says these greener farming systems offer an attractive package of benefits: higher grape and wine quality, vineyard longevity, and customer loyalty.

“Over the long term, I have much healthier plants in much healthier soil, producing better-tasting fruit and producing better wines—which helps me sell them for that slightly higher price for the quality of the product,” he says. “And I have regular customers, some of whom have been coming back to our wines for 15 years.”

In an industry that competes on flavor, Eden says organic and biodynamic wines offer a compelling, competitive advantage. 

“People are now becoming much more convinced in their own practice, the difference in taste. They’ve appreciated better quality. And so they haven’t just bought organic once,” he says. “They bought organic twice, and they keep on coming back because they appreciate the taste. And that is why the market is growing.” 

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) September 2021 Editions Tue, 31 Aug 2021 15:14:58 -0400
The Future of the Sales Rep future_sales_rep_HOME.jpg

Retail and restaurant purchasing may be normalizing, but the way buyers interact with importer and distributor reps has changed for good

By Scott Rosenbaum

In recent years, many importer and distributor sales representatives have begun to suspect that tired methods of selling wine and spirits needed to better adapt to the demands of the 21st century, but the past year has accelerated that shift.  

The subtle changes were almost imperceptible. After all, the end result was the same: a sale to a restaurant, bar, or retailer. 

However, the market volatility, technological advances, and social upheavals of the past year created many modifications to the way wine and spirits are bought and sold at wholesale. Today—and increasingly in the future—the role of salesperson will require more adaptability, client understanding, digital know-how, and business savvy than ever before.

“We knew the players and pieces: buyers and accounts. Now the chessboard is being reset. It’s tabula rasa,” says Ryan Looper, the director of De Maison East, a New York and New Jersey distributor of Spanish and French wines and spirits.

To catalog how recent changes have affected wine and spirits sales reps, we spoke with industry members about how this role is evolving and what the future holds.

Adapting to an Expanded Role

Much like the pandemic forced many sommeliers and beverage directors to don GM hats as restaurants tightened their belts, wholesale managers and reps have found their roles expanding and folding into one another. “My title is area manager, but I’m currently functioning as a sales rep,” says Amelia Di Marco, a New York-based area manager for wine producer Avignonesi. Whereas Di Marco would typically work with her company’s distributor partners, she’s now spending more time selling directly to restaurant and retail clients.

Looper emphasizes the need for his team to be problem solvers, so his salespeople don’t have titles on their business cards. “When you don’t have a title, it doesn’t define you,” he says. “The title doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility of serving the account because you’re not ‘customer service’ or ‘logistics.’” 

Selling alcohol now requires a more holistic understanding of the business. A salesperson used to be a wine and spirit products communicator. Now they must be an industry communicator, prepared to discuss anything from supply chain issues to how tariffs are affecting pricing. 

“Without the knowledge of the business, you’re just showing wine,” says Christian Gourdin, a Baltimore-based field sales manager for Breakthru Beverage.

Appointments Are Limited—So Optimize Them

Buyers have always been busy, but between staffing shortages, consumer excitement to get out and about, and longtime avoidance of in-person meetings, appointments are far more scarce.

“I don’t think the sales rep of old exists; it’s much more dynamic,” says Looper. “You used to be a postman: visiting accounts, having a route. Now reps need to be more like jazz musicians.” 

Gone are the days of dropping into accounts unexpectedly. “Popping into an account is less effective than it used to be, and samples don’t stretch as far as they used to [when you have fewer appointments],” says Kelly Mitchell, a northern New Jersey sales rep for Skurnik Wines & Spirits. Dropping off smaller bottles of samples specifically requested by buyers is an effective technique rather than hauling around a full bag of bottles. 

This also translates to diminished effectiveness of ride-alongs, when a producer representative would accompany reps on their sales calls. Many sources note that buyers want to be connected to makers rather than sellers—particularly because they have been cut off from producers over the past year—so they prioritize ride-alongs with winemakers or distillers rather than national sales managers and brand ambassadors.

Instead of relying on drop-ins, sales reps should plan their schedules around specific client expectations. “Appointments now must be tied to a need,” says Mitchell. “They are much more intentional by design. The amount of time spent communicating prior to the meeting has increased.”

When reps do get an appointment, they need to optimize it by knowing what the buyer wants. “Accounts have less willingness to spend a long time with sales reps,” says Di Marco. “Before we had 30-minute meetings. Now it’s: ‘How do we get their attention in 15 minutes or less?’” 

Use those extra minutes to do some research before the meeting. “That’s homework time,” adds Di Marco. “When I speak with a customer they know I understand their needs and I’m not just repeating what I told someone else.” 

Photograph courtesy of Robyn E. Lustbader

Photograph courtesy of Robyn E. Lustbader

Client Customization Is More Important

More than ever, reps need to put themselves in their clients’ shoes. “You must have empathy for your customer. Not everyone has the time, dollars, mental health, or emotional bandwidth to make an appointment,” says Robyn E. Lustbader, a sales representative for Lagniappe Beverage in Chicago.

At times, that may mean prioritizing buyer relationships over sales goals. “The goals have been put to the side; get the relationship right so that when things get back, we’re at the front of the gate,” says a sales rep at a large California wholesaler, who asked to remain anonymous.

“It’s no longer enough to know your customers; now you need to know your customers’ customers,” says Mitchell. Traditionally, this feedback would come through in-store tastings and the ability for a rep to grab a drink at the bar. With reservations and bar seats in high demand, sales reps need to get creative in order to understand their buyers’ customers.

“Instagram is my eyes,” says the anonymous California rep. “I observe changes to wine lists and drink specials.” Additionally, forging relationships with store and restaurant ownership provides direct feedback about the operation’s most pressing needs and offers a steady contact at a time when staff constantly shuffles.

From there, sales reps can create more individualized content for specific accounts, as Mitchell has done over the past year, rather than forwarding tone-deaf, generic email blasts. One effective technique for scaling semi-customized content is documenting client attributes like stylistic, regional, and budgetary preferences in a spreadsheet and sorting as needed.

Tapping into Technology

“There is more business done virtually than ever before. That means less driving and more time in front of the computer,” says Kate MacWilliamson, a San Diego-based salesperson for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. 

Social media fluency is a new prerequisite for the sales role, one that didn’t exist just five years ago. Instagram can offer good opportunities to connect with those who are selling your products on the floor, but it’s important to connect directly with restaurant and retail staff, not just the official client account. 

Additionally, commenting and appropriately tagging relevant content tends to yield greater engagement than simply “liking” a photo. Using Instagram Stories and Live have become part of many reps’ routines, and with many international producers still unable to travel to the U.S., Instagram Live tastings or conversations can serve to connect buyers with producers.

With the flood of distributor ecommerce platforms like Breakthru Beverage’s Breakthru Now and Republic National Distributing Company’s eRNDC, more sales are being placed digitally than ever before. “Technology like SevenFifty and proprietary apps like Breakthru Now allow reps to offer better service,” says Gourdin. 

But technology isn’t a cure-all. Rather, these platforms should be viewed as time-savers—time that now needs to be used to cultivate bonds with buyers. “It still boils down to relationships,” says Gourdin. “If I have good relationships, people will want to see me.”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) August 2021 Editions Tue, 27 Jul 2021 10:29:25 -0400
The Great Reopening Were_Open_Again.jpg

A great reopening is underway here in Maryland. The on-premise side of the industry has taken punch after punch since the onset of COVID-19.  With restrictions lifting, restaurant and bar proprietors face many obstacles on the road 'back to normal'.  Restrictions are being lifted and people are once again venturing out to stores and entertainment, attending live events, and (of course) eating and drinking out.

Ellicott City has been part of this comeback, but that’s no surprise. The historic district of this Howard County suburb has been in comeback mode for several years now, having weathered the devastating effects of not one, but two deadly and destructive floods that happened pre-pandemic.


Among those who have survived and come out on the other side is restaurateur Mark Hemmis. But the combined experiences have changed him, changed his business. The owner of the old Phoenix Emporium sold his leasehold interest in that Ellicott City bar and restaurant in the spring of 2019 and subsequently purchased Ellicott Mills Brewing Company further up Main Street. A new eating and drink place was subsequently born . . . Phoenix Upper Main.

And then the pandemic hit, and everything went to Hell again. But Hemmis and his staff successfully navigated the COVID era’s highs and lows. “There was a COVID spike back in November-December,” he recalled, “which certainly had a dramatic impact on people’s willingness to go out and venture into restaurants and bars. When we got through that, we were then in the middle of winter. So, our outdoor seating was widely unused except for an occasional day or two when it was palatable to eat outside. As we came to the spring, though, you could see that people really wanted to return. We have this outdoor seating because of the permit Howard County so graciously issued. As the weather has gotten better, our business has increased and that’s coincided with people getting vaccinated. And as the restrictions have eased up, we’ve seen even more of a willingness to eat indoors, too. The restaurant is now filling up inside.”

Problems, though, linger. As the Beverage Journal conducted this interview in early July, Phoenix Upper Main and other competing businesses in Old Ellicott City were still having staffing problems. “We have been unable to go to 100 percent indoors,” Hemmis lamented. “Our tables in our main dining room upstairs are still six feet apart because we don’t have enough employees to accommodate full-on dining when our outdoors is open.”

Some changes that occurred during the pandemic have also lingered. “Our food runners are still wearing masks,” he noted. “Our kitchen staff is also still wearing masks when they’re preparing food. That’s out of an abundance of caution more than anything. Yes, it’s for visual effect. But it’s important to reassure our customers that we’re still taking COVID protocols seriously. I am not 100 percent sure it’s necessary. But it makes customers feel more at ease, and my staff is comfortable doing it. You have to respect all customers, including those that still don’t feel comfortable. There is still a portion of the population that is at risk. There are still people who aren’t vaccinated, there are still children, and there are still people who are caring for the elderly. You want to show them the same respect you show the rest of your customers.”


One thing that hasn’t changed is Hemmis’ steady hand at the wheel. He acknowledges that “change” has been the biggest test of his leadership. “At the very beginning,” he stated, “we had our barstools roped off, and we had an alleyway taped on the floor that was a path for people to use the restrooms when they could only eat outside. Every time we made changes to that, changed the restrictions, changed the way we did business, there is resistance that had to be overcome. Staff appreciates knowing what to expect. So, for example, when we decided to allow minimal bar seating or when we brought tables inside or when we switched from using ketchup packets to using bottles of ketchup, both customers and staff had to be reassured that we’re being safe and that this is the right decision.”

It’s helped that he is in a much bigger restaurant space now than he would have been if he were still running the old Phoenix Emporium. Ellicott City’s flood mitigation plan left him little choice but to move his business up Main Street. He has no regrets. “I’m learning and growing,” Hemmis said. “I am learning how to manage a larger staff and I’m learning how to delegate, because there’s been a LOT more things added to my plate. Fortunately, I have a staff that is extraordinarily well qualified. Part of my job now is to enable them to make decisions and support them when they do.”

He added, “Did I make some wrong decisions? Probably. We had a couple of COVID scares in-house. You’d have a part-time employee test positive, and we had to shut down to get everybody tested. It’s an easy decision, but it’s a difficult one when it means closing on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Hopefully, I got most of the decisions right.”

It’s also helped that customers are genuinely thrilled to be returning to some of their favorite haunts in Old Ellicott City. In addition to Phoenix Upper Main, people are re-discovering such still-in-business eateries as The Judge’s Bench, Manor Hill Tavern, Georgia Grace Café, and more. Unfortunately, though, not a whole lot more.


Hemmis concluded, “I’m excited to see what happens next. I think we are due for an explosion of business, and -- like everyone else -- we are trying to add staff to accommodate that. The issue we’re having is there are less restaurants in Ellicott City now. That wasn’t totally COVID-related. It was also the restructuring at the bottom of the hill. There was the removal of the old Phoenix, Cacao Lane, The Rumor Mill. We hope that our new business increases due to the fact that we’re doing things well and providing a service that customers want. But we need more restaurants in town! The food and drink scene bring visitors to Main Street. That, in turn, supports the other businesses. Right now, there are only a few full-service restaurants in town. We would be so excited to welcome some new foodservice neighbors to Old Ellicott City!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.    

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) August 2021 Editions Tue, 27 Jul 2021 10:11:50 -0400
Cannabis vs. West Coast Wine cannabis_wine_HOME.jpg

Cannabis cultivation creates resource competition and could threaten tourism in wine country—but some argue that proper regulation could benefit premier regions 

By Mark Stock

The West Coast wine industry can adapt—we’ve seen it do so in response to wildfires, drought, even a pandemic. But can it handle having a new crop for a neighbor?

Cannabis farms are on the rise in and around many appellations of wine-centric states like California and Oregon; according to BDS Analytics, a Boulder, Colorado-based cannabinoid research firm, legal cannabis sales in California increased by $586 million in 2020, and the Oregon market expanded by 39 percent. They’re the expected byproduct of recent legalization and a flourishing U.S. industry, one that totaled over $17.5 billion in 2020 alone—and that’s just the legal sector. 

Concerns in many regional wine communities are on the rise, too, particularly as lack of regulation creates competition for labor, illegal resource use, and skyrocketing land prices. But while some vintners and grape growers see cannabis as a threat to regional tourism, wine quality, and brand reputation, others argue that proper cannabis regulation and cultivation can actually bolster premium wine regions. Can these two crops coexist on the same turf? Or are the two highly-profitable agriculture sectors on a collision course?

Competition for Resources, Land, and Labor

Since cannabis cultivation landed in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, growing grapes has become far more challenging, says Michael Moore, the general manager of Quail Run Vineyards. “Everyone down here in the grape, pear, and row crop business is furious about the past couple years of totally unregulated hemp operations,” he says. 

