Ambassador Wine and Spirits: Retailer Focus

What does it take to succeed in NYC?

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At the corner of 54th St and Second Avenue you’ll find my favorite spirits and wine shop. It’s close but not exactly in my neighborhood but I go out of my way to shop there. It’s arguably the best in Midtown.

If you live in Manhattan, chances are there’s a store up the street, around the corner or, a block over. There are “destination” shops like Astor, Beacon and others so I suppose Ambassador fits this genre – well worth going out of your way. Besides, they deliver. But before I talk about them, let’s spend a few minutes on the New York retail scene.

Only in New York

It’s a complicated market at all levels of the Booze Business.

As recently as the 1980s, there were over ten significant distributors. Today there are only two main players. While the gap has been partly filled with wine and beer distributors moving into spirits, the market is in a state of limited competition aka as an oligopoly. In short, the wholesalers call the shots.

A consumer living in the boroughs other than Manhattan can purchase most alcohol products for less than in “the city.” Lower overhead is the main reason.

Thanks to state tax differences, for many consumers it makes more sense to go across the river to New Jersey if you’re looking to stock up, particularly spirits. The difference in state excise taxes is almost a dollar per gallon –$6.44 in NY vs. $5.50 in NJ.

(I used to joke that a car coming to NY from NJ whose trunk was much lower than its hood probably was either a small New York State bar owner stocking up or someone having a party.)

So imagine you’re a retailer in Manhattan. Your rent is high; you have to compete with many businesses for qualified employees; your customer base (in the midtown area) has changed, with LLCs buying apartments that are frequently unlived in; and the guy down the street is selling the same brand as you for less.

It’s not a level playing field

There’s a rule in NY State that only a single individual can hold a license to sell wine or spirits at retail. Its origin has to do with preventing chain liquor stores from doing business in the state. But guess what? It doesn’t stop retailers from opening other stores in the names of their family members.

So, when a distributor has a multi-case discount, the sole proprietor store can’t take advantage of it but the stores “owned” by cousins, sisters, in-laws can. In short, that’s how many NY State stores beat the system.

This is the environment in which Ambassador Wines & Spirits operates.

The Ambassador Story

Leonard Phillips. owner
Leonard Phillips.

Meet Leonard Phillips, the owner of the store and whose family has been in the business since 1973. It started as a small shop run by his grandmother that has grown to the current 1400 square feet store on two levels.

Leonard’s original calling in life was to be a biochemist and ultimately become a physician in the military. However, as we all know, life has a way of getting in the way of plans and dreams. But if you spend five minutes with Leonard you quickly realize that his passion and tenacity is what has makes Ambassador unique.

 

Here’s why I think the store is special

This is not the place to go to buy the popular vodka and expect a discounted price. It is the place to go where you will find new or extraordinary products that appeal to the spirits enthusiast and aficionado. Their selection of whiskies (particularly scotch and single malts) is unbelievable.IMG_5313

In fact, if you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I love the whiskies and gin from Koval Distillery. All their products are available at Ambassador, which is how I came to the store in the first place.

Their wine selection is also second to none. But, interestingly, thanks to the whiskey and craft spirits explosion, wine as a percent of volume has gone from 80% to 65% in the last 3 to 4 years.

In addition to wine and liquor, their selection of Sake, Soju and Sochu is, in my opinion, the best in NYC. If you’re looking forIMG_5319 hard cider this is the place to go. And, while you’re in the store check out their champagne and sparkling wine selections.

There is even a room downstairs for tastings and education either conducted by companies or groups of friends wanting to discover new and interesting products.

Hey, don’t take my word for it. Go to Yelp and check them out. Not only did they get 4.5 out of 5 but also the comments left by reviewers are amazing.

It’s about the people

Most of the reviews on Yelp talk about the knowledge, helpfulness and friendliness of the staff. In most wine and spirits shops I’ve gone to around the country over the years, most should have the slogan, “shut up and buy.” This is a store whose service orientation matches their style of business – personal recommendations based on knowing the customer and the products they sell.

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When I asked Leonard about how he copes with the peculiarities of doing business in New York City his response was mixed. On the one hand, as a true sole proprietor store facing competition from multi-owned stores and their ability to deeply discount, he describes the situation as akin to being a “one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”

At the same time, or perhaps as a result, he views Ambassador Wine and Spirits as a Dylan’s Candy store for adults.

