A Retailer’s Pilgrimage: 2012 Whisky Fest San Francisco

It’s my third trip to Whisky Fest in San Francisco and every visit is a whole new experience.  One may ask “doesn’t it get boring seeing the same distilleries every year?”  I respond, “No, it’s like visiting old friends.” If you love whisky, this is why you should go….

Mastery of Whisky for Pernod Ricard, Rick Edwards, describes the Longmorn experience.

Till next year or will it be a new adventure???

See more Pics click here


Category : Blog

Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival 2012: A Retailer’s Recap

The Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival concluded and I was fortunate to escape the store and enjoy a couple of the venues. Besides eating and drinking great food and wine, the highlight would be attending a seminar.

I was lucky to score a ticket to attend the Tale of Three Terroirs: The Vision of Marchesi Antinori. There is serendipitous connection between SWAM, Chateau St. Michelle, and Antinori, but that’s for another story. The line up was a very impressive vertical of four different wineries with four unique vintages ’01, ’05, ’07 and ’08. I just could not imagine the value of Tignello, Guada Al Tasso, Solaia, and Antica Townsend sitting in front of me explained by three Master Sommeliers, Roberto Viernes, Richard Betts and Joseph Spellman. And much to our surprise sitting behind me were California Winemakers: Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Steve and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina, and Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton. Being surrounded by experienced professionals who have a deep passion for wine and its history was simply phenomenal.

Master Sommelier, Richard Betts, explained his process of evaluating a wine. Beginning with Tone, he compared it to a music pitch. Is the wine a bass: full and robust, or an alto: harmonizing with balance, or a soprano: singing bright. Then he followed with Texture. Is the wine silky, course, sharp, and so on. And finally Flavor, did you taste clay, rosemary, sage, white pepper, and the infinite flavor profiles. From a retailer’s perspective, I thought his explanation was more tangible to understand and pass on to my customers.

The seminar at the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival delivered more than I expected. I also heard the Krug Champagne and Mixology Seminars were well worth the ticket price. This was just the 2nd annual event for the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival. It will only get better with the years to come.

Category : Blog

Social Media, Mavens and SWAM


There is no question how important Social Media is regarding customer interaction and potential patrons.  Customers who Yelp, Facebook, Tweet, Instagram and Blog are our new generation of mavens.  A maven is a “trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others.”  Mavens have increased in numbers because of the simplicity  in publishing their commentary with little to no cost.  The volume of public opinion on the Internet is available by just imputing a few key words in the search.

No secret shopper,  acclaimed critic, nor grandiose commercial holds more value than the opinion of your average joe on Yelp.  Yet professional critics and business owners have concerns about the point of view of some Yelp reviews.   Regardless if the review is a one star or a five star, it is an opinion of a non paid yelper that we do take seriously.  The Yelp community have their own recognition of a maven called the Elite.  Yelp’s Elite, are chosen (we don’t know what is the criteria to be ‘chosen’  perhaps it’s their large following and amount of reviews) to an elevated and exclusive status.

For real time feedback, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have given mavens and small business a boost in popularity. Instead of talking about each other without knowing about it, now we are included in the conversation.   If we don’t chat enough in our store, there’s the Facebook messaging, Twitter mentions, and Instagram notifications to keep our line of communication open 24 hours.  Mavens have taken the expression ‘word-of-mouth’ to another level.  The reaction is sales, instant but brief notoriety, and ultimately a cult following.

The Blog and/or Video Blog is the new social commercial.  Bloggers promote new products, where to purchase, and their personal feedback.  Beer bloggers, cigar bloggers, and even Hello Kitty bloggers have a found connection to our store.  This type of networking filters maven’s interests.  A maven can’t be an expert on everything but can influence the market with a niche expertise.   Many of these blogs have a direct effect on consumer patronage.  Since we also subscribe to a forum of common interests, we can immediately react to a maven’s highlight, educate ourselves, and fulfill a demand.