Last year was Moore’s most difficult harvest yet, and not just because of the pandemic. He and many of his colleagues had trouble getting labor during harvest, unable to compete with the cash rates offered by area cannabis grows. Moore equates the wine and cannabis duality to a pair of houses being built: The former requires permits, inspections, and taxes, while the latter is done in cash and subject to none of the scrutiny and oversight.

“The overall goal of everyone taking issue with hemp is strictly that it be regulated, and that payroll records be audited so the cash economy driving hemp and cannabis is brought into compliance as it is with the rest of agriculture,” says Moore. He and his wine colleagues simply can’t compete at the moment, losing their temp staff to the cannabis sector, which he says is offering wages nearly $10 greater per hour. “By paying cash they are avoiding state and federal taxes, social security payments, workers comp payments,” Moore adds. “The employee has no deductions, so they get the full amount.”

The regulatory concerns extend out of state and beyond the financial. In California, where cannabis has been legal since the end of 2016, wine and weed continue to tussle as each county enacts its own rules and regulations. The most extreme version of this battle has been unfolding in Santa Barbara County, where a hasty approval protocol has led to scores of giant cannabis operations in the heart of wine country, right across the road from grapevines.

Rex Stults, the vice president of industry relations at Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), is fighting for the aesthetic. Napa Valley likes to use the word “viewshed” to describe its natural surroundings, fought for long ago when mansions instead of oak-studded slopes or tidy vineyard rows started to dot the hillsides. The local wine industry moved to preserve such scenery through building regulations.

Many industry leaders from Napa have witnessed the scene in Santa Barbara. Stults says an overwhelming number of NVV members have expressed concerns about potential cannabis grows within county lines, especially if it means large greenhouses and unattractive production facilities. “We don’t want little mini prison yards popping up,” says Stults. “Wineries don’t have barbed wire or a guy on an ATV with a weapon.”

“We are solidly opposed to commercial cultivation in the county,” he adds. The NVV’s five-member board voted unanimously not to take the issue up earlier this year, meaning it would not even be discussed.  

Competition for land itself is also a real concern; back in Oregon, Moore says three Rogue Valley vineyards have already sold this year, and they have been dug up and replanted as hemp farms. It costs roughly $25,000 an acre to develop a vineyard, according to Moore, and setting up an acre of cannabis tends to be even more expensive up front with the water usage and added infrastructure.

However, the profit margin is drastically different given the disparity in yields. According to a statement in the Press Democrat from Sonoma County agricultural commissioner Andrew Smith, cannabis can reach a per-acre price of $5.5 million to $6 million each year; Sonoma County wine grapes, on the other hand, were valued at $11,000 per acre in 2019.

Resultantly, Moore notes that land prices have been skyrocketing, with friends getting offered large sums of cash by cannabis investors for their properties and colossal new growing greenhouses opening up just down the road.

His concerns extend to natural resources, especially water use during increasingly dry conditions. Moore says a recent regional survey revealed that a third of hemp growers were sourcing water illegally.

“Cannabis is a premium crop that can fit into the Napa brand. We’re not talking about stereotypical stoners. We are talking about tinctures and oils.”– Stephanie Honig, Napa Valley Cannabis Association Photograph courtesy of Adrian Gregoruti

“Cannabis is a premium crop that can fit into the Napa brand. We’re not talking about stereotypical stoners. We are talking about tinctures and oils.”– Stephanie Honig, Napa Valley Cannabis Association
Photograph courtesy of Adrian Gregoruti

Creating Regulatory Solutions

Others believe that with proper regulation, cannabis can not only coexist with wine, but benefit these wine regions. “We all know which way the market is heading,” says Stephanie Honig, who runs Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford and is the president of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association (NVCA). “I see opportunity and a way for cannabis to benefit Napa County.”

Honig has spearheaded the Napa County Cannabis Regulation Initiative, which would amend municipal code and allow for limited cannabis cultivation within the agricultural watershed. It would impose a tax on cannabis, making it economically viable and likely ending the underground industry. Though the initiative made it onto the March 2020 ballot after Honig gathered 8,500 signatures in just one week, the organization pulled the initiative ahead of the vote because they believed the county would pass an ordinance instead; so far, that has not happened.

The NVCA’s plan involves reserving just 100 acres for cannabis in the county—all away from the viewshed—and plenty of regulation. A tax would be levied on the crop and setbacks would be put into place, including a 1,000-foot buffer between cannabis grows and any winery, vineyard, or other cultivation area. It also calls for compliance with environmental regulations like water and air quality and notes that odors may be subject to public nuisance liability.

For cannabis cultivation opponents, that isn’t enough. “Wine and weed are bad agricultural neighbors,” says Stults. “The aroma of just growing cannabis can drift for miles.” He argues that that poses a real threat for such a sensory experience as wine tasting. Though the question of whether or not cannabis odors after the chemistry and quality of wines grown nearby is still a fairly open jury, some wineries worry that unwanted terpenes will show up in their bottled products.

Both wine and cannabis growers are also worried about drift from pesticides and other vineyard sprays landing on cannabis crops; cannabis pesticide regulations are quite strict, so winery and vineyard owners could be risking expensive lawsuits.

Could Cannabis Make Wine Regions More Attractive?

Stults contends that cannabis is primarily after the Napa name, and that Napa Valley’s reputation as a scenic, high-quality wine region could be disturbed if cannabis comes to town. (Presently, cannabis growers can say “grown in Napa County” on their work but not Napa Valley.)

Honig disagrees. “Cannabis is a premium crop that can fit into the Napa brand,” she says. “We’re not talking about stereotypical stoners. We are talking about tinctures and oils.” She believes opponents’ concerns stem from insulation and the age-old fear of change. “Napa Valley wine has enjoyed double-digit growth for decades,” Honig adds.“If there wasn’t any change back in the ’60s, we’d still be growing prunes and walnuts today.” 

Bringing cannabis cultivation to traditional wine regions like Napa could broaden the region’s audience, particularly among younger generations and non-wine drinkers. Honig believes that Napa as we know it isn’t beckoning millennials and Gen Z’ers to visit, but carefully-curated and experiential cannabis tourism settings could change that. 

“For the Napa Valley to stay relevant and continue to be a leader in premium agriculture, we should be assessing what will be important to our consumers in 20 to 30 years and not assume consumer behavior won’t evolve from what it is today,” she says.

Projects like House of Saka—which blends Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with northern California-grown cannabis to create nonalcoholic beverages—have already attempted to demonstrate how wine and weed can coexist at a luxury level. “The feedback has been tremendously positive,” says cofounder Tracey Mason, a Napa resident who has three decades of experience as a wine industry executive. She is on the board of directors for NVCA, and she hopes to one day source cannabis for House of Saka from Napa County. “All we do is intend to honor the Napa provenance and the industry as a whole,” she says. “We’re just taking a fresh and innovative approach.”

Honig also argues that no agricultural area benefits from being a monoculture, and diverse crops can help deter plant pathogens and diseases and create a richer habitat. “From an economic perspective, a region that is dependent on one crop is much more at risk than an area with diverse income streams,” she adds. “Also, there are very few crops that would be financially viable in Napa County and cannabis is one of them.”

“Wildfires and COVID have clearly shown that wine country could benefit extraordinarily from a more diverse economic base,” adds Mason. “Cannabis is the best way to do that.”

Could premium wine regions like Napa excel in cannabis as they have in wine? “If Napa grows the best cannabis in the world, the same way we grow the best wine grapes in the world, it will add to our reputation, not tarnish it,” Honig believes.

Cannabis operations have quickly set up shop in Rogue Valley, Oregon. Photograph courtesy of Mark Stock

Cannabis operations have quickly set up shop in Rogue Valley, Oregon.
Photograph courtesy of Mark Stock

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) August 2021 Editions Tue, 27 Jul 2021 09:58:34 -0400
Vodka’s Neutral Days Are Over Photographs courtesy of Crater Lake Spirits / Rootstock Spirits / American Liquor Company / Frankly Organic

The sluggish category sees new energy from innovative technologies and a craft-driven push towards terroir-expression, new ingredients, and an emphasis on flavor

By Brad Japhe

Vodka remains far and away the most consumed category of spirit in the United States. But although it accounts for one-third of all spirits sales (according to Nielsen)—with whiskey a distant second at 25 percent—vodka has been on a slow and steady decline for over a decade, according to data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. And it rarely enjoys the top-shelf placement of, say, craft gin or Japanese whisky.

Yet there are new signs of life in the category. Growth—and excitement—in the vodka space today are being fueled by craft-minded distilleries who are flipping the script on vodka. And their numbers are growing: In 2010 there were less than 400 craft vodka brands on American shelves; a decade later, there are over 1,500.

Rather than striving for the long-held holy grail of “smooth and neutral,” these producers are focusing on more pronounced flavors coming from the quality raw ingredients and water sources they are using. Fewer distillations, less filtering, novel new technologies, and an emphasis on provenance are driving the vodka conversation today (even the TTB removed the “flavorless, odorless, colorless” words from vodka’s definition in 2020) as producers—both small and large—aim to appeal to a new generation of drinkers.

“As drinkers are appreciating and paying more attention to what’s in their glass, a space has been created for examining and appreciating the flavor of vodka,” observes Nicole Salicetti, bartender at Llama San in New York City. “I know it still sounds crazy to say flavor and vodka together, but [the category has to undo] years of their own marketing.” It’s no longer the bland and boring “chicken” of the spirits world, Salicetti says.

Crater Lake Spirits in Bend, Oregon credits their water source as the major flavor contributor. Photo courtesy of Crater Lake Spirits

Crater Lake Spirits in Bend, Oregon credits their water source as the major flavor contributor. Photo courtesy of Crater Lake Spirits

Water and Ingredient Purity Takes Center Stage

“Vodka is profoundly impacted by the character and quality of the water used,” explains Alan Dietrich, CEO of Crater Lake Spirits in Bend, Oregon. “Mineral content, pH, hardness, all have a huge influence.”

Although H2O accounts for a majority of the liquid in any 80-proof vodka, it has long been overlooked by producers who focused instead on filtration techniques or quantity of distillation runs. In other words, they were more concerned with what they were taking out of the spirit rather than what they were putting in. Dietrech is turning that notion on his head. Water sourcing is a key part of how vodka expresses its terroir, he believes. “The uniqueness of the water in Central Oregon is probably a far greater contributor to the superior quality of Crater Lake Vodka [than any element of production],” he adds.

In Quebec, Canada, St. Lucifer Spirits is turning to technology to upgrade its water game. To craft its Dirty Devil Vodka, the distillery first purifies spring water through reverse osmosis, then hyper-oxygenates the liquid through a patented process which adds five times the amount of oxygen or ordinary water. The resulting product is an enlivened vodka that showcases its corn base while tempering any ethanol burn.

Even large brands are increasingly focusing on water source as a primary quality driver. Austin, Texas-based Deep Eddy credits the taste and texture of its vodka to the deep water aquifer from which they obtain their spring water, which offers greater purity than a surface source, the founders believe (the brand is even named for the deepest spring-fed swimming hole in Austin).

The focus on ingredient integrity and transparency which has transformed many other beverage alcohol categories will be an important growth area for vodka as well, believe many experts and producers alike. Husband-and-wife team Philip and Kristen Risk launched Austin-based Frankly Organic Vodka with organic fruits, roots, and botanicals—all of which are listed on the front of the bottle in bold font. The subtly sweet flavor profile is entirely natural, they explain, a result of the corn base—sourced exclusively from small, sustainably-minded farmers—as Frankly eschews any refined sugars or artificial flavors that other less-transparent spirits brands may contain.

Frankly Organic lists all ingredients on the front label for full transparency. Photo courtesy of Frankly Organic

Frankly Organic lists all ingredients on the front label for full transparency. Photo courtesy of Frankly Organic

Building Flavor Vodka Through Chemistry

At Buffalo Trace, master distiller Harlen Wheatley is the man behind some of the most sought-after whiskeys on the planet. In fact, many Pappy Van Winkle fanatics would be shocked to learn that any vodka on shelves could possibly share a DNA with their vaunted bourbon. But for over a decade now, he’s been bottling CLIX, made from a base of red winter wheat, plump rye, yellow dent corn, and malted barley. Its slow path to the glass harnesses advanced chromatography to elevate nose and palate on a liquid that’s distilled exactly 159 times.

“In 2007 we installed a MicroStill system that allowed us to focus on the details,” explains Wheatley. “For the first batch, it took us about 4 months to complete and make about 250 gallons of vodka through multiple grain recipes and distillations.” 

At $300 a bottle, CLIX has become as coveted as Pappy, Wheatley shares.

“Convincing our Buffalo Trace drinkers is the easy part,” he adds. “Our fans do know our reputation as a spirit producer, and we want our consumers to have confidence that we apply that same passion for making bourbons and whiskeys to our vodkas.”

Large, established producers are embracing new techniques to add flavor as well. SKYY is reformulating its vodka to include a hint of salinity, imparted from minerals sourced directly from the San Francisco Bay Area. The resulting vodka is then filtered through California limestone, which also amps up the saline note.

When it comes to applied science, though, the sky’s the limit for The Air Company. The tech brand is using a proprietary distillation system to turn ambient carbon dioxide into pure ethanol. Even more mind-blowing: it tastes great—summoning faint edges of lemon around cereal grain.

Going Against The Grain

In the U.S., the top selling vodka brands—including Tito’s and Smirnoff—are typically distilled from corn. Higher-end labels like Grey Goose and Ketel One are made from wheat. But there are some surprising tonalities to be mined from unconventional ingredients.

From England’s West Dorset coast, Black Cow is made by Jason Barber and Paul Archard, whose family has been dairy farmers for four generations. They distill the milk of grass-fed cows; the resulting vodka shows light cream and fresh cracked pepper flavors, and a rich, creamy texture.