An article in Serious Eats sums it up nicely:

Ambassador is the liquor store I wish I had in my neighborhood; you find yourself wanting to hang out there, even if you don’t really need to buy anything.

My kind of store.

 

Leonard and Schlomo. He may look intimidating but he's the friendliest pup.
Leonard and Schlomo. He may look intimidating but he’s the friendliest pup. Schlomo, that is.
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Casa Dragones: Tequila with a Pedigree

When passion and expertise meet, extraordinary tequila emerges

Bob Pittman, a tequila aficionado and Bertha González Nieves, a certified tequila expert and first woman to be named Maestra Tequilera by the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila, founded Casa Dragones in 2008. At $275 per bottle, it is both exceptional and aspirational.

As the story goes, Bob Pittman (founder of MTV, CEO of Clear Channel) has spent many summers in San Miguel de Allende, where he has a home, and over the years became a true tequila lover. In 2007, he and Bertha met at a party and talked about their mutual passion for tequila. Bob shared his dream of creating one. Bertha told him that she always wanted to become an entrepreneur. Together they set on a quest to deliver a true sipping tequila, smooth enough to sip, with no “wince factor.” A short time later, the two founded Casa Dragones.

Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves
Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

I don’t know Bob Pittman but I know Bertha González very well. She and I worked together when she was the Commercial Director North America for Jose Cuervo International and I was a consultant/advisor to the company. Actually, Bertha had a number of positions at JCI, under the leadership of Carlos Arana, including business development, new products and brand management. In short, she knows tequila and how to run a tequila enterprise.

While at JCI, I marveled at her ability to balance the whims of the Beckmann family (owners of Cuervo) and the arrogance of Diageo (distributors at the time). Clearly Bertha’s wit, intellect and charm came in handy.

Here’s an example – when asked in an interview a few years ago whether anyone ever mixed anything with Casa Dragones, Bertha’s reply was, “not in front of me.”

The Product

Casa Dragones Joven tequila
Casa Dragones Joven tequila

I guess the first thing everyone says about the original Casa Dragones tequila is the price tag. If you’re a particular type of spirits consumer, it’s worth it. It’s a 100% Blue Agave Joven Tequila, crafted in small batches. Joven tequila is a rare blend of silver tequila and extra aged tequila. It’s a style rarely used and it took both Bertha and a master distiller, coaxed out of retirement, over a year to perfect the blend.

So, it’s tequila to be sipped and savored and never, ever mixed. Trust me, it’s not like any other tequila you’ve ever tasted. But don’t take my word for it – Wine Enthusiast gave it a 96 and here is what Tequila.net had to say about it.

From the soil to the Agave plant to the craftsmanship to the bottle – this is not tequila to use in a margarita or even as a shot. Like the lady said, sip it.

But, if you must drink your tequila in a cocktail, they have recently introduced Casa Dragones Blanco, 100%Blue Agave silver

Casa Dragones Blanco
Casa Dragones Blanco

tequila designed to be served on the rocks or in signature craft cocktails developed by leading chefs and mixologists. Cocktails like San Miguel, Pink Panther and my favorite, Michelada Primaverde, described on the website as follows:

James Beard Award Winning Mixologist and Owner of New York City’s P.D.T (Please Don’t Tell), Jim Meehan has created the Michelada Primaverde exclusively with Tequila Casa Dragones Blanco. A mixture of dry vermouth and tomatillo juice is complemented perfectly by a splash of Victoria beer and a spicy, salted rim for a refreshing, summer cocktail.

The Blanco sells for $75 for a 750 ML. Feel better now?

It’s All About Mexico

As to the heritage, the elite cavalry that helped spark the Mexican independence movement inspires the name. La Casa Dragones, the original 17th century stables still standing on a street in San Miguel de Allende, is the spiritual home to the tequila.

What makes Casa Dragones especially unique is that it is thoroughly Mexican. A product that comes from the lowlands and the rich soil of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt; a formula based on the merging of the traditional art of tequila making combined with an innovative process; a product designed for a consumer who is looking for quality and authenticity. It’s the real deal.