Information is so important to the consumer.  No amount of traditional education can prepare you for the social demands consumers are expecting especially in the retail market.   Once a product can sell itself, but to a maven, they want to know what other products are comparable, what’s the story behind it, and how to present it in a social setting.  At least if we are stumped on question, there’s always Google at our fingertips.



Category : Blog

World of Whisky: Let the Journey Begin

Monday, June 11, was SWAM’s first World of Whisky event beginning the journey in Japan.  Although we were not in the country of Japan, we had their finest whiskies.  This tasting was very special to me because over the years we began collecting Japanese whiskies.  Friends would travel to Japan and asked if there was anything we wanted.  Of course we seized the opportunity to have them bring back Hibikis and Nikkas.   The collection grew enough that it was about time to share.  Perhaps the journey should have began where ‘whisky’ was invented, nevertheless, we have been doing Scotch tastings for awhile and taking this detour would be a nice beginning from the obvious.  Here’s the line-up.

Nikka Gold and Gold:  We prepared it Manhattan style.  It was a lot more  smokier and very savory.  I’m beginning to prefer this style of flavor over the traditional Manhattan.   Paired with a Banya Cauda Mousse or anchovy mousse with tempura and fresh vegetables.  The smokey, sweet manhattan matched well with the saltiness of the Banya Cauda.

2-  1 1/4oz.  Nikka Gold and Gold
1- 1 oz. Noilly Prat Sweet Vermouth
dash of Fees Bros. Aromatic Bitters
Stir in ice, strain into a martini glass garnished with a maraschino cherry

Chichibu ‘Ichiro’s First’ 3 year Single Malt:  At 61% ABV, taking it neat was too ‘hot’ to appreciate.  After a couple drops of water, the whisky opened up and shined..brillantly.  Whisky Advocate named this whisky Japanese Whisky of the Year in 2012.  The uniqueness about the Chichibu was the aroma of sandlewood.  The sandlewood profile came from fermenting the malt in mizunara, Japanese oak, vats.   For a young whisky it had viscosity and richness.  We paired this with the Bain and Kumamoto oysters.  After gobbling up the delicious and sweet oysters, a nice treat was adding a little Chichibu into the oyster shell and tossing it back to help cleanse the palate.

Suntory Hakushu 12 year Single Malt: Making it’s debut in the Hawaii market, we were very excited to try the Hakushu.  Slightly smokey aroma but not as earthy as the Nikka.  There was lightness about the 1 2 year old.  It was subtle in flavor.  Paired with a Smoked Chicken Hash and Hamakua Caprese Salad with a cherry balsamic vinaigrette, the salad kicked up the Hakushu’s flavor with more acidity.

Suntory Yamazaki 18 year Single Malt:  The dark caramel color, sweet butterscotch on the nose, and the Yamazaki 18  just glided on the palate.  Silky, Silky, Silky.   Paired with the Pan Seared Scallop with a Hibiki 21 glaze and a Braised Pork Belly with Watercress Waldorf  Salad.  This pairing done me in! The Yamazaki 18 with the Braised Pork Belly was absolutely sinful!  It felt sooo wrong eating all that sticky sweet gelatinous fat and washing it down with the 18 year.   The Yamazaki cut the pork fat in to butter.  OH…it was incredible.

Suntory Hibiki 30 year Blended:  Not available in the United States.  Four years ago, we bought this Hibiki 30 for around $500/600 US dollars.  Currently 2012, the bottle is now priced at $1000 US Dollars.  Smooth and rich with figs and cocoa.  This whisky was paired with Hacho Misa Glazed Lamb with Daikon and Wild Mushroom Gratin.  Frankly, I couldn’t help but take two bites out of the perfectly cooked dish and called it quits.  I was full to the gills!  The lamb was tender and the 30 year added a more smokier finish to the lamb.  I didn’t know which one to continue on further.  I chose the whisky and took home the lamb.

Nikka Taketsuru 17 year Pure Malt:  A generous gesture from one of our guests, Mika Hill.  She offered her bottle for the dessert course.  The Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme with Fig Jam was a home run with the Nikka 17 year.  The 17 year has a faint nutty and  chocolate flavor but paired with the pot de creme enhanced the velvetly chocolate notes.  It was a pleasant surprise to have a whisky unexpectedly paired with the dessert finale.