“To make our vodkas, we distill fresh produce and fruit on our copper stills using the same artisanal methods we rely on to make our flagship brandies and fruit liqueurs,” says Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, alluding to the pear and apple that’s part of production. “Combining these distillates with a non-GMO base spirit results in unique liquids that stand proudly among the rest of our portfolio.”

It’s no surprise that other established fruit brandy distillers entering the vodka space are looking to craft flavor-forward spirits that accentuate the character of the ingredients grown in their orchards. Rootstock Spirits, created by the DeFisher family, fifth-generation fruit farmers in upstate New York, added Tree Vodka to their line-up of pear, apple, and plum brandies. Head distiller Collin McConville uses calvados production techniques in order to highlight the fresh, slightly sweet apple flavors and aromatics of the two dozen apple varieties they cultivate. While not a flavored vodka, the apple undertones of Tree are unmistakable.

For the famed Japanese whisky producer, Suntory, the magic behind its Haku Vodka is in the mold. “Koji is cooked rice that has been inoculated with a fermentation culture,” explains Gardner Dunn, senior ambassador for the brand, which launched its clear spirit in winter of 2018.  “This is used to form a mash which is then distilled in pot stills to create a rice spirit. It’s then distilled a second time, some in a pot still and some in a column still. Those liquids are then blended and filtered through bamboo charcoal in a process unique to [our distillery].”

The goal for these producers is to craft a vodka that expresses the character and flavor of the raw materials. “That can be a challenge when producing spirits over 190 proof off the still,” admits Ryan Lang, owner and distiller of Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. “But we found a certain strain of red winter wheat that provides a soft vanilla tone to the product even at 191.5 proof off the still. The process of heads and tails cuts is performed by sensory analysis to keep the best of that material so that when finishing an 80 proof bottle, minimal filtration is needed.”

The famed Japanese whisky producer Suntory uses koji as the base of its Haku Vodka. Photo courtesy of House of Suntory

The famed Japanese whisky producer Suntory uses koji as the base of its Haku Vodka. Photo courtesy of House of Suntory

Building Texture, Beyond Smoothness

Of all the ways in which a vodka can accrue craft bonafides, texture isn’t the most obvious. Yet it’s a key consideration amongst a new generation of distillers vying for relevance in the space. Barry Young has wielded that baton to expert effect. A nip of his Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka is not unlike sipping on silk. “The mouthfeel and natural viscosity that Boyd & Blair has comes directly from the starch of the potato coupled with the impact of champagne yeast,” according to the distiller. “The goal was always to be the un-vodka of vodkas. In fact, I do everything I can to give the spirit more flavor.”

Even larger producers are emphasizing texture qualities beyond simply “smooth.” Chopin Family Reserve relies on extra rare young potatoes from Poland to deliver a earthiness as well as creamy mouthfeel, and New Amsterdam, the gin producer that turned to vodka in 2011, cites its 95 percent corn base for its vodka’s rich, mouth-coating texture—as well as for its hallmark flavors of lemon-zest and frosting.

To build a vodka with great textural and flavor complexity, Chris Montana, founder of American Liquor Co. (the country’s first Black-owned microdistillery) in the Midwest, combines four different base ingredients. The “four-crop” blend marries together locally-grown Midwest winter wheat, light rye, Rio Grande potato, and white corn vodkas to yield what Montana describes as a “definitely not neutral” vodka. The wheat adds berry notes and the rye contributes a peppery kick, while the corn adds sweetness and buttery aromatics and the potato brings rounded, creamy texture and mouthfeel.

Unshackled by regulation, armed with innovation, craft vodka producers are winning over skeptics; making it clear that you can’t afford to remain neutral when it comes to this rapidly evolving category.  

Photographs courtesy of Crater Lake Spirits / Rootstock Spirits / American Liquor Company / Frankly Organic

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Read More]]> (Beverage Network) July 2021 Editions Wed, 30 Jun 2021 14:21:17 -0400
Guide to Ecommerce Delivery and Shipping Online shopping / ecommerce and retail sale concept : Shopping cart, delivery van, credit card, world globe logo on a laptop keyboard, depicts customers order things from retailer sites using internet

A primer on what small and medium-sized operators need to know about the fast-changing laws around taxes, shipping, and technology—and how to capture some of that business

By Christy Frank

Pick up any industry publication over the last year and you’re almost certain to read a story about the growth of online beverage alcohol sales during the pandemic. Some of the figures are mind boggling: Drizly reported increases of 350 percent year-on-year, ended their fiscal year up 115 percent, and IWSR reports an 80 percent increase in the value of ecommerce alcohol sales overall. 

This news makes it clear that customers are ready and willing to purchase wine and other alcoholic beverages online. Less clear is what retailers can do to meet this demand and get a piece of the action—while following federal, state, and local regulations.

Understanding Ecommerce

It’s old news that each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has its own distinct set of post-Prohibition policies aimed at efficiently collecting taxes, minimizing the sale of alcohol to minors, promoting temperance, and keeping organized crime out of the distribution system. What’s new is the impact of ecommerce—and the feeling that these wild growth numbers could indicate long-standing regulations may be loosening up, tilting the system in favor of consumer access, convenience, and value.

Those regulations depend on what’s being sold—and who is selling it. While domestic wineries have seen tremendous growth in their ability to sell to consumers across the country, distilleries and breweries are more heavily restricted. The efforts of producers seeking to reach new markets during the pandemic has led to new legislation—for example, Kentucky now allows wineries, breweries, and distilleries to ship to consumers in-state.

However, at the retail level, regulations on interstate ecommerce remain highly restrictive—for all alcoholic beverage products. Although terms like “delivery,” “ecommerce” and “direct-to-consumer (DTC)” shipping are often used interchangeably, retailers looking to capture some of this sales growth need clarity on these terms—and what investment and costs are required. Top-line sales growth is great, but only if it eventually increases profitability.

Marc Goodfriend, CEO of Boxcheck, a technology software company specializing in compliance, shipping, and customer experience solutions, notes, “When you shift to selling online, the complexities increase exponentially. You have to worry about things like remote age certification, state and local laws you may not be familiar with, complex carrier rules, clunky tax filings—there is a lot of hassle involved to sell wine online.” Much depends on your state and where your potential customers are. The further from your shopfront, the greater the operational complexity, as all the elements of what Goodfriend calls the “holy trinity ‘data’ of tax, compliance, and shipping logistics” come into play.

Marc Goodfriend courtesy of Boxcheck

Marc Goodfriend courtesy of Boxcheck 

Local On-Demand Delivery

Last year, shops with little or no online presence needed to set up a web store and sort out an on-demand delivery/pick up program, in some cases literally overnight. Companies like Drizly helped many shops gain an online presence, growing their retail partners from 1,800 in March 2020 to over 4,000 by year’s end.

This is a big deal: The ability to create an online presence helps many businesses serve existing customers and reach new ones. Many states, like Georgia, Arkansas, and Ohio, which previously allowed no forms of delivery service, legalized it, giving shops in these states the opportunity to build a program either in partnership with a delivery app, or on their own.

However, this sort of on-demand delivery model isn’t as disruptive as the growth numbers might indicate. Customers remain local and bottles are simply exchanged at the curb, porch, or in a building lobby, rather than across the counter. 

Operational complexity does increase though: Retailers still need to comply with local delivery restrictions and ensure that receiving customers are over 21 whether delivery is completed by in-store staff or a third party. Also, picking, packing, and facilitating online orders adds additional cost—so it’s important to monitor profitability, not just sales growth.

Sales tax collection for these local sales remains straightforward… until recently. A wave of marketplace facilitator laws have added complexity for shops working with on-demand delivery platforms. Jeff Carroll, general manager for beverage alcohol for tax compliance company Avalara, explains that laws are beginning to transfer collecting and remitting sales tax from the retailer to the service provider. He suggests that retailers working with these companies ask lots of questions to understand how this is being handled as they may need to adjust their own sales tax reporting processes.

Jeff Carroll courtesy of Avalara

Jeff Carroll courtesy of Avalara

Intrastate Shipping

Moving beyond the neighborhood delivery zone, many states allow retailers to use common carriers such as UPS and FedEx to reach customers within state lines. Where allowed, intrastate shipping presents an opportunity for smaller specialty retailers to introduce their shop and selection to a larger audience without wading into the full thicket of compliance and taxation complexities required to ship across state lines.

That said, retailers still need to be aware of compliance issues within their own state borders. Some states, such as Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky, have counties where shipping is prohibited. Common carriers will require retailers to sign an alcohol-specific shipping contract that mandates special packaging, labelling, and an adult signature requirement at delivery. In some cases, these contracts may specify that only wine or grape-based products may be shipped, so retailers will need to clarify what is allowed within their state. Policies will also need to be in place to account for potential fraudulent purchases, damaged shipments, and undeliverable packages.

Setting up a UPS or FedEx wine shipping account, is relatively easy, but logistics and costs associated with these services, such as pick up fees, packing materials, and additional staff require retailers to look closely at margins, especially if a offering free or low-cost shipping.

White Label Storefronts & Marketplaces

Relatively new to the scene, white label storefronts offered by companies such as Barcart, Speakeasy, and Passion Spirits are set up to give the impression that customers are purchasing a directly from the producer’s branded web site. Emerging platforms like these have much in common with ecommerce marketplaces such as Vivino and ReserveBar that act as one-stop shops for multiple brands.

While giving the appearance of a DTC transaction, they are all three-tier compliant, with the actual sale completed and fulfilled by a retailer who purchases the product from an in-state distributor. In that sense, they are similar to on-demand delivery platforms, but often with an emphasis on premium service over speed.

Josh Jacobs, cofounder and CEO of Speakeasy Co., a platform focused on craft beverage alcohol brands, says, “As with any ecommerce platform, tapping into the Speakeasy network increases sales, and since Speakeasy owns virtually all components beyond fulfillment, partners can scale leanly without building out large teams to support marketing, customer service, and technology.”

Retailers that already have robust fulfilment capabilities should explore partnering with these platforms to generate incremental sales and leverage their logistical expertise. They should also consider if their buying philosophy aligns with that of their potential partner. For example, ReserveBar is focused on promoting established brands distributed by large, national wholesalers while Speakeasy’s mission is to support emerging brands that struggle to find representation.

While the marketplace or white label partner provides the technology platform, Avalara’s Carroll recommends questions including, “How does the money flow? Is it transparent who the seller is? How is age verification being handled?” 

Larry Cormier courtesy of Sovos

Larry Cormier courtesy of Sovos 

Interstate Retailer Direct Shipping

All of the platforms discussed above involve products sold within a single state’s three-tier system, since orders are typically fulfilled by retailers within the state. In most states, available products represent only a fraction of the long-tail of thousands of domestic and imported wines and spirits sold by small importers to regional or single-state distributors.

If the larger scale, well-marketed brands handled by the largest players in the distribution system represent the interstate roads of the alcoholic beverage world, then these smaller networks are more like the blue highways. Retailers who specialize in this segment are well-suited to reach customers in other states who want access to products they can’t find locally—and are willing to pay the often-substantial shipping costs.

However, the ability to conduct this sort of cross-state commerce is currently highly restricted. The 2005 Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court ruling that laid out non-discrimination principles paving the way for channel growth has been applied to producers, not retailers. Currently only 15 states and the District of Columbia that allow out-of-state retailer shipping and only a handful of those allow spirits.

Managing even that limited number of states requires a level of commitment to Marc Goodman’s “holy trinity” of logistics, tax collection, and compliance well beyond the requirements of the previously discussed options. Even if a retailer has a contract set up with a common carrier for in-state shipping, additional costs and processes such as permit fees, sales, and excise tax collection for multiple jurisdictions and various compliance considerations will now come into play.

“The good news is there are software solutions that can be plugged into your ecommerce platform to provide automated sales tax calculation and collection,” explains Larry Cormier, general manager at Sovos ShipCompliant, one of the leading compliance software providers. “Many of those platforms also include the capability to perform real-time compliance checks. At the time of the order, the software will confirm that the retailer is licensed in the destination state and in compliance with all state regulations regarding things such as household volume limits.”

The not-so-good news is that the costs involved with the required permits and the compliance services may be forbidding to many of the smaller specialty shops trying to reach a handful of customers across the country. In some cases, though, small-scale affords a form of special dispensation. For example an out-of-state retailer doing less than $100,000 worth of annual sales in some states may not be required to collect and remit sales tax. But as Avalara’s Carroll notes, “You’re putting the burden on the consumer. That’s the thing that’s often misunderstood—that tax is always due,” and in many cases, there are still filing requirements that seem quirky at best and purposely complicated at worst.

“Research is key when a retailer is in the DTC discovery phase. When choosing states to ship to, they should consider consumption rate, permitting costs and the amount of licensing paperwork required,” explains Cormier. Retailers should reach out to services such as Sovos ShipCompliant, Boxcheck, and Avalara to understand the associated costs and options of building a program focused on their chosen states. 

Legal challenges, legislative changes, and aggressive enforcement policies are constantly evolving, so retailers should also follow company blogs and sign up for free webinars to stay up to date. With an eye to a more streamlined process, the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR) supports a Model Wine Retailer Shipping Bill as part of its ongoing lobbying efforts at the state level. Modeled on a similar proposal which has worked for wineries, it recommends straightforward provisions for in-state permitting, sales tax collection, adult signature verification, and other regulatory standards.

“Despite the fact that wineries and retailers are almost always treated differently by states where out-of-state shipments are concerned, the fact is that the transaction is identical,” says Tom Wark, executive director of NAWR. “Consumers visit the winery/retailer website. They select the wines they want. They place them in a shopping cart. They attest to their age. They pay with a credit card. The retailer/winery collects sales tax based on the state they are shipping to. The retailer/winery uses common carriers to ship the wine to the customer.”

