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Interview: Michael Binstein Talks Whisky

July 19, 2013

Binny’s Beverage Depot owner Michael Binstein has been at the forefront of America’s current whisky boom, using a variety of creative strategies that were put in place well ahead of the category’s growth explosion. In this interview with SND, Binstein discusses his approach to whisky and how he has tapped into the current renaissance.

SND: Ten years ago, you launched your Whiskey Hotline and made a big investment in whiskies and specialty spirits. Has your whisky business continued to flourish?

Binstein: It’s thriving, evolving and expanding every day. We now have three full-time whisky experts working the Whiskey Hotline, which is our umbrella for buying and selling specialty spirits. They’re operating in the basement of our South Loop location in Chicago, in a 200-square-foot office. There’s no other retailer in America generating this much volume out of 200 square feet in a grey basement.

SND: They must be very knowledgeable.

Binstein: They are. All they do, all day long, is talk on the phone. It’s a very low-tech approach in this very high-tech age. Callers can get a human being on the phone and can speak with them as long as they wish. It’s a contrarian, labor-intensive approach.

SND: How many of those calls result in immediate sales?

Binstein: Some do, some don’t. But we’re building an unparalleled list of specialty spirits customers. Some are looking for $20 Bourbon, and some are looking for $20,000 Scotches.

SND: What percentage of your whisky business is craft?

Binstein: Craft is definitely the fastest-growing segment for the Whiskey Hotline. We sell a lot of Johnnie Walker Blue, but the Whiskey Hotline doesn’t handle Johnnie Walker Blue. They handle other esoteric Diageo labels, but Johnnie Walker Blue, even though it sells for $170 a bottle, is a commodity item. But what you’re seeing here is the sprouting and flourishing of micro-distilleries.

SND: Do you ever have supply issues with craft distillers?

Binstein: Yes, all the time. It’s part of the growing pains, but they’ll catch up. Some will then overproduce, and we’ll see a correction on that side.

SND: Do you think the whisky renaissance is here to stay, or is it just another passing fad?

Binstein: It will continue to evolve, but it’s here to stay. With all due respect to Cutty Sark, we’re not going back to that era. Those are great, iconic brands, but their best days are behind them.

SND: What happened to change consumer attitudes?

Binstein: Today’s consumers have a different lifestyle, and whisky has become the beverage of choice for the thinking man and woman. I always say there’s a little bit of book club culture and mentality in our business. People love organizing discussion groups and blogs, and it’s very communal and educational. It’s about trading notes. No one will ever blog about having a Cutty Sark on the rocks. It’s also part of the intersection of social media and the youth movement. It’s been a perfect storm.

SND: What about craft spirits outside the whisky category?

Binstein: We sell a tremendous amount of white spirits. Even white whiskies like Jacob’s Ghost are doing really well, and that’s a big commodity item that Jim Beam rolled out on the coattails of this movement. I also think that there’s a lot of crossover between craft beer and craft spirits with our customers.

SND: How would you describe your current business plan?

Binstein: It can really be distilled into four words—leave no customer behind. That’s the heart and soul of Binny’s. It means we’re the largest craft beer retailer in the Midwest but also the largest Busch Light and Keystone Light retailer in the United States. It means we spend as much time on boxed wine as on Bordeaux. It means you’ll find $4 vodkas, but you’ll also find $40,000 Scotches. In our downstate store in Champaign, our customers include farmers, students, physicists and aspiring poets. We’re there for all of them. It’s the essence of who we are. We’re not a niche player. More and more people are tiering and segmenting customers, but we don’t do that.

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