Kyle Matsumoto and his team at Off the Wall Restaurant did a magnificent job pairing Japanese whisky with their style of food.   What an incredible evening to start our journey.  It will be challenge to find another great food pairing for our next destination….. Scotland!

Off the Wall Restaurant

Chichibu Distillery

List of  Suntory’s Award Winning Whiskies 

List of Nikka’s Award Winning Whiskies

Category : Blog &Reviews &Spirits

The Crown Royal XR Bullsh*t: A Small Business Giving in to the Hype

Once again SWAM is disappointed with Crown XR.  The ‘extremely limited,’ ‘ ‘rarest whiskey,’ and ‘numbered’ are all bullet points in the press releases about Crown Royal XR.  Since 2006, that’s the sales pitch we’ve been echoing and promoting that Crown XR will run out soon.  It’s 2012, how limited is a bottle supposed to be after 6 years on the market?

When Crown XR was first released SWAM was selling a bottle for $215, give or take.   We sold a lot of bottles at that price.  Suddenly the bigger retailers started to sell the XR and undercut us by $100, give or take.   We wanted to know how can they sell Crown XR at that price?  As a matter of fact, corporate giant Diageo, owner of Crown Royal, decided to discount the cost of Crown XR because it ‘was not moving fast enough.’   When SWAM bought in to the price of Crown XR, it was at top dollar.   Then Diageo discounted the bottles and we were stuck with an overpriced XR.  We were so upset and disgusted when the words ‘CROWN XR’ were uttered.   We had  no choice but to pull Crown XR off the shelf until the discounted price at other retailers were sold out.

By late 2011, the word was out that Crown XR was not coming back to Hawaii.  The word spread like wildfire.  We were getting calls every week about the Crown XR.  All we can say was if you can find it, buy it.   We probably contributed to the hype to hunt.  Well guess what ladies and gentlemen, Crown XR has made it’s way back to Hawaii.   Do we look stupid?  Are we just salesmen making a sale?  Honestly, we are all of the above.   My sincerest apologies if we lead you to believe the hype.  We cannot help to be passionate about we do.  Our advice is to listen with caution and do the research aside from  going to all retailers and bars in the area and asking the same question.   In retrospect, my mom advised me not to give in the hype and who is the wiser?

Category : Blog

Customer Etiquette Part I: A Small Business Owner’s Perspective

I may get a some backlash on this blog especially when talking about customers but I think it’s worth pointing out. There are days when a customer will browse through the store and openly comment to me about our prices.  Comments like:   “I’ve seen this at XYZ for five bucks less!” or “I can get this at XYZ for A LOT CHEAPER.”  We have been criticized for having higher prices than other retailers especially when products go on ‘sale.’  As a human being, I do feel a sting when comments like these are said to me.  I’m not sure how to respond without being defensive.  I agree that no one likes to feel they are getting ripped off.   In 425 words or less,  is my explanation for our higher but FAIR prices.

There is a downside to getting the volume discount price from the distributor.  The keyword is VOLUME.  We don’t buy in volume because it  means commitment to storage space, minimizing ‘facings’ or number of unique products, being stuck with an overexposed product, and making our business less nimble to move on current trends and demand.  If we had to buy 10 cases of blah blah just to get the discounted price, then we have to get it out the store quickly before the next hot product comes  which means a ‘sale!’  At SWAM, we will rarely discount items at 50% off. Why? because we don’t normally mark anything up over 50%. In the clothing world, you can expect to sell a t-shirt 75% over cost and still maintain customer loyalty.  If I priced Crown Royal at 75% over cost, I can assure you I will not be in business very long.  Keeping in line with competitive pricing is relative to how low you want your profit margin to be.   I’ve recently attended a Johnny Cupcake seminar and he made a great point about ‘sales’ and markdowns.  When we continue to discount 20 to 50% off the retail price, we train our customers to shop only for discounts and therefore decreasing the value of the store’s image.   We have recognized that having a ‘sale’ is not always good thing at SWAM.  Regular customers will often question why an item is discounted.  They will ask ‘Is it junk, Jill?’ or ‘Is it old?’   We appreciate that customers hold us to a higher standard that we are capable to sell what we have and bring in new items consistently.   And about getting ripped off at SWAM,  no I don’t drive new Mercedes every year.