Given all of the complexities and costs above, it’s not surprising that growth in retail interstate shipping lags other forms of wine ecommerce. But as Boxcheck’s Goodfriend explains, “We’re watching an industry that has been around forever start to intersect with the digital age and what’s coming from that is a new, modernized tool set that gives retailers new ways to scale their customer base and reach new markets.”

For retailers ready to move beyond their own main street storefront, life on the blue highways beckons.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.     

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) July 2021 Editions Wed, 30 Jun 2021 14:14:48 -0400
Wells Discount Liquors: A Mother-Daughter Affair Wells_HOME.jpg

Over the last 18 years of writing for the Beverage Journal, I’ve penned numerous columns in which I profiled packaged-goods stores run by fathers and sons. But it’s rare when I come across an establishment operated by a . . . mother and daughter!

So it is with Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore. JoAnn Hyatt and her daughter, Roxann Rogers, don’t just operate any store. Wells is one of the oldest and largest businesses of its kind around, first opened in 1937 and boasting more than 10,000 square feet of space. As such, it has one of the largest selections of wine, beer, and spirits you’ll ever see.

The story does have a bit of tragedy, though. Rogers said, “My father, Michael Hyatt, suffered a brain injury seven years ago. He had run the business for years, but Mom had to take over. I quit my career as a crisis/social worker to come help her. [chuckling] My counseling skills have helped a lot with the personalities that we have. But the tough part was the business and the buying was all new to me. There’s no manual on how to buy.”

Hyatt has been proud of her daughter’s transition. “She’s now one of my head wine buyers!” she stated. “She’s really taken to the business.”

Of course, everyone had to transition last year when COVID-19 hit. Wells Discount Liquors was no different. Both women look back on those first few months of the pandemic with a mix of emotions. Rogers recalls, “We weren’t letting people in for the first six to eight weeks. So, we stepped up our curbside service. People would call and we’d shop for them.”


The Wells Team: Lee Grandes, Lead Wine Manager; Roxann Hyatt-Rogers, Vice President; Diana Abbott, Customer Service Manager; JoAnn Hyatt, Owner; Trish Eby, Chief Financial Officer; and Steve Eby, Operations Manager.

Wells only had six phone lines coming into the store at the time, and Hyatt and Rogers only had a handful of employees who would come to work during the health crisis. “Those lines were ringing!” Hyatt exclaims. “We were exhausted, because you took the orders and then you had to go shop for everybody! And you had to do it quickly, because they’d show up in your parking lot 20 minutes later. And in those 20 minutes, you’d taken five more orders over the phone.”

She continues, “The one thing I found really funny is the number of people who’d call and say, ‘I need to order wine. And the wine I like is in Aisle 4 . . .  and it has a bird on it!’ Some people would have no idea what the name of what they had been drinking was! But they knew where it was in the store, and they’d just walk there and grab it. Well, all of a sudden, they couldn’t do that. There were tons of customers like that! There were some situations where you said to the customer, ‘Look, this situation is awful for everybody. Trust us and let us pick out a wine for you.’ So many customers called us back and re-ordered what we picked for them. We’d have people say, ‘I’m just going to let you pick out our wines from now on!’ It actually worked out, because we got to expand on wines that you’d normally have to sell through tastings [and other means].”

Fortunately, there were certain long-time staffers that stepped up during that time as they had done before when Hyatt had to make the transition to store operator in the wake of her husband’s disability. Some of Wells’ staff give new meaning to the term long-time employees. Hyatt remarked, “Our oldest employee, Lee Grandes, has been here 38 years this October. He is our head wine buyer. He is Wells. Most people who come in think he owns the business! He’s an institution here. And Steve Eby is our receiving manager. He’s been with us for 37 years! I couldn’t run this business without them.”


Another thing that gives both ladies comfort is the helpful presence of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA) in Annapolis and statewide. When Hyatt does turn over the business to her daughter one day, she knows that she, the store, and the family’s legacy will have advocates in the state capitol. “I love how the MSLBA advocates for all of us,” Rogers said. “Whenever we have questions or concerns, they’re either there to answer those questions or help us navigate to where we can get the information.”

Hyatt concluded, “They’re fighting to keep the beer and the wine from going into the grocery stores. How much longer we can keep that going, I don’t know. But thank God, the MSLBA is still fighting!”

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.    

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) July 2021 Editions Wed, 30 Jun 2021 13:45:25 -0400
Defunding the Defunders PubPage_Fells_HOME.jpg

As I write this, June 13, numerous media outlets are reporting that businesses in Baltimore’s historic Fells Point neighborhood are fed up with unchecked criminal activity.  

With an abundance of history and no short supply of restaurants, bars and hotels, the Fells Point on-premise industry has drawn patrons from Baltimore City, the surrounding suburbs and from around the country.  A once festive bustling nightlife is in danger of transforming into a scene from John Carpenter's Escape from New York.  The recent buzz can be attributed to one particularly deadly night where three people were shot in two separate incidents.


The recent and rapid deterioration of the neighborhood has prompted 37 restaurants and small businesses to send a letter to the mayor’s office stating that they would stop paying local taxes and other fees until “basic and essential municipal services are restored.” The letter was addressed to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, City Council President Nick Mosby, City Councilman Zeke Cohen, and Police Commissioner Harrison.

The letter states (in part), “prostitution, public urination and defecation, and the illegal sale and consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs on the streets ... have become routine.”  

The letter continues, “But, as this past weekend proved, a culture of lawlessness rarely remains confined to petty offenses and invariably leads to the kinds of violence and tragedy we witnessed late Saturday night”, referring to the shooting of three people over the previous weekend. 

The letter summizes that the minor crimes police and prosecutors “ignore” is what leads to a build up in incidents like the weekend shooting. 


Among the 37 business owners that signed the letter is Eric Mathias, operator of The Horse You Came In On Saloon.  In a sharp criticism of Baltimore City officials, Mathias noted that the laws only seem to apply to business owners and taxpayers in a recent Facebook post.

“We have people, illegally and openly selling booze [and] drugs and assaulting residents and visitors (for years now) in basically a public park,” he wrote, noting that city officials and police “sit back and not do a [expletive] thing."

Mathias also stated that the city’s “rules only apply to people they can squeeze and shake down for dollars.”


Baltimore was one of the early adopters of defunding the police by eliminating $22 million from the police budget.  In March of this year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her office would no longer prosecute low-level drug and sex crimes.


So, these 37 restaurants and small businesses are prepared to forgo paying their city taxes, minor privilege fees and permit fees, instead placing the funds in an escrow account until Baltimore increases police enforcement and municipal service in the area.

The businesses will withhold the payments until the city meets four demands: 1) Pick up the trash; 2) Enforce traffic and parking laws through tickets and towing; 3) Stop illegal open-air alcohol and drug sales; and 4) Empower police to responsibly do their job. 

“Frankly, it’s pathetic that we have to ask for these basics,” the letter read. “But this is where we are.”

Maybe more victims of poor governance – both individuals and businesses – could follow Fells Point’s lead and defund the defunders.  

It will be interesting to watch how Baltimore City's officials respond to these business owners.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) July 2021 Editions Tue, 29 Jun 2021 13:15:03 -0400
Craft Distillers Prepare for Growth St. Augustine Distillery interior. Photograph courtesy of St. Augustine Distillery

St. Augustine Distillery interior. Photograph courtesy of St. Augustine Distillery

Permanent Federal Excise Tax reduction and loosening direct-to-consumer shipping laws breed optimism amidst ongoing challenges

By Jake Emen

After several rounds of temporary enactments, craft distillers have finally achieved permanent federal excise tax (FET) reduction with the passage of the Craft Beverage Modernization & Tax Reform Act in December 2020. This keeps in place the temporary reduction of FET on spirits from $13.50 to $2.70 per proof gallon on the first 100,000 proof gallons removed from bond annually—a boon for craft distillers, as 98 percent of craft distillers in the country produce less than this annually, according to the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA).

This legislative achievement has a direct bottom-line impact for craft distillers, and combined with progress around regulations like direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping and on-premise cocktails to-go, the craft spirits industry is preparing for growth ahead—albeit cautiously. Small and medium-sized producers were hit particularly hard by lost revenue as a result of the pandemic, and sales have not yet fully returned. There’s also the matter of the EU and U.K.’s tariffs on American whiskey, which are set to double in June.  As the craft distillers begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel after fighting through hardship, what’s ahead for the American craft spirits industry?

Opportunities for Immediate Growth

The impact of permanent FET relief is massive—and could be felt immediately, allowing distillers to invest in upgrades. “My own distillery was finally able to make a deposit on a million-dollar plant expansion project that we have been postponing for multiple years,” shares ACSA president Becky Harris, the co-founder and distiller of Catoctin Creek.

“Nearly every distiller I know has expanded production through upgraded equipment, improved systems, increased staff, and many have even moved into larger facilities,” says Jaime Windon, the founder of Lyon Rum and president of the Maryland Distillers Guild. Windon increased Lyon’s production capacity and hired new staff; Melissa Katrincic, the co-founder and CEO of Durham Distillery, says she’s been able to keep prices more competitive with larger brands; Jeff Quint, the founder and CEO of Cedar Ridge Distillery, has invested in $500,000 of new production equipment and begun construction on a new building; Keith Bellinger, the president and COO of Balcones Distilling, says he was able to invest into additional personnel, production upgrades, and sales and marketing.


Jamie Windon, Lyon Rum. Photograph courtesy of Lyon Rum
Accelerated Push for DTC

The pandemic also greased the bureaucratic wheels on longstanding regulations that the industry has been trying to change. “The pandemic has accelerated innovation and marketplace modernizations in the spirits industry,” says Chris Swonger, the president and CEO of DISCUS.

“The impact of COVID-19 has only pushed some of these regulations to the forefront and made many consumers start to question the entire alcoholic beverage system,” says David Large, director of industry consultancy Thoroughbred Spirits Group. “National shipping, on-site distillery regulations, direct-to-consumer sales, and third-party shipping are all topics facing the industry over the next few years.”

DTC tops the list: Ten states, plus Washington, D.C., allow for DTC spirits sales, while six states are permitting in-state DTC spirits shipping as a temporary relief measure. “As distillery tasting rooms shuttered due to pandemic restrictions, another major takeaway was the importance of having expanded sales channels for distilled spirits and the need for modernized regulations that allow distillers to quickly react to changing consumer preferences,” Swonger says. “Consumers are the real driver for direct-to-consumer shipping of distilled spirits, and public support for this convenience has gained momentum due to the pandemic.”

Systems are already in place to ensure the safe and appropriate application of DTC spirits shipping, says Philip McDaniel, the CEO of St. Augustine Distillery and DISCUS Craft Advisory Council member. “Wine has successfully navigated these issues for over two decades [45 states allow DTC wine shipping] and allowing DTC sales for spirits would be a massive step forward for our industry,” he believes.

The payoff for distillers was real in states where a pandemic allowance for DTC was made, such as New York and Virginia, with an American Distilling Institute (ADI) survey of 269 distilleries conducted in January indicating that distilleries who could ship DTC in 2020 generated 39 percent of total sales through the channel. “During COVID, we have been allowed to reach our consumers safely at home with the allowance of DTC shipping,” says Brian Facquet, the founder of Do Good Spirits, president of the New York State Distillers Guild, and a DISCUS Craft Spirits Advisory Council member. “While some of our members have had to close, DTC has allowed many of us to survive.”

As it’s a matter of state legislation, so change happens locally. But once the ball gets rolling, momentum can lead to swift change across the country. Just look at cocktails to-go: A relatively niche idea a year ago, 30 states plus Washington, D.C. are allowing cocktails to-go from bars and restaurants, with D.C., Iowa, Ohio, and Kentucky having made such measures permanent. The push is on to see a wider permanent application there, too, many distillers believe.

Green Door Distilling Co. Photograph courtesy of Thoroughbred Spirits Group

Green Door Distilling Co. Photograph courtesy of Thoroughbred Spirits Group

Confronting Revenue Losses and Harmful Tariffs

Despite optimism, there are still a number of pressing concerns for craft distillers. Despite positive reports of increased alcohol purchasing, many producers are still reeling from revenue losses. ADI’s aforementioned survey showed that 55 percent are reporting declining revenues, while a survey released last August by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) indicated that craft spirits sales had dropped 41 percent overall—a total of$700 million.

While DISCUS also reports that total U.S. liquor sales were up in 2020, that obfuscates how heavily the gains went to large brands backed by multinational companies. Craft distilleries which bore the brunt of the economic beating without the ability to host tastings and tours or move product on-premise amidst widespread closures.

“We’re on a climb and it’s a flight of 20 stairs—we’re two or three steps up,” says Monique Huston, Winebow’s vice president of wholesale spirits. For example, many reopened bars are sitting on unused inventory and don’t need to place orders. “We’re also seeing that people are cutting down what’s available. They’re doing fewer cocktails, fewer ingredients, much, much-slimmed down drinks lists.”

Interestingly, the opposite is happening with at-home imbibing, a trade-up trend to higher-end expressions which has benefited many craft distillers’ off-premise sales, Huston points out: “Everything is premiumized! That’s the way everything is going. Our business for products $50 and up has increased triple digits, quarter on quarter on quarter, through the whole pandemic.”

There were positive signs earlier this year that the harmful tariffs against U.S. spirit exports to the EU and U.K. could end; however, that battle might actually get worse before it gets better. “While the recent U.S. and EU agreement to suspend tariffs on spirits products for four months is a promising breakthrough in the longstanding trade dispute on civil aircraft subsidies, the EU and U.K. continue to impose a 25 percent tariff on American whiskey in the steel and aluminum dispute, [and the EU’s] will double to 50 percent on June 1,” Swonger says.

