Buzz Word: Gluten Free Alcohol

Gluten Free products are filling the market in many areas especially in liquor.   I truly sympathize with people who are allergic to gluten because I am a glutton for gluten especially in alcohol.  Gluten is a type of protein commonly found in rye, wheat, and barley.  But after some research,  I’ve learned that people who suffer from celiac disease do not need to worry about distilled spirits because the gluten is removed in the distillation process.  So why all the marketing for Gluten Free?

To be Gluten Free means to have a dedicated distillery or brewery that would prevent cross-contamination from a distilled product with gluten material.   Also the final product will not have added gluten additives like barley malt for coloring or flavor.   To assume that all distilled spirits are safe to consume by celiac patients is not advisable.

A couple vodkas recently added to the gluten free brand names Tito’s Vodka and Krome Vodka

Category : Blog

Wine Store that doesn’t Blog about Wine Reviews…yet

Am I the only one not getting on board about writing wine reviews?  In my business, I write just about everything else but WINE.  What’s wrong with this picture?   I love wine and I love to sell wine.  However, there is a style of writing a wine review that I have not quite expanded my vocabulary to contribute writing a blog.  My notes from an industry wine tasting reads with redundancy and a lack of creative descriptors. This is from my notes..

Artazuri Garnacha
-Juan Carlos Lopez, Winemaker
-Stainless and old oak
-nice, spicy nose
-lots of body
-91 pts. Robert Parker

Now read the winemaker’s notes regarding the same wine…

100% up to 80 year old vine Garnacha.” The Artazu project was created by the legendary winegrower Juan Carlos Lopez de la Calle of Rioja’s famous Artadi estate. The goal was to take the same quest for varietal purity that Juan seeks in Tempranillo to the Garnacha varietal.” The small village of Artazu in the northernmost zone of Navarra was chosen for its extraordinary old vines of Garnacha producing wines of dark, peppery fruit with amazing balance and soft tannins.

This Thursday, September 15, we are sampling Kosher wines.  Something I want to write about since it’s different.  If you have and opportunity on Thursday evening from 5-8pm, come down and help me write my first wine blog.

Category : Blog

A Bitter Obsession

I am obsessed about bitters. If there’s one spirit that I have to have in my personal bar other than whiskey,  it would be bitters.  I first came to love bitters when I had a bad case of hiccups.  My friend splashed Angostura bitters on a lemon wedge and that was the end of the hiccups.  The taste had an unusual, herbal bite.  I enjoyed that sensation of stimulating my saliva glands.  Now, the medicinal elixir-cure-all is a part of my dining out routine.  Some of my favorite bitters are…

Campari, an Italian aperitif, is an infusion of herbs and fruit.  Historically,  the distinctive bright red color was produced from crushed cochineal insects which carmine dye is derived.  I prefer to sip my Campari neat and after dinner.  It helps  ease digestion after a full meal.  Most fine dining restaurants will have Campari available.

Bonal, a French aperitif, is ‘an infusion of gentian, cinchona (quinine) and renown herbs of the Grand Chartreuse mountains in a Mistelle base.’  I prefer mixing Bonal with a rye whiskey.  It’s a classic cocktail that is making a come back with the rise of mixologists behind the bar.

Amaro,  an Italian digestif or after dinner drink, is a maceration of herbs, roots, bark, flowers, and citrus peels in alcohol.  The maceration is normally aged in casks to soften out the flavor.  I prefer to sip an amaro neat as well.  There are many producers of amaro and one of my favorites is Zucca.

Peychauds, originally an apothecaric tonic made famous in New Orleans, is now produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky.  Bitters are a key ingredient to the Sazerac  and Old Fashion cocktails.  Another famous and one of the oldest surviving producers of aromatic bitters is Angostura.  At one point Angostura ran into a shortage NOT because of the ingredients.  There was shortage on BOTTLES.  The worldwide shortage led to rationing and hoarding.  Problem solved, they found a new supplier and Angostura is back on track.

Cocktail Bitters, like Peychauds but with flavoring ingredients suitable for pairing with clear or brown spirits, enhance drinks with a simple dash.  For example The Bitter Truth, from Germany, has a Xocolatl Mole Bitter or Chocolate Bitters to spice up the flavor of an aged rum or reposado tequila.  The citrus bitters like lemon and grapefruit pair well with a clear spirits such as vodka, gin, and silver tequila.

September is Bourbon Heritage month.  PREP! September will creating the classic cocktails using bitters.

Category : Blog &Spirits

Don’t Stress Over the Yakudoshi, SWAM is Here to Help

“Yakudoshi means the years of calamity. This is a Japanese belief that people at the ages of yakudoshi are likely to experience misfortunes or illness. It is generally believed that men’s yakudoshi are the ages 25, 42 and 61, and for women 19, 33 and 37, though there are local and historical variations. One’s yakudoshi is measured by adding one to the actual age.”