For an interesting read, check out this book…

Feb 8, 2012 Update:  Just received the February Hawaii Beverage Guide which coincidentally shares a story called “Small is Beautiful” by Brandy Rand

Category : Blog

Why Retailers Appreciate Ratings and Reviews

In the wine editorial world, there are highly paid and sought after professionals with insured noses and a knack for finding flavor profiles in every wine they review.  Their opinion could elevate a winemaker to celebrity status or scar their reputation.  November is month which Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year are announced.  Retailers, restaurateurs, and collectors anxiously wait for the list.  We often hear wineries discredit the ratings and choose not to have their wines reviewed.   Regardless if wineries disagree with the reviewer’s personal taste or believe there’s favoritism in the system,  wine ratings help move wine out of distribution and into the consumer’s hands.   There are draw backs to an outstanding rating because  it causes a buying frenzy and ultimately a price increase.    

We follow Robert Parker of  the Wine Advocate, a type of  Consumer Reports guide.   A ‘Parker-esque extraordinary’ review will most likely be full body with in-your-face-flavor.  We also follow Wine Spectator’s reviews which tends to favor the more elegant and finesse style of wine.   Their ratings for same wine are noticeably a polar opposite.  One will love the wine and give it a monster rating while the other will be more ho-hum about it.  

Rarely does one purchase wine solely on reviews and ratings, but we appreciate them because consumers like to know what they are buying and have confidence in their purchase.

Category : Blog

SWAM for a Cause: Talk About Curing Autism

Why we do support TACA: Talk About Curing Autism?  Do we have autism in our family?  To our knowledge, no.  Then why are we so passionate about supporting TACA?  Why does SWAM want to Talk About Curing Autism?   TACA is a family oriented organization.  What do I know about parenting?  More so, what do I know about being a parent with a special needs child?  SWAM is a liquor store; so, how does supporting TACA relate or even benefit the business?   It’s a simple answer.  We support TACA with all our heart because we want to.  Plain and clear.  There are no money angles and no social ladder climbing.   We don’t have a story that people want to hear.  We believe in the TACA mission, we empathize with the TACA families and we know they are underfunded.

What I have learned about autism and TACA since working with Debbie Zimmerman.

TACA is a national non-profit organization dedicated to providing information, resources, education and support to families affected by autism.  Autism is a devastating neurological and biological disorder that affects children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years of age.  It is characterized by challenges in five key areas:

·         Communication

·         Social skills

·         Behavior

·         Learning

·         Medical Issues

Currently autism affects 1 in every 91 children today, and 1 in every 58 boys.  It is an epidemic.

TACA believes in early diagnosis, intensive therapies and medical intervention for children affected by autism. With early intervention, medical treatment unique to each person’s needs, and necessary support services for families many children can improve greatly and some can recover from their autistic symptoms. We believe the future is not defined for many children affected by autism.  Hope and recovery is possible.

Most Common Misconception About Autism:

The common misconception with autism is that all autistics are like the actor Dustin Hoffman in his portrayal in the movie Rain Man. His character possessed an amazing mathematical skill of adding enormous amounts of objects or counting cards in a deck. This example is a Hollywood portrayal and is not the case with all individuals affected by autism. His performance is to be applauded, but it was only that: a performance, and should not be considered as an example of autism today.

Please read this article…
Growing Old with Autism, Time Magazine Article

Take the first step to understand autism and you’ll understand why we just want to help.