A new coalition dubbed Toasts Not Tariffs, launched in March, brings together 47 industry organizations united against tariffs, while in early April, congressmen Andy Barr and John Yarmuth, backed by a bipartisan group of 48 additional members of Congress, sent a letter to Katherine Tai, President Biden’s newly-confirmed U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), pressing the importance of the issue. American whiskey exports have declined by 37 percent to the EU and 53 percent to the U.K. as a result of the tariffs, and their doubling would devastate the market and tarnish what had been a promising channel of growth for craft distillers.

“Before 2018, export was a great opportunity to build a brand in a region thirsty for American whiskey,” Harris says. “Until American whiskey is removed as collateral damage from this dispute, one of the largest whiskey export markets in the world is effectively blocked.”

Melissa Katrincic, Durham Distillery. Photograph courtesy of Durham Distillery

Melissa Katrincic, Durham Distillery. Photograph courtesy of Durham Distillery

Harnessing the Power of Community

If every challenge is an opportunity, the constant pivoting of the past year has shown craft distillers that there are other ways to succeed in the market. There’s a clear need to diversify business plans—something that DTC is a core piece of, along with cocktails to-go—so that if and when on-premise sales or on-site tastings aren’t feasible, there are other avenues of promotion and revenue generation.

For Katrincic, much of what she’s seen in the past year goes back to the saying “own the home,” which she says she received as advice when starting Durham Distillery. “I didn’t take that lightly back then, and it fit naturally into our ethos,” she says. “The distillery continuously has prioritized giving back to the community through good works, we have always been a living wage employer and our relationships with fellow businesses are paramount to who we are. All of last year, our community showed up to support us… the local community is the reason why we survived 2020.”

Craft distillers are small, local businesses, and the power of community cannot be understated. Facquet says that surviving the past year was a test of character for distillers, businesses which are more fragile than many may have realized. “However, I believe we have a bright future as we find new ways to reach our consumers,” he says. “We are a community of distillers who are working together to rebuild, advocate for small businesses, and make an impact on our communities.”
As the craft distilling industry has given so much to their communities over the past year—more than 800 distilleries produced hand sanitizer amidst supply shortages, according to DISCUS—it’s important for both consumers and trade to support them, with the products we choose to buy, as well as with support for the legislative hurdles which remain.

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) June 2021 Editions Thu, 27 May 2021 23:56:29 -0400
The New Apothecary Wilderton Lustre. Photograph courtesy of Wilderton

Wilderton Lustre. Photograph courtesy of Wilderton

Contemporary gins and new spirits categories drive innovative explosion in botanical offerings.

By Jack Robertiello

In the beginning, there was gin. More than one type, of course—genever, Old Tom, sloe gin, and more—yet ultimately the dominant style became London Dry, a bracing botanical spirit, tangy, and juniper-led.
But at the turn of the last century, as spirit entrepreneurs crowded the market with new ideas, the range of botanicals exploded, and gin became a more wildly diverse category, particularly with the creation of the low- or no-juniper, citrusy New Western Dry style. Gin distillers further made their marks by introducing a cornucopia of ingredients—chamomile, lavender, tea, mint, ginger, and far beyond.

Inevitably, other white spirit producers have turned to the enormous range of aromatic and flavorful botanicals—fruits, nuts, seeds, flowers, roots, barks, herbs, and spices—to create new cross-category spirits.

A New Generation of Flavor Is Born

Consider Trakal, a brandy (made from Chilean apple, crab apple, and pear) that is spiked with indegenous Chilean ingredients—maqui, murta and elderberries, laurel, mint, and other plants. It’s said by the makers to smell like the Patagonian forest, or if “brandy and gin had a baby of Patagonian descent,” says co-founder Matthew O’Brien.

Digging into the apothecary to flavor spirits is as old as distillation. The monastics who created Chartreuse and Benedictine were merely the most successful in the creation of the appetizing and aromatic strong spirits. Products like Trakal are benefiting from the work of more recent pioneers including Square One Organic, which arguably launched the first contemporary spirit allowed to be labeled “botanical” in 2006.

Large players in the gin and vodka worlds are taking note: Ketel One has seen tremendous success with its new Botanical line (Peach & Orange Blossom, Cucumber & Mint, Grapefruit & Rose), Grey Goose just offered extensions called Essences (Strawberry & Lemongrass, White Peach & Rosemary, Watermelon & Basil). Recently, gin line extensions from major brands have become quite common (see sidebar) as gin makers increasingly produce limited-time variants with alternate botanical mixes.

“The opportunity for expressions of any kind are only limited by the imagination of the distiller and the consumer palate,” says Hendrick’s Gin national ambassador Vance Henderson. “I believe what is so magical about gin is the different flavor profiles that come from the combination of botanicals, ingredients, and processes.” The Hendrick’s line now includes Lunar (he describes it as having “warming spices, rich night-blooming flora and delicate citrus”); the orange blossomy Midsummer Solstice and the quinine, wormwood and blue lotus blossom-enhanced Orbium

Ketel One. Photograph by Julian Cousins

Ketel One. Photograph by Julian Cousins

“I think that given the growth in mindfulness you will see an outsize influence of herbs and spices on new products in total spirits,” says Olivia Kupfer, brand director, Ketel One Vodka. “I think consumers who pre-pandemic were increasingly open to new products and experiences will have a lot of anticipatory demand for new consumption experiences.”

That openness bodes well for botanical spirits. “Ten years ago if we wanted to launch Trakal, having a conversation about a botanical spirit would be a lot more difficult,” says distiller Sebastien Gomez. “Now cocktail nerds are playing with all kinds of botanicals.”

As non-alcohol “spirits” have gained traction, those producers are especially interested in the flavor promise of botanicals.

“When we started talking about what we wanted to do with Wilderton, part of what got our distiller so excited was being informed by botanicals that had been used traditionally in distilled spirits,” says founder Brad Whiting. 

Made by brewing botanicals and distilling the result at low pressure and temperature, Wilderton launched with two expressions: floral and bitter-citrus Lustre and the woodsy Earthen (cardamom, frankincense, and smoked tea). “We knew that we wanted to target these general ideas—one product that was bright, light, summery, and refreshing and one that was more contemplative and introspective.”

Other non-alcohol producers are relying on a botanical promise: Gnista includes wormwood, herbs, and citrus in Floral Wormwood, and lovage, oak, almonds, malt, rosemary, cinnamon, rhubarb, and sea salt in the Barrelled Oak version. Various Seedlip offerings employ spearmint, rosemary, thyme, hops, allspice, oak and cascarilla barks. And well-known brand name gins are getting into the non-alcohol world, like Damrak’s Virgin.

Empricial Mixed Bottles. Photograph by DASHTI JAHFAR

Empricial Mixed Bottles. Photograph by DASHTI JAHFAR

The Challenge of Defying Category Classification

In fact, even the term “botanical spirit” was misunderstood until recently. Allison Evanow of Square One struggled to obtain TTB approval for Square One Botanical, made with pear, rose, lavender, chamomile, lemon verbena, coriander, and citrus peels. “We had to do so much explaining in the beginning because the retailers didn’t really know what to do with it. People were asking, ‘Why did you leave out the juniper?’ I said because a lot of people don’t like gin and we’re trying to make it a gateway to gin.”

The potential range of flavors puts botanical spirits far outside any existing category, which means a well-honed explanation of what’s in the bottle is required, particularly for producers like Copenhagen-based Empirical.

“Describing our spirits is still our biggest challenge,” says cofounder Lars Williams. “The main idea we try to convey is that flavor is our guiding principle and what we create is a fusion of actual ingredients, hard work, fermentation, techniques, and traditions from around the world. In the end, the best way for people to understand our spirits is to try them and connect them to their own memories and past experiences.”

The “smells like a forest” concept seems to be a major attraction for botanically-inclined producers. Callisto Botanical Rum was partially inspired by a trip to Yosemite National Forest, says founder Giles Templeman. Finding little interest in rum when he moved to California, the Bermudan-born Templeman decided to create a new style—dry and flavored with California ingredients.

At first reluctant to reveal his botanicals, he soon realized the trade had a different idea. “Everybody that we started speaking to was very keen on hearing about these ingredients so I got a sense that maybe people felt that we weren’t being transparent.” Callisto’s core ingredients—lavender, rosemary, burdock root, and cherry—are infused into aged and filtered rum from Trinidad and Nicaragua.

Empirical is also exploring untraditional base spirits for its botanical offerings, which makes them challenging to explain and understand. Among Empirical’s current offerings: Ayuuk, made with pasilla mixe, a dry smoked chili from the Sierra Norte Mountains in Oaxaca; and “The Plum, I Suppose.” made with plum kernels and marigold petals, which Williams describes as tasting like spicy and juicy marzipan.

“When we first started we were just trying to make delicious things; it was only later that we found out we didn’t fit into existing categories,” says Williams. “We’re not making gin, vodka or whisky. Instead we came up with our very own, flavor-first approach. We’re a flavor company which means the only common denominator is the exploration of flavor, and that it must be delicious.”

While more experienced customers may have settled into exploring well-established categories, these botanical producers are counting on the same sort of flavor curiosity among consumers that has birthed the cocktail revolution, juicy IPAs, hard kombucha and other recent innovations.
“If you think about the history of alcohol, it was very apothecary, it was a medicine and closer to nature,” says Gomez. “We’re rediscovering nature’s apothecary. People are aging gins, trying botanicals, and I think that’s great. The consumer is so much more informed and we believe this is the next direction for spirits.”

Callisto Botanical Rum. Photograph courtesy of Callisto

Callisto Botanical Rum. Photograph courtesy of Callisto

Classic Juniper Gin, Reinvented

From pink gins to new gins to old-fashioned gins, the industry is seeing a great explosion in style diversity—particularly at the high-end—for the world’s best-known botanical spirit.
Pink gins, now said to represent as much as 20 percent of UK sales, have boomed with brands like Boodles (strawberry rhubarb) and Beefeater (strawberry), while smaller producers are turning out pink peppercorn, grapefruit, blood orange, hibiscus, rose, and elderberry versions. Brockmans employs blackberries and blueberries, and Bombay Sapphire just introduced Bombay Bramble, a bright reddish gin with the essence of blackberries and raspberries.

New French gins include the Provençal XII, made with thyme, rosemary, basil, eucalyptus, sweet almond, mint, and juniper. Citadelle has just launched an extension, Jardin d’Ete, which adds melon, whole lemon, yuzu zest, and more orange peel to the 19 botanicals used to make Citadelle Original. Brazilian gin McQueen and the Violet Fog includes guava and açai from its home country in addition to 19 more botanicals.

Numerous producers have followed in the footsteps of Hendrick’s, including flowers, fruits, and vegetables for added distinction. For one, Nolet’s Silver brings in rose, peach, and raspberry. Damrak Gin lists eight (Curaçao orange, Valencia orange, juniper, lemon, lavender, coriander, ginger, and cinnamon) of their 17 botanicals in both the original and the brand’s newer alcohol-free expression.

There are plenty of 21st Century gins that haven’t abandoned the tried and true London dry formula, like Brooklyn Gin, which leans on fresh citrus and juniper, and newer brands Highclere Castle Gin which leads with juniper, but weaves in a distinct mix of other flavors, including lavender, coriander, lime flower, licorice root, cassia bark, and oats, among others.
Among the early proponents of locavore gin was California craft pioneer St. George, which produces three types—cilantro-flecked Botanivore; Douglas fir-, laurel- and sage-infused Terroir, and junipery classic Dry Rye. Another emerging distiller and local ingredient proponent, Nevada’s Bently Heritage, distills three types of gin under the Juniper Grove label: the arboreal Alpine, citrusy American Dry, and juicy Atrium.

Some have even taken gin-making vintage: in Kentucky, Castle & Key’s recently released Rise 2021 Seasonal Spring Gin is made with galangal root, lavender, elderberry, Earl Grey tea and wintergreen.

Brooklyn Gin. Photograph courtesy of Brooklyn Gin

Brooklyn Gin. Photograph courtesy of Brooklyn Gin 

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Beverage Network) June 2021 Editions Thu, 27 May 2021 23:47:55 -0400
Peter Frank of Talbert's Ice & Beverage Talberts_Home.jpg

In his 93 years, Peter Frank has witnessed Prohibition, the Repeal of Prohibition, a World War, Space Walks and Moon Walks.  For much of his time he has been an active member of the beverage alcohol business. In fact, he holds the distinction of being the longest living director of the Maryland State Licensing Beverage Association (MSLBA) board.

What’s his secret?  “I’m not retired,” he said, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. “But I think it’s important that when people do retire, they at least get into volunteer work. They need to keep active. If they don’t keep active, their mind will go, and then their body will follow. Not me! I’m 93 and I’m still pretty active. You have to stay with it. And to stay with it, that means keeping up with everything.”

Keeping up is a big part of his job as President of Montgomery Ice, which operates Talbert’s Ice and Beverage Service in Bethesda. He is not at the store every day anymore. His daughter, Toni Levin, handles the day-to-day operations. But he still can talk shop with the best of them.


“Our core customers stretch from Potomac to Northwest Washington, D.C.,” he said. “It’s a very high economic area. That means we need to carry the very high end as well as the low end in both wines and beer. We used to not carry as much high-end product, because there wasn’t the demand. But over the years, the variety of wines has dramatically changed. We now carry a wider selection than we ever have. For the longest time, we had no more than 50 SKUs. Now, we probably have about 250 in beer alone, and it changes from day to day.”

Frank has been with Talbert’s from its 1955 beginnings. It was founded that year as a wholesale ice business. In 1958, he and his partner purchased a business in Bethesda that delivered beverages – at that time, just soft drinks -- to people’s homes. That same year, Talbert’s was able to transfer a local beer and wine license. In 1961, an expansion added a beer and wine convenience store, and Talbert’s has been a landmark in Montgomery County ever since.

