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Interview: Binny’s Brett Pontoni Discusses The Brown Spirits Boom

February 22, 2017

Chicago-based retail giant Binny’s Beverage Depot has placed a big bet on brown spirits over recent years, building up its inventory of mainstream, craft and rare offerings, and investing in its Whiskey Hotline, manned by a dedicated staff of full-time professionals. With its Scotch, Bourbon and Cognac sales surging, the 35-store chain is now seeing brown spirits enthusiasm extend to Armagnac, American brandy and rum. SND senior editor Christina Jelski recently caught up with Binny’s spirits buyer Brett Pontoni to talk trends in the booming brown spirits arena.

SND: How big a share of American whiskey does craft now occupy at Binny’s?

Pontoni: In terms of shelf space, we’re now about 50-50 craft versus mainstream. In terms of sales, it’s still 80% mainstream American whiskey brands. But a year ago that ratio was 90% traditional and 10% craft, so the increase in craft has been dramatic. Also, a growing number of craft players are starting to release whiskies they’ve produced and matured themselves—some of them aged for a reasonably long period of time.

SND: What particular trends are you seeing in Bourbon, which surpassed 20 million cases in the U.S. last year for the first time in three decades?

Pontoni: Bourbon has been on a tremendous growth path for seven or eight years, and lately we’ve seen the revitalization and relaunch of some old Bourbon brands and styles, such as Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series.

SND: Scotch—specifically single malt—has seen strong growth in the U.S. How are sales at Binny’s?

Pontoni: Scotch is kicking along well. Based purely on the economics of the exchange rate, Scotch is becoming a little bit better value in the U.S. market. Scotch producers are doing very well because we’re buying in dollars, so they’re getting a bounce in the exchange rate back in the U.K.

SND: What are the key trends in Cognac at your stores?

Pontoni: Cognac is having a heyday right now, driven by the big four of Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell. We’re starting to also see a halo effect for smaller grower producers. Cognac brands are restyling and, to a certain extent, tweaking their approach in the U.S. in an effort to portray Cognac almost like whisk(e)y. You’ve got Martell Blue Swift, for example, which is finished in Kentucky Bourbon casks. But what’s been quietly resurgent—and hasn’t been noticed—is Armagnac. We’re selling massive amounts of Armagnac right now.

SND: What price points are hot for Armagnac?

Pontoni: We’re selling a lot in the $30-$70 segment, but also at the higher end. Cognacs above the XO level cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. But you can buy vintage, 40-year-old Armagnac for a couple of hundred dollars. During the holidays, we stocked up on vintage Armagnacs. They weren’t cheap, but they were very good deals, as they’re normally $200 to $300 for a 40- or 50-year-old age-stated brown spirit, which is a relative bargain.

SND: What about American brandy?

Pontoni: There’s action there as well. We’ve worked closely with producers like Copper & Kings in Louisville, Kentucky and Osocalis Distillery in Santa Cruz, California and we’re starting to see traction. Copper & Kings is the new American brandy—there’s a little bit of a whiskey mentality behind it. But we’re also seeing success for more traditional brandies like Osocalis as well.

SND: Do you see aged rums gaining ground?

Pontoni: Rum sales are solid, but have yet to really explode. That said, at the end of summer and into the fall last year, we started noticing more action, and that’s been sustained. We’re seeing some expensive independently-bottled products getting picked up, including 10- and 20-year-old rums bottled by Scotch producers, such as Blackadder, Duncan Taylor and Berry Bros. & Rudd. I don’t think they’re stealing share from other segments. I see high-end rum as being incremental to the business rather than a trade-off. The interest is coming from existing brown spirits drinkers, as a lot of whisk(e)y people look to branch out.

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