Bertha
Bertha

It’s also about Bertha Nieves González and her passion for tequila and innovation. So add her to the list of Booze Business’ Shaker’s and Stirrers – the new breed of alcohol industry entrepreneurs.

Just don’t let her catch you drinking the Joven product with a mixer.

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Gary (gaz) Regan: A Man For All Seasons

Bartender, innovator, author, publisher, educator and more

gaz regan 2012 in suit by jimi ferrara - Copy
gaz regan

I first met gaz in the early 1990s when I was Seagram. While I’ve always known him as Gary, the name gaz is his nickname and has become his nom de plume some time ago. Whatever he calls himself, he’s a heck of a guy and has made major contributions to the booze business.

Before I get into all that, here’s a story I heard from gaz. (He spells his name without capital letters.)

I think it might have been on his radio show (with Paul Pacult) in the late 90s. They invited me on and we were discussing single malt scotches in general and The Glenlivet (a Seagram brand at the time) in particular.

To illustrate the nature of the category, gaz told a story about when he was bartending in the 1980s on South Street in NYC. It seems that a particular Scottish gentleman would come in for lunch everyday, order a hamburger and ask for the “book.” It was a guide to single malt scotches and differences in brands, regions, water, grain and distillation styles. After work, the gentleman would meet with friends and colleagues and hold forth on the verities of various malts. While he sounded like an authority on the subject, the information he provided was less than 5 hours old.

To me, the story illustrated the nature of the single malt category and the focus among those drinkers on discovery and what’s in the bottle. Portend of things to come.

There are two other things I learned from gaz – the power of stories in the booze business and the crucial role of the bartender.

Regan's orange Bitters
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6

Writer, storyteller

Did I say writer? I meant to say prolific writer. He has written a column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years, publishes three newsletters a week, has won two Best Cocktail Writer awards and written more than a dozen books. He is also a regular contributor to Liquor.com and an advisory board member.

If you want to reach bartenders, he’s the man to see. Two of his books, gaz regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders and 101 Best New Cocktails are published annually and reach a wide audience all over the world. Oh, and let’s not forget the Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Bible.

New edition to be released in May
New edition to be released in May

My favorite is The Negroni: A gaz regan Notion, the second edition of which will be released in May. Not only has he made that drink famous but has also cleared up many of the myths about its origin. All I’ll tell you is the originator was one Count Negroni, the broncobuster who first created the drink in the early years of the 20th century. It’s a fun read.

The consummate bartender

Credited by many as one of the godfathers of the mixology movement, gaz is a bartender’s bartender. In addition to books and bartending appearances (The Dead Rabbit in NYC), one of his newsletters is devoted to job opportunities around the world. Mention his name to any professional bartender and their eyes will light up and a big smile will appear. Along with other famed bartenders like Dale DeGroff, gaz has been a judge at Diageo’s World Class bartending competition.

In fact, companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have been smart enough to avail themselves of his services. I think it’s because he has his fingers on the pulse of the bar trade – consumer and bartender. That is, of course, when his finger is not stirring one of his world class Negronis. (Check here and here for more about this.)

Just One Shift

gaz came up with the Just One Shift idea to help raise money for a charity called Wine to Water, which has been bringing potable water to thousands of people all over the world since 2004. Doc Hendley, a bartender from North Carolina, founded Wine to Water.

Each year gaz organizes and promotes a campaign for bartenders to contribute the tips from ‘just one shift’ and 100% of what they raise brings clean water to needy people worldwide.

Great idea. I’ll let you know when the next campaign comes around.

Cocktails in the Country

Cocktails in the Country Workshop
Cocktails in the Country Workshop

This event, which you can learn more about here, ran for seven years from 2001 until 2007. He has decided to bring it back this year, and from what I’ve heard from bartenders, that’s really good news. Cocktails in the Country 2015 is a Master Class that focuses on the importance of service in the hospitality business and much more.

Held in Cornwall on Hudson NY, it’s a two-day bartender workshop that covers a wide range of issues for the trade and even culminates in a special certification for bartenders. It runs all summer and the first workshop is coming up on May 11 to 12. (See Schedule)

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I think the best way to sum up a story on gaz regan is to show the headline from the Food Republic written by Simon Ford, founder of The 86 Company and formerly a top notch on premise guru for Pernod Ricard:

Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan Knows More About The Culture Of Drink Than Basically Anybody

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