Today, beer and wine sales have made up for a wholesale ice business that suffered mightily during the pandemic. “A large part of our operations has been supplying restaurants, hotels, and country clubs,” Frank noted. “Our corporate accounts have also suffered. We virtually shut down at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Fortunately, Talbert’s beer and wine clientele have indeed remained loyal. So, what characterizes a typical Talbert’s Ice & Beverage Service customer? Frank was quick to answer. “Our customers have gotten smarter about their beverage choices,” he said. “But most just go with the flow. They go with what they see advertised. The more astute wine drinker buys wines in anticipation of the product, or the vintage.”

It’s the customers that keep him going more than anything. Frank has been service-oriented all of his life. He doesn’t know any other way to be. “I still love that we’re able to have what the customers are looking for,” he declared. “They don’t have to spend a long time shopping in our place. Most people come in and out within, I’d say, four minutes. We’re also one of the largest lottery agents in the county, although that does not automatically translate into beer and wine sales. Lottery customers generally buy lottery tickets and nothing else. But we cover a need. We also still deliver beer and wine, and people love that.”

The other thing that keeps him going is the industry camaraderie. He is particularly proud of his ties with the MSLBA. “I think membership in the MSLBA is very important,” he stated, “because it is a very astute lobbying group in the state capitol. It has proven over the years to be strong in helping maintain the three-tier system and representing the individual licensees in the state. 

He added, “MSLBA has kept the state government from overreaching into our businesses. They’re very good at understanding the problems retailers in Maryland have. They’re trying to prevent the extension of alcohol sales to grocery stores. They do this by engaging with the legislators. Lacking that, our businesses would suffer greatly."

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) June 2021 Editions Thu, 27 May 2021 23:23:50 -0400
Links Drinks' Transfusion Transfusion_Hoime.jpg

Some of the best days are golf days. You’re away from the demands of your business, your family, your day-to-day life, and it’s just you and the ball . . . and maybe two or three of your buddies or colleagues. You shot a pretty decent round, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, and now you just want to relax at the clubhouse and have a drink. A beer is always good. So is a soft drink. But a lot of golfers will tell you that the best drink after 18 holes -- or at the turn -- is the Transfusion.

A mix of vodka, ginger ale, and grape juice, Transfusions are not only great to replenish the fluids, they’re also good to share in social circles. Now, Links Drinks LLC has come up with a canned, ready-to-drink version.  



This gluten-free Transfusion features a six-times distilled vodka made with ginger ale and Concord grape juice. The company uses all-natural ingredients and no preservatives. And it is seven percent ABV.

Links Drinks owner Fred Evanko says the product was a hit right from the testing and tasting phase. He remarked, “The overwhelming response when people tasted it was 1) ‘It’s refreshing;’ and 2) ‘It’s delicious and is not too sugary or sweet.’ A fair amount of people also say it’s ‘dangerous.’ [chuckling] It doesn’t really feel like you’re drinking a strong vodka drink, but it certainly has a kick at seven percent.”


For sure, the product has a built-in audience in golfers. And Maryland certainly has its share of popular courses from Bulle Rock in Havre De Grace to the Links at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels to the Maryland National Golf Club in Middletown. “A lot of people know this cocktail and like it,” Evanko stated. “We figured the response would be, ‘Wow, there’s a can version? Let’s give it a try.’ Golfers like to tell each other about things they purchased. Well, hopefully, they are telling each other about our product.”

Evanko added that the product is selling well in packaged-goods stores near golf courses and at sports bars. In fact, Links Drinks found that about 60 percent of Transfusion’s sales have been via off-premise. “There’s more volume, more foot traffic,” he reasoned. “Plus not all golf courses are open year round. When they are open, they have certain hours. You’re probably only going to have a couple of drinks at most at the course. But you might buy in bulk at a store.”

Evanko hopes the product will eventually mature into a lifestyle drink. After all, you can’t be on the course all of the time. But with Transfusion in a can, you can pop the top in your living room, your kitchen, or on your back porch after a long day of work or family; close your eyes, sip; and feel you’re about tee off on a Par 4.


Links Drinks’ Transfusion is sold in standard, 12-ounce cans in so-called “foursome packs.” The can design practically shouts “TRANSFUSION.” But it appeals to golfers with its subtle use of golf ball dimples as background art. The company’s logo is featured also and has a subtle, almost hidden peace sign. “We lost our daughter to cancer,” Evanko said, “and she was big into peace signs. The words ‘Enjoy life’ that are on the can also comes from that. We went through a lot and we came out the other side with a perspective that many people don’t have. Life is too short. Enjoy it.”

His wife, Denise, is the creative person on the Links Drinks team and came up with the company name. She is also credited with the dimpled design of the can and handles Links Drinks’ website and social media.


Looking ahead, the Evankos are eyeing an expanded line of canned beverages for the golf course and beyond. “We want to continue growing the business,” Fred concluded. “We’re hopefully going to have two more flavors by the end of this year. Right now, we have the classic Transfusion. But we’re also going to have the Front 9 Transfusion, which is vodka, ginger ale, and orange juice. It will be ideally suited for those early-morning tee times. And then the Back 9 Transfusion will be vodka, ginger ale, and cranberry juice. It’s going to be more of a year-round cocktail. The game plan is variety!”

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.  

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) June 2021 Editions Thu, 27 May 2021 23:07:28 -0400
The On-Premise Struggle Continues Pub_Page_Home.jpg

Even though restaurant and bar employment is trending higher, staffing levels remain well below normal.  According to Bruce Gindy at the National Restaurant Association, “Eating and drinking places added a net 187,000 [U.S.] jobs in April. While the trend-line is pointing in the right direction, eating and drinking places are still 1.7 million jobs (or 14%) below pre-pandemic levels.”

Why is the industry still 14% below pre-COVID staffing levels?

Capacity limits for restaurants and bars are being withdrawn (albeit slowly).  Yet, some establishments are still unable to partially open … or open at all.  Many operators point to a lack of employees as the reason why they are not open, or fully open.

Could the shortage of on-premise workers be that these individuals have no incentive to go back to work?  

“It’s tough to compete with the hefty unemployment checks.”

According to a May 7, New York Post article, Bobby Van’s Steakhouse hasn’t been able to open two of its four upscale restaurants due to the worker shortage, said owner Joseph Smith.

“There’s not enough manpower to stretch around at all our locations,” Smith said.  If you were working a job and making $600 a week and then had the option of making $600 without working that job  — the choice is obvious.

Philippe Massoud, CEO of the Lebanese eatery Ilili, said he’s “left no stone unturned” in an effort to fill 15 positions. “The government unintentionally shot itself in the foot,” he said. “The stimulus plan is being completely undermined by the unemployment program … the program should be stopped immediately,” he fumed. “We need to be encouraging people to work.”

There is a consensus among restaurateurs and economists … ‘on-premise waitstaff make more money with unemployment checks than they would on the job.’  

Small business has many obstacles to success, a government ‘of and by the people’ should not be one of them.  It’s one thing to compete with other businesses in the community for employees; but how do you compete when those potential employees are getting a paycheck for no work? 

Navigating the road ahead

The road back to ‘normal’ is proving to be long and complicated.  Most on-premise operators do not expect a return to normal staffing any time soon. Expectations for a gradual return to normal are generally consistent across the major restaurant segments. A majority think it will be at least six months before staffing levels return to normal for their restaurant and approximately 10 percent do not think they will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

The American small business has been, and remains, the fuel of our economy.  The members of local, state and federal government need to be reminded of this fact and understand that the pandemic unemployment programs are subsidizing a lack of production.  

The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association ( is a great statewide organization with ties to regional and local organizations.  Your voice alone may not be heard, but in chorus with other businesses facing the same obstacles, you can have influence and affect the business climate in your community.

The times for waiting on someone else to act and find a solution are gone.  Get involved, your livelihood depends on it.

 Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) June 2021 Editions Thu, 27 May 2021 14:55:18 -0400
Fisher Reels 'Em in at Freeland Wine & Spirits Freeland_002_20210422-193001_1.jpg

Richard Fisher has been a beer, wine, and spirits man ever since he went to work part-time at The Liquor Pump in Parkville. That was 1985. While at The Liquor Pump, Fisher soon discovered he had a real head for the packaged goods business and worked his way up to store manager. An opportunity eventually presented itself to purchase the old Timonium Liquors on the corner of York and Timonium Roads. He seized it and operated that store from 1994 to 2002.

In August of that year, he transitioned to Freeland Wine & Spirits. "We initially rented," he recalled, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. "But in 2008, we bought the property and did an extensive expansion."

Freeland is known for many things: its wide selection, competitive prices, and customer service. But, most of all, it's become known for its seasonal displays. In addition to his business acumen, Fisher has a real creative side. "I like to change things up!" he declared. "We have a full basement under the store that ended up getting littered with display pieces. Anything that was decent, I didn't want to throw out." 

Fisher ended up buying a Class C cargo container that he keeps out back of the store that is filled with nothing but display pieces. "Some of them go back 30 years," he noted. 

After football season and St. Valentine's Day, that decor comes down. Then, the last week in February is when he and his staff start putting up the store's St. Patrick's Day displays. "We go all out for St. Patty's Day even though it's a bar holiday for the most part," he said. "When that ends, we go into Oriole mode. And then comes Cinco de Mayo, which leads us into our summer set of rotating displays and decor." 

In mid-September, the store becomes full of Oktoberfest displays. Right before Thanksgiving, Freeland flips to Christmas. Fisher remarked, "The sales reps love it. They'll say, 'Wow! You come in one week, and it's one thing. You come in the next, and it's like a completely different store!' We like the constant change." 


Freeland Wine & Spirits' Patrick Fisher, Suzanne Fisher, Richard Fisher and Matt Jacobs.

Another thing that distinguishes Freeland is that it's a family business. Fisher's wife, Suzanne, works in the store and maintains Freeland's website. His middle son, Patrick, is the store's manager. Richard adds that he and Suzanne have two other sons who have worked at the store "from the time I could get them in here lifting cases." Their oldest, Cole, works for Amazon. Their youngest, Aidan,  is a student at the University of Tennessee.

So, after all these years, how does Fisher maintain his enthusiasm for the work? "I like the excitement of new products coming in," was his quick reply. "I also love the cat-and-mouse game of ordering right. 'Did I order too much? Did I order just the right amount? Am I hitting the products that people want?'"

Fisher says it is enthusiasm that any young store manager looking to open his/her own place must have. "If you're going to be in a people business, you gotta like people!" he exclaimed. "It can be like 'Groundhog Day' sometimes where it seems like you're doing the same thing over and over. But it's the people who will make each day seem different. You'll start to feel a part of people's lives. It's not for everybody. Some people don't want to be closed in with four walls every day. They have to be outside or on the road. I've always liked the task at hand -- coming in, seeing what needs to be done, and making sure it gets done by the time I leave."

And, by all means, join an association. Freeland Wine & Spirits is a member of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association's Baltimore County affiliate (BCLBA). He states, "Joining an association gives you a head's up on so many things that affect your business. They are on the front lines doing the battling for us and protecting our livelihoods. Membership is important, because there is strength in numbers."

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) May 2021 Editions Thu, 22 Apr 2021 15:26:17 -0400
The MSLBA 2021 General Assembly Report G-A_Report_2021_001.jpg


Whoever said that the 2021 Session of the Maryland General Assembly would be narrowly focused on a few issues because of the COVID pandemic could not have been more wrong.  In fact, the pandemic had very little effect on the number of bills or subject matters that the Legislature took on.  From the budget, to healthcare, to police reform, and hundreds of other subjects, legislators considered 2,359 bills and resolutions, compared with 2,497 bills and resolutions during the 2020 Session.  They remained in Session for the full 90 days, unlike 2020 when their work was cut short due to the onset of the pandemic.  The annual meeting began at noon on Wednesday, January 10th and concluded at midnight on Monday, April 12th.

While the pandemic did not affect the volume of bills, it profoundly changed the legislative process, possibly permanently in some ways.  Pre-filing of bills was encouraged in case the Session was again cut short.  This also allowed bill hearings to begin the day after Session began, rather than waiting until February as is usually the case.  While the committees held virtual bill hearings, the full 141-member House and 47-member Senate met sparingly to reduce covid-19 exposure.  Once the entire Assembly was vaccinated, and covid-19 case counts among the public slowed, meetings of the full House and Senate increased.

With the State House and legislative buildings closed to the public, there were few face-to-face discussions with legislators, posing challenges for those of us who ply our trade in the halls of the Legislature and for citizens who hoped to impact the outcome of legislation by paying a visit to Annapolis.  Testimony on bills was taken by Zoom, a term unknown to many just 12 months ago.  This was convenient for those who would normally have to travel long distances to testify, but it lacked the advantage of  being able to fully observe legislator’s reactions to what was being said.  Voting sessions of committees, normally not public, were also on Zoom, a change that may be permanent.


In over 20 years of representing MSLBA, I believe that this was one of the most successful sessions we have ever had.  We defeated legislation that was bad for the industry, passed legislation that will help the industry—particularly those most hurt by the pandemic, strengthened our ties with other industry groups like the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) and the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, (MBWA) and traded on the relationships of our members with legislators.  

In addition, the guidance of MSLBA Legislative Co-Chairs Jack Milani and David Marberger, as well as Executive Director Jane Springer all culminated in great outcomes, as set out below. 

