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Interview: K&L’s Spirits Buyer David Driscoll Talks Scotch Whisky Trends

November 22, 2016

California retailer K&L Wine Merchants operates three stores in the Golden State, located in Redwood City, San Francisco and Hollywood. Traditionally known as a wine powerhouse, over the past decade K&L has seen its spirits sales grow from 3% of its revenue to the current 12% share. For the nine years, head spirits buyer David Driscoll has developed direct relationships with Scotch whisky distillers, bringing products from small-lot players into K&L’s stores and cultivating a loyal customer base. SND recently spoke with Driscoll about current Scotch whisky trends.

SND: How does Scotch stack up in terms of spirits sales at K&L?

Driscoll: Scotch is roughly 50% of our spirits sales, with a strong focus on single malt.

SND: K&L focuses on small casks. How are you choosing producers?

Driscoll: Since each distillery is now making five or six whiskies, shelf-space is overcrowded. We have to balance the need to have new Scotch whiskies with building traction for existing products.

SND: What are the hottest sellers?

Driscoll: Single barrels from lesser-known distilleries are flying off the shelf, when priced right. A private K&L barrel of Royal Brackla 17-year-old single cask ($59.99), owned by Dewar’s, sold out in 10 days. People will sacrifice brand recognition and luxury if it means getting a good deal. Our sweet spot is $60 to $100 for a 750-ml. that’s bottle-aged 15 to 20 years.

SND: What about the old and rare market?

Driscoll: It’s treacherous. The whiskies have become so expensive that I can’t sell them, so I’m not buying them. They went from $500 to $1,000 retail to $5,000 to $10,000 for the higher-end 25- to 40- year-old single malts. A 50-year-old name brand sells for $25,000, but I can sell a 50-year-aged Scotch from a less high-profile distillery for $250. Keep in mind that the single barrel whiskies I’m buying were originally intended for blending.

SND: What’s the selling approach?

Driscoll: Online sales now comprise 50% of our spirits business. We have a whiskey club, and I have a blog with tens of thousands of followers. We also have 12,000 followers on our Twitter feed, which is heavy on spirits, and we do email and newsletters. Our younger demographic is fun. Social media is creating momentum for us.

SND: What other trends are you seeing specifically in single malt?

Driscoll: The market has changed quite dramatically. Regions have become irrelevant. With blended Scotch declining, distilleries who traditionally created whiskies for blending are now marketing the product as single malts.

SND: Are customers overwhelmed by the array of choices?

Driscoll: Actually, customers love it. The trend is toward collecting dozens of Scotch bottles with different flavor expressions. People will buy a new bottle without any pressure to finish the old one.

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