Category : Blog

Buzz Word: Prohibition Era Spirits and Cocktails

Top Five on What’s Hot
5. Dessert Cocktails
4. Bitters
3. ‘Craft’ anything
2. Home Bartending
1. The Prohibition Era

The Europeans have the Renaissance and the Americans have Prohibition, an era of severe regulation and controversy, a topic that can be debated for another time.  Prohibition was a necessary unnecessary, as a woman I should be grateful or there would be no SWAM.   Prohibition was a benchmark in time targeting one issue, the world of alcohol.

Today marketing “Prohibition” or “Pre-Prohibition” on labels is becoming a hot selling brand to a generation who never experienced a wide scaled intolerance.  It  suggests a time where distillers went ‘underground’ and produced ‘small batch’ products like whiskey, gin, and rum.   Some have survived the drought and have become very prominent more so in the Bourbon business.  However, it’s the next generation of distillers that are changing the perspective on how spirits are distilled, barreled, and aged.  The new generation distilleries are reviving species of grain and plants that where on the brink of extinction but commonly used during pre-prohibition.   Also, craft distilleries are barreling in smaller casks and turning out younger distillates with a lot of intense flavors and higher alcohol proof.  Pre-prohibition recipes are being reproduced in small high quality batches but come with a hefty price tag.  Nonetheless, the timeless era of Prohibition is evolving into a modern day demand.

Mixologists are recreating recipes from the Pre-Prohibition timeline while drawing in a new generation to appreciate a crafted cocktail.  It’s cool to be classic.

Check out our demonstration of Classic Bourbon Cocktails from SWAM’s PREP!

Category : Blog

Am I Allergic to Alcohol?

It’s been only five years in the liquor business and I have all ready have customers come to me with concerns that they are allergic to alcohol.  I’m no doctor and in no position to explain what’s happening, however, it sparked a curiosity to do some research.  

First of all, there’s the misnomer on calling it an Alcohol Allergy when in actuality it’s an Alcohol Intolerance.  We assume that we are allergic to alcohol because of the reactions we suffer.  However, very few are allergic to just alcohol. Whereas, many are intolerant to alcohol.  Alcohol Intolerance occurs when your body does not have the proper enzyme called Aldehyde Dehydrogenase or ALDH to break down the toxins.  Symptoms includes:  ‘nasal congestion, warm red itchy skin, worsening of pre-exsisting asthma, runny or stuffy nose, headache, rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, or abdominal pain.’ ~ Mayo Clinic.

Many blame sulfites as the cause for their discomfort or hangover and therefore cannot drink red wine.  There are higher concentrations of sulfites found in white wine than in red.  It helps the white wine from turning brown.  Red wine have more natural preservatives from the tannins found in the skins of red grapes.   However, sulfites found in wood casks that store red wines for a long period of time can result in higher levels.  Sensitivity to sulfur dioxide or other preservatives is related to alcohol intolerance.  There is also sensitivity to histamines.  Histamines are produced in beer, wine, and spirits due to the fermentation process.  Histamines need ALDH to metabolize and therefore the lack of ALDH causes the allergy-like symptoms.  Food allergies can result in an intolerance to certain alcoholic beverages.  When alcohol like wine and beer is ‘fined’ or clarified with proteins like egg whites or fish bladders, allergic reactions are due to that particular process.   In addition, there are people who are gluten sensitive and allergic to wheat, rye, and barley produced alcohol.  However, careful choices in alcohol consumption will less likely to result in an allergic reaction.   Food allergies does not mean an intolerance to all alcoholic beverages like having an ALDH deficiency.

In reality many do suffer from alcohol intolerance due to genetics more specifically from Asian descent.  Also, there is a growing number who believe they are becoming alcohol intolerant.  So is alcohol intolerance degenerative?  The body’s organs do breakdown and the liver is the main organ responsible for breaking down alcohol.  Is it because one is losing ALDH or is the liver becoming more fatty?  I’m not an expert but I know I’m not the same consumer as I was twenty years ago.

There is good news on the horizon for those who suffer from Alcohol Intolerance.  An interesting read from the Wine Spectator announced a possible cure.   It would open up a whole new world to those who long to appreciate a glass of wine, chug a beer, or sip an XO cognac.  Crossing my fingers it will be available soon.


Category : Blog