House Bill 12/ Senate Bill 205
Alcohol Beverages--Sale or Delivery for Off-Premises Consumption

With the closure of bars and restaurants at the onset of the pandemic last spring, Governor Hogan issued an Executive Order giving them the ability to sell alcohol for carry-out and delivery, hoping this would help keep some businesses alive.  As the year progressed, our on-premise members became concerned whether the Order would remain intact long enough for them to truly recover.   So MSLBA went to work with the RAM to draft legislation that would continue carry-out and delivery until after the Order might expire.

This joint effort began by working with Delegate Courtney Watson from Howard County, the bill’s House sponsor, and Senator Shelly Hettleman from Baltimore County, the Senate sponsor.  We collaborated on draft legislation and then listened to the enforcement concerns of local liquor boards, which we heard from almost the minute the Order was issued.  We also listened to our off-premise members, who were concerned that some on-premise accounts may try to be become package stores when given this authority.

After hearings, voting session and conference committees that ran nearly the full 90 days, the bills as passed require that local liquor boards opt-into the legislation for it to remain effective in their jurisdiction beyond the duration of the Order.  If the local board opts-in, bars and restaurants which had no off-premise privileges prior to the Order being issued will be allowed to sell alcohol for carry-out and delivery.  Those bars and restaurants which already had off-premise retain that same authority but can now also sell mixed drinks under the legislation.  However, licensees must receive written authorization from their local liquor board first.  Carry-out and delivery alcohol must be:

  • Served with prepared food;
  • In sealed or closed containers;
  • If delivered, by an employee who is 21 or older who
    is alcohol awareness trained; and
  • Sold or delivered by 11 pm.


Additionally, local boards have the power to limit the amounts of alcohol that can be permitted for carry-out or delivery, addressing the concerns of existing off-premise licensees that some on-premise accounts would become package stores.  Also, the legislation sunsets in June of 2023 unless extended by the Legislature.

This bill was a huge effort by MSBLA and RAM, and we appreciate their work and partnership in passing it, particularly that of Melvin Thompson, RAM’s Vice President of Government Affairs.

House Bill 1232/Senate Bill 821
Alcohol Beverages—Manufacturer’s Licenses and Off-Site Permits

Like the carry-out legislation above, part of this bill resulted from Governor Hogan’s Order on alcohol delivery.  He permitted manufacturers (breweries, wineries, and distilleries) to both deliver and ship alcohol.  The bill also included some changes to manufacturers’ off-site privileges which were part of past legislation that did not pass.

MSLBA raised objections to this bill because allowing direct shipment of alcohol by manufacturers in Maryland requires that out-of-state manufacturers be given the same privilege under the Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460 (2005).  In short, every one of the thousands of manufacturers in the country could ship directly to customers here, bypassing Maryland’s locally owned wholesalers and retailers.  We also objected because there is no underage enforcement with direct-to-consumer deliveries like there is with brick-and-mortar sales.

The General Assembly adopted this legislation, but hearing our concerns, sunset the law in December of 2022, meaning it will be revisited next session.  While MSLBA understands first-hand the difficulties the pandemic has brought to bear on businesses and the need for some temporary measures, we do not support opening direct shipment beyond this temporary period. 

House Bill 996/Senate Bill 763
Class A Retail Grocery Establishments (Healthy Food Accountability Act of 2021)

These bills were presented as bills that would help solve the “food desert” problem found in some of Maryland’s jurisdictions, where there is a shortage of grocery stores and supermarkets serving healthier foods.  The argument was made that beer and wine licenses were necessary to entice supermarkets into these food deserts.  In fact, the legislation reached far beyond that, allowing supermarkets and chain stores to obtain licenses in any priority funding area, which includes every municipality and population center in Maryland, all areas inside both beltways, and others.

MSLBA knew these bills were coming and was prepared to strongly oppose them.  Martha McKenna and Kate Coleman with McKenna Media were immensely helpful in our public relations efforts, garnering petition signatures, coordinating social media, and working with other groups such as the public health community.  The latter proved invaluable, with two public health experts testifying at the bill hearings that alcohol was no way to solve the problem of food deserts.  MSLBA members from across the State also provided excellent testimony.  These included:  Jack Milani--MSLBA (Balt Co), Tom Yates--Petite Cellars (Howard), Kim Lawson--FishPaws (AA Co), David Marberger—Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits  (AA Co), Jimmy Spiropolous—(Prince George’s Co), , Aashish Parikh—(Carroll Co), Blaise Miller—(Prince George’s Co), Stuart Doriss--Fairgrounds Discount Beverages—(Balt Co.).  We were also aided by MBWA representatives Nick Manis and Dan Hoose of Bob Hall Distributors.

The House Economic Matters Committee overwhelmingly disfavored the House bill, to the point that it was withdrawn instead of being voted down.  The Senate bill never came up for a vote.  This bill will be back in 2022.

House Bill 625
Prince George’s County-Alcohol Density Zones and Licenses

Similar to HB 996 above, this bill was presented as allowing grocery stores to locate in food deserts, but again was far broader than that.  It attempted to take licenses out of Alcohol Density Zones, where there were already too many licenses and allow them to be moved to food deserts.  However, these areas proved to be one and the same, meaning the license concentration was not being reduced at all, the owners were just changing.  Despite being passed overwhelmingly by the Prince George’s House Delegation with the strong support of the County Executive, the House Economic Matters Committee signaled that the bill would not pass in this form, just as HB 996 did not.  Recognizing this, the proponents amended the bill down to simply allow license transfers across alcoholic beverage districts in the county, something not currently allowed.  Grocery stores and supermarkets were stricken from the legislation.

Our members from Prince George’s, most notably Blaise Miller (BK Millers), Jimmy Spiropolous (Town Center Market), Marshele Burgess (Rips), Jaskinder Gill (Party Time),  and Dinesh Patel (Branch Ave. Liquors), all worked very hard to help defeat this legislation as proposed and should be commended for their efforts for a second year in a row on this issue.  Some members also banded together to hire lobbyist Bruce Bereano (at my suggestion) to assist, and this proved invaluable as well. 

House Bill 617
Prince George’s—Licenses for Supermarkets

This bill was more of a direct “supermarket” bill than HB 625 above, allowing 20+ beer and wine licenses to be issued to supermarkets.  It was withdrawn by Delegate Wanika Fisher before any vote.

House Bill 994
Alcohol Beverages-Retail Delivery--Class A License Holders

This bill would have allowed Class A licensees to deliver outside of the jurisdiction in which they are licensed.  MSLBA opposed the legislation, because there are many pending legal challenges in federal courts about retailer shipping and we are concerned about making changes to these laws until those cases are decided.  Otherwise, we could unintentionally open Maryland up to a lawsuit.

House Bill 463/Senate Bill 172
MD Health Equity Resources Act (Alcohol Tax Increase)

This legislation established a program that would address health disparities in the State.  MSLBA took no issue with the program but opposed funding it through an increase in the alcohol sales tax from the current 9% to 10%.  When the legislation was first publicly announced in September of 2020, MSLBA coordinated a joint statement in opposition to the increase from MSLBA, MBWA, RAM, and Maryland’s manufacturers.  This no doubt helped achieve the end result, where the Assembly found an alternative funding source for the program. 

House Bill 422/Senate Bill 285
Minority Participation in the Beverage Alcohol Industry

This legislation was supported by MSLBA and other members of the industry.  It would study the participation by minorities in all three tiers of the industry and generate a report back to the General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2022.  Prior to this Session, MSLBA proactively reached out to supporters of the bill over the summer and fall of 2020, including Delegate Darryl Barnes, Delegate Ben Brooks, and Senator Charles Sydnor, to offer the Association’s assistance in helping minorities enter the business.  That offer remains. 

House Bill 553
State Lottery Tickets—Prohibition on Internet Sales—Repeal


This bill would have repealed the existing prohibition on the sale of lottery tickets by way of the internet.  As with other bills like direct shipment and delivery, this bill was introduced in the name of convenience for the consumer.  MSLBA pushed back, noting the impact this would have on brick-and-mortar locations.

Some Words of Wisdom  

While we celebrate the end of the 2021 Session and our success, these outcomes are the product of the efforts of the active members of the MSLBA.  If you are a member of the MSLBA, consider becoming an acitivist and engage with your legislators.  If you are not a member, please consider joining ... your livelihood may depend on it.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Steven Wise) May 2021 Editions Thu, 22 Apr 2021 15:06:04 -0400
Temporary De-Regulations & Permanent Policies PubPage_001.jpg

As I write this, Maryland’s General assembly has just adjourned its annual legislative session. There is little doubt that Maryland’s lawmakers will again have impacted how we live our lives and run our businesses here in “ahem” The Free State.  Their actions imposing new controls or rescinding old ones will be embraced by some and decried by others.  

The legislative fallout from the executive branch’s response to covid-19 will take some time to parse. I fear the crisis caused by the restrictions on individual liberty will propel the same government that caused the need for temprary de-regulation to permanently change industry safeguards without understanding the basis and purpose of the original policies. 

Maryland, along with several other states, had loosened regulatory enforcement on key alcohol laws as an emergency effort to ease the financial hardship being felt by the on-premise side of the industry.  The financial effect of the capacity limits put upon restaurants and bars will be felt for years. 

The concept of temporary de-regulation makes sense since some businesses would have closed permanently without the assistance.  The National Restaurant Association estimates that up to one-third of restaurants and one-fourth of bars have permanently closed due to capacity-limiting executive orders.  Without the loosening of these regulations (along with other assistance like federal, state and local subsidies), how many more on-premise businesses would have been lost?

As capacity limits are slowly being lifted, the question is, “should these temporary de-regulations be made permanent?”  The next question needs to be, “And what would the long-term affects on the beverage alcohol industry be if they become permanent?”

The three-tier system is designed to prohibit vertical integration of alcohol sold to consumers. It is an important concept developed post-Prohibition. The three-tier system is a proven regulatory system that monitors licensing, sales, and compliance with liquor laws; provides equal access for all manufacturers to the marketplace--promoting competition; delivers variety for consumers; and prevents the monopolization of the beverage alcohol industry.

According to Patrick Maroney, author of Crisis De-Regulations: Should They Stay or Should They Go?, “Changing alcohol regulation in one area inevitably creates consequences in others, and short-term fixes can cause long-lasting damage,” 

Maroney states, "The crisis of covid-19 ought not be a catalyst to permanently change time-tested laws, regulations, and programs, which promote the health and safety of consumers as well as positive competition within the marketplace. An emergency related to a health pandemic is no time to shoehorn major changes into the proven system of state alcohol regulation.” 

We should all keep a sharp eye on what changes the session has brought to Maryland’s beverage alcohol industry.  These ‘temporary’ de-regulations have saved many businesses, and no one would fault a restaurant or bar owner for supporting a continuance of that which saved their livelihood.  However, there are those that support a radical overhaul to beverage alcohol laws and the three-tier system; they are also in support of these de-regulations, but to what end?

Please check out the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Associations's (MSLBA) Report on the 2021 General Assembly Session. Steven Wise, MSLBA Lobbyist and General Counsel offeres a synopsis of major alcohol legislation from the 2021 session.

Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Stephen Patten) May 2021 Editions Thu, 22 Apr 2021 14:50:43 -0400
The Famous Fund: Saving Baltimore's Bars & Restaurants Famous_Fund_HOME.jpg

Across Maryland, bars and restaurants are hurting. Among those who have been hurting the worst are those in Baltimore City where Mayor Brandon Scott has imposed some of the tightest restrictions and longest lockdowns in the state. To the rescue has been The Famous Fund, which has been disbursing thousands of dollars to eating and drinking places in Charm City -- and garnering national headlines for doing so -- since its inception back in January.

The fund started as a wager between John Minadakis, owner and President of Jimmy's Famous Seafood, and Barstool Sports site owner David Portnoy, who is currently doing a national fund in support of struggling eating and drinking places. The bet was on the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Buffalo Bills playoff football game back on Jan. 16. If the Ravens won, Portnoy would have saved one restaurant in the city of Baltimore.


Although the Ravens failed to achieve victory, the bet and concept inspired Minadakis to start the Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Fund to help many establishments in need during the ongoing lockdown. He launched the fund on GoFundMe. 

"The most rewarding part of this whole experience has been seeing hope personified," Minadakis said, during a recent interview with the Beverage Journal. "It's been a brutal year for everyone in our industry. And it has been a year now. Every time we've seen a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, it just gets taken away from us it seems. And along the way, our industry became vilified. To see people caring about us in such a positive fashion and stepping up in such a major way, it just shows you how important these restaurants and bars are to the everyday citizens. So many have come to the realization that without their immediate reaction and financial action, their favorites might not be there once things get back to 'normal.'"

He added, "It's been very humbling to know you really are appreciated, especially as  you're putting in those 16- to 20-hour days. Sometimes, you don't know just how much you really mean to your customers."

One of the first recipients of the fund was Simply Marie's, a breakfast eatery in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood that initially received $10,000. Former Orioles All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, who was a regular customer back in his playing days, Zoom-called owner Marie Branch personally to tell her she won the award. He then added another $10,000 of his own money. 


Branch, who just celebrated her 10th year in business, recalled, "[Former mayoral candidate and Famous Fund board member] TJ Smith called and said, 'Someone wants to talk to you. Someone amazing.' And he added, 'You'll find out in the morning.' I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' But I also told my son that 'there was nobody in Baltimore other than Adam Jones who'd surprise me, but he lives in Japan now.'" 

After learning how to download and take part in a Zoom call, the next morning she opened the app and indeed saw . . . Adam Jones! "I lost it," she exclaimed "I just completely lost it." And when she found out that Jones had matched the $10,000 donation from the Famous Fund, "I just started crying. I've now paid my rent all the way up to the summer! In addition to the donors, I also want the Beverage Journal readers to know that I really appreciate my Canton neighbors helping me to keep my place open! Without them, I wouldn't still be here."

Minadakis remarked, "Just to see the relief come over her face on that Zoom call and the pure excitement . . . that's one that really stood out. And with Adam stepping up and giving her an extra $10,000, that was a life-changing call for a lady who has poured her entire life into her establishment. She was truly worried she was going to have to close her doors for good. But because of the Fund, she has not only paid her rent, but she's attracted new customers because of the attention the Fund has garnered. That's why we don't announce the recipients all at once. We release them every two or three days to give each place two or three days in the spotlight."

South Baltimore restaurants Pickles Pub and Barracuda's are among the more recent businesses to receive windfalls from The Famous Fund. Pickles Pub in the Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood of Baltimore received $15,000 and found out during a call from 105.7 The Fan’s Jeremy Conn. Pickles owner Tom Leonard's staff, past and present, submitted a heartfelt video to be eligible. In the video, they described the challenges of the past year, but also spoke to the drive Leonard has had through the struggles. They went into detail about some of his efforts. Last Easter, for instance, Leonard and his daughter dressed up as Easter bunnies and delivered baskets to his employees. Additionally, being located next to University Hospital, Leonard has often kept the kitchen open late for the doctors and medical staff.

Leonard remarked in a late February interview, "We just got the first disbursement. My partner and I are going to give as much as we possibly can to our staff. It was our staff who submitted the videos. We wouldn't have the money without them, so it's only right they get it. The business means so much to me. We are the pre- and post-game bar for the Ravens and the Orioles. We're literally across the street from Camden Yards. We've been in business since 1989, before the stadium. I was a customer before becoming an equity partner. I never thought, way back in the day, when I was a patron at Pickles that I would one day own the place!"

Barracudas in Locust Point near Fort McHenry, meanwhile, has received $10,000 from The Famous Fund. Owner William “Billy” Hughes and General Manager Samantha Stinchcomb got the good news during a call from Baltimore celebrity chef and Charm City Cakes owner Duff Goldman.


"I knew we were getting it, but Billy didn't," Stinchcomb recalled. "So, seeing him be genuinely surprised and then having that overall feeling of relief that it brought and knowing that our hard work was being recognized and appreciated by people who share similar values was really fulfilling for us."

She continued, "We're using the funds to get new furniture for upstairs and outside. When the weather breaks and people are eating outside all of the time, having new furniture will be a selling point and allow customers to enjoy themselves even more."

Other restaurants helped by the Fund so far have included the Angle Inn, The Chasseur, G&A Restaurant, Illusions Magic Bar on Federal Hill, Shotti’s Point, and Sliders Bar and Grill. 

Rachel Sheubrooks, proprietor of Sliders, stated, "My first reaction was extreme appreciation. I've never been one to ask for handouts. But I always loved owning a restaurant and bar where I could treat people to a meal -- friends, family, etc. Now I am charging my friends and family every penny just to stay afloat. To finally get something back was absolutely fantastic. It made me cry. I haven't been to Target in the last year to buy a T-shirt. We haven't even turned the heat on for the entire winter. So, we're using the funds to pay bills like our mortgage and the electric."


The Famous Fund has gotten the attention of some famous folks. In addition to Adam Jones, Duff Goldman, and TJ Smith, the Baltimore Ravens' Marlon Humphrey, Ronnie Stanley, and General Manager Eric DeCosta have gotten involved as has CNBC's Marcus Lemonis, who donated $20,000. Organizational contributors to the fund have included the Baltimore Orioles and Advance Business Systems. In addition, the Famous Fund now falls under the umbrella of former Ravens kicker Matt Stover's player philanthropy fund.

The big names have definitely helped in getting the word out. And for Minadakis, it's all about the messaging. "The biggest challenge has been making people aware of just how dire some of these situations are," he said, "and how desperate some of these places were for immediate funding. In some cases, they were just days away from closing for good. The $50 you donate pays one restaurant's rent for a day. So, you may not feel it's a big deal, but it is. It's actually a massive deal!"

Minadakis concluded, "I'm running out of words to describe the last year. I'm sure that anybody in my situation has had some definite bouts with depression and hopelessness. You're being vilified in some cases just for trying to provide an honest living for your family and employees. Personally, the Fund is making me remember why I fell in love with Baltimore and why I fell in love with the restaurant industry, as a whole. Theoretically, these are all places that are competitors. We're all competing for the same nuts as squirrels. But we're all uniting now and coming together, and the community is rallying around us. It's definitely changed me in the sense that it's restored my faith in humanity. I consider myself a pretty religious person, and it's really renewed my faith in God, too. There is a higher power at work. You just need to look a little harder than usual and you'll see it through the actions of everyday, ordinary citizens."

To learn more or to donate, go to

  Click Here to check out the article as it appeared in The Journal.   

Read More]]> (Edward "Teddy" Durgin) April 2021 Editions Thu, 25 Mar 2021 08:08:42 -0400
The Celebrity Agave Obsession Dwayne Johnson at Destileria Teremana. Photo courtesy of Destileria Teremana

Dwayne Johnson at Destileria Teremana. Photo courtesy of Destileria Teremana

There’s a gold rush in Mexico as a growing number of famous personalities launch tequila and mezcal brands—but which ones will have staying power?

By Jack Robertiello

When Keeping up with the Kardashians star and fashion mogul Kendall Jenner announced in February that she was the force behind 818 Tequila, social media exploded with accusations of cultural appropriation and then counterclaims of sexism.

Few spirit brands command anything like that sort of social media attention, and when the dust settles, what the public will likely remember is that Jenner is now in the tequila business—like so many celebrities these days. 

The list of famous names in film, TV, music, sports, and technology getting into the agave game continues to grow, all, to some degree, attempting to harness their social influence to drive sales.

While celebrity-owned brands are hardly new (there’s even an online marketplace, GrapeStars, offering direct-to-consumer sales of celebrity wines and spirits) the recent surge in star-powered tequila and mezcal brands is remarkable.

Why agave and why now? The category’s surging success is one draw: Tequila and mezcal have been exploding through the pandemic, posting the highest growth of all spirits categories in volume (8.5 percent) and revenue (17.4 percent) last year, and agave distillates now comprise the fourth-largest spirit category after vodka, American whiskey, and rum, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

The appeal of agave is obvious, says Ken Austin, who helped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson create his Teremana Tequila brand and guided Tequila Avión to a multi-million dollar payout from Pernod Ricard: It’s fun, exciting, and especially attractive to the West Coast-based entertainment industry so close to Mexico. “There’s a gold rush going on with tequila in the celebrity world, and I think others will get into this space,” says Austin.

Yet just how many of these brands will be around in a few years? “With any gold rush, there’s always a shakeout,” adds Austin, “and in the end, the gold rush will slow and the people who got into it to make a quick buck will vanish.”

Los Lobos tequila and mezcal. Photo by Dave Herron

Los Lobos tequila and mezcal. Photo by Dave Herron

The Quest to Prove Authenticity

None have been as savvy about the twinned power of celebrity and social media as Johnson, who for several years kept his Instagram followers informed of the development of Teremana. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul also shared stories of scouring the fields of Oaxaca to create Dos Hombres mezcal.

Some celebrity-backed tequilas can sell for high prices based on name recognition alone. Elon Musk’s limited release, $250 Tesla Tequila, for instance, was first teased as “Teslaquila” via social media years before selling out on Tesla’s website days after launch last November.   

But largely, there seems to be an understanding that the celebrity association alone can’t justify the super-premium price tags of many of these brands, so stars are eager to prove their commitment to quality to their large audiences.

Last year, LeBron James launched Lobos 1707 ($54.99 for the mezcal, $44.99 for joven tequila, $149.99 for extra añejo) which uses Pedro Ximenez sherry-seasoned barrels for aged expressions. Also leveraging basketball fame, Michael Jordan released Cincoro in 2019 ($70 for blanco, $90 for reposado, $130 for añejo, and $1,600 for extra añejo) which boasts an ultra-smooth and complex flavor profile from a combination of highland and lowland-grown agaves. 

The list goes on: Pit Bull has backed emerging brand Espanita, singer Nick Jonas and designer John Varvatos teamed up for Villa One, Sex and the City’s Chris Noth took a share of Ambhar, Sean Combs partnered in a joint venture with Diageo for Deleón. Mexican celebrities are participating, too: Ojo Tigre Mezcal has teamed up with actor Luis Gerardo Méndez, and the brand just launched mezcal seltzer cocktails as well. Country star Jon Wolfe debuted Juan Lobo in 2019 which is produced using Champagne yeasts and supposedly benefits from the classical music that is played in the warehouse at the Feliciano Vivanco distillery in Arandas.

This Is Us actor Justin Hartley and singer Babyface, in partnership with founders and ex-music executives Micah McFarlane and Jacqui Thompson, are testing the growing interest in more esoteric agave expressions with the launch of Revel Avila, a 100 percent Blue Weber agave spirit made in the Morelos region of Mexico (and therefore not permitted to be labeled tequila). Piñas are thrown into a pit filled with local volcanic rock, then covered with sand and leaves and roasted for 48 hours, giving Revel a subtly smoky profile.

Other brands are finding ways to connect with performers: Espolon is continuing its sponsorship of HBO’s A Tiny Audience, episodes of which feature a chart-topping Latin artist in performance.

All, of course, operate in the shadow of George Clooney and Rande Gerber’s Casamigos, the tequila and mezcal brand founded in 2013, which Diageo scooped up for $1 billion in 2017. Interestingly, while they are credited as the first celebrity tequila connection, stars Bing Crosby and Phil Harris arranged for the distribution of Herradura as the first 100 percent agave tequila in the U.S. in the 1940s.

SFD_Celebrity Agave Brands_Bryan Cranston_Aaron Paul_CO_ Dos Hombres_2520x1420

Dos Hombres cofounders, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Photo courtesy of Dos Hombres.

Riding the Agave Boom

Besides the obvious opportunistic appeal of the growing category, agave spirits over the years have developed a reputation for authenticity that many find compelling. Some consumers even like to claim (without evidence) that the so-called purity of the agricultural product makes agave spirits a “healthier” option.

Plus the barriers to entry for a new agave brand are relatively low. Many Mexican distillers custom produce a dozen or more bespoke or off the rack brands for entrepreneurs, so it’s not necessary to own or operate a distillery. While Teremana operates its own distillery, all other brands included in this feature are using contract distillers to produce.

And then there’s the social media advantage: As spirit companies increasingly scramble to devise social media marketing schemes to accelerate their brands, celebrities provide a premade following. “In today’s world, before you start marketing in any medium, you have to consider social media because it’s such a big part of people’s lives,” says Roy Danis, the president and CEO of premium spirits company Conecuh Brands.

To create its Próspero brand, Conecuh partnered with pop star Rita Ora, well-known internationally if less so in the U.S. Ora was brought on as a creative partner as the brand was launched in 2019.

“Historically, the category had a bit of a male skew,” says Danis. “I wanted to create a brand that invited women into the space as much as men. But how can you launch a new product in a very competitive environment and cut through the clutter?” He connected with Ora to help with the marketing efforts, and she’s now the chief creative partner, bringing along over 30 million social media followers.

How involved these celebrities are with the brands varies; in the case of Teremana, says Austin, Johnson educated himself about everything from Brix levels to agave piña roasting methods and outlined his specific requirements, including creating a separate registered production process on the estate, opting for brick ovens and copper stills and setting a relatively low price for a celebrity brand ($29.99). After trying more than 110 samples, Johnson signed off on the product.

Perhaps the celebrity with the most agave credibility is Sammy Hagar, who launched Cabo Wabo in 1996 and sold it to Campari in 2010. Hagar more recently teamed with chef Guy Fieri to launch Santo Tequila in late 2019 after introducing the tequila/mezcal mash-up “mezquila” in 2017—a new iteration that came from sampling tequila and mezcal together in cocktails, according to Santo managing partner Miles Scully. Hagar and Scully connected with cook Guy Fieri for his palate and strong TV ratings.

Working through about 300 combinations, the goal was “to bring the tequila drinker to mezcal by creating something that was in between, like a spicy blanco with a little smoky kick at the end,” says Scully. At first they had trouble finding their target market, as potential consumers seemed confused by the new category. But after launching a blanco tequila in 2020, sales for both took off. Reposado and añejo tequilas are on the way.

The simultaneous surge in interest in mezcal and increase in Blue Weber agave prices has helped bring mezcal to the world of American celebrities. When Avion started, agaves sold for around .50 pesos per kilo and as of fall 2020, prices were around 30 pesos, says Austin.

Cranston and Paul were looking for a project as a result of the close relationship developed over the years of Breaking Bad, and the two almost literally stumbled upon the distillery where Dos Hombres is made on their first trip looking for a liquid to import. Cranston especially notes his previous ignorance of the category.

“So when Aaron said, ‘What about mezcal? I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no’—this knee jerk reaction,” recalls Cranston. “But we went to a mezcal bar and it opened my eyes because of the incredible variety of the spirit. I really had no idea.”

The two partnered with Gregorio Velasco Luis, who formerly produced the critically acclaimed Pierde Almas Mezcal (purchased by Diageo in 2018) at his distillery. “If Gregorio stops making Dos Hombres, we’re out of business,” says Cranston. “He’s incredibly important to us. We know very little about this.”

Like other celebrities new to the spirits industry, Cranston and Paul are working their way through the various culs-de-sac that can waylay a brand. They recognize that regardless of celebrity association, building a successful brand requires commitment to quality, plus a lot of persistence.

As Danis says, “We’ve all witnessed celebrity brands that come and go. If the brand is all about celebrity, that is really not a sustainable long-term selling proposition. Because if the celebrity loses interest, the brand declines.”

Espanita pairs with Pitbull for promotions. Photo courtesy of Espanita.

Espanita pairs with Pitbull for promotions. Photo courtesy of Espanita.

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