Yakudoshi especially for males who turn 41 years old is a big deal in Hawaii.  Large parties with family and friends are expected.  Unfortunately the females don’t receive such a large celebration.   Auspicious decorations symbolizing long life, strength, and prosperity are a necessary part of the celebration.  It’s what differentiates a Yakudoshi birthday from other birthdays.  Folded red cranes and bamboo represent the more traditional symbols.

A formal Yakudoshi requires folding and stringing one thousand red cranes.  The menu would include red mochi and Tai (red fish) and the birthday male would wear a red silk robe.

Yakudoshi is a Japanese tradition that evolved to something more local.  The people of Hawaii truly embraces cultural traditions that everyone is welcomed to celebrate as their own.  At SWAM, we take the stress out of creating, finding ,and putting together Yakudoshi centerpieces and favors.  All are one of kind.  Pictured above is a one of kind main table centerpiece.  

Category : Blog

Donation Requests That Make Me MADD

Every other week, SWAM gets solicited for a donation.  SWAM is philanthropic to a certain extent. We are conscientious about who we donate to and committed to support year after year.   However, we have trouble donating to organizations that have a conflict of interest.  These organizations are admirable without a doubt, however a mass fundraising mail out without consideration about who you are soliciting to has some degree of arrogance.  SWAM recently received a request for donation letter by MADD.   I felt annoyed that this Special Interest Group would ask my small and struggling business for a donation.  You may say, how dare SWAM not support a worthwhile cause like MADD. Shame on SWAM.  Really? Look at it from a liquor business point of view.  This argument is not about drunk driving and health issues, it’s about taxes.  We may be a ‘young’ business to ‘old boy’ network of names printed on the left side of the  MADD letterhead, but we are not eager to contribute to an organization that wants to make it harder for SWAM to stay in business.  Remember, we retail in fine wine, spirits, beer, cigars, and accessories associated with them.  We don’t sell groceries, paper goods, or pharmaceuticals to offset the cost.  MADD supported the proposed Liquor Tax increase  SB1289 (Scroll down and you’ll see their letter.  Scroll more and you’ll see SWAM’s petition for Opposition).  If taxes need to be raised then everyone should pay them not just the few.

Another solicitation came from a liquor distributor asking SWAM to be the ‘sponsoring retailer’  for the American Cancer Society’s fundraising event and tried to influence me that their purchase would give my business a needed boost.  We declined the offer stating the same reason, taxes.  SWAM is proactive in our opposition towards raising taxes regarding liquor and tobacco.  We write letters to our representatives, testify at hearings, and join organizations like Cigar Rights of America.  We don’t want our effort to be in vain because we need the money.

Nonetheless, SWAM and MADD agree that drinking alcohol then driving and underage drinking are unlawful, dangerous, and preventive.  Also, we do support the fight against cancer and other illnesses.  Everyone knows someone who is fighting or lost their battle with cancer. No one is immune to health issues. We all have something worth fighting for.  We all need support from the private industry, but it could help to have someone edit the donor solicitation list before mailing out the letters.

Category : Blog

Hawaii’s Liquor Laws: A Retailer’s Explanation

At SWAM, a very common question customers ask “Can you bring in this wine or this beer?”  If I’m unfamiliar with the brand, then I would answer, “Did you find it in Hawaii?”  Normally, their answer is no.  Why can’t retailers buy direct from the winery/brewery/distillery?  If it’s a guaranteed sale and there is a consumer demand, then why not?  The answer is Hawaii follows the Three Tier System of Alcohol Distribution.   All businesses that have a Hawaii State Liquor License must abide by the law that requires  purchasing alcohol through a distributor in state.  And the distributor cannot sell directly to a consumer.

Cherry picking favorites from a brand’s portfolio is convenient for the consumer but not for the industry.  One example is many customers ask for Fat Tire Beer.  Fat Tire is one out of the 31 beers New Belgium Brewery produces.   In a business perspective, New Belgium is not going to send the distributor just the Fat Tire to sell, it’s the other beers that come with the package.   Same with wine,  a distributor commits to the winery on how many different varietals to carry and secures business placements to support the brand.  Hawaii’s geographical situation is a consideration towards cost.  Shipping product to Hawaii is expensive when factoring in the fuel surcharge, cost of refrigerated containers, and labor.  A distributor decides if it’s worth it.

There are exceptions to the law for example, wineries are allowed to sell their wines directly to the consumer.  However, don’t expect to buy the wines from the winery at a wholesale price.  A winery/brewery/distillery will create a private label for retailers and restaurants but the product still needs to be cleared through a distributor.  Why is it that only certain wineries ship to individuals in Hawaii?  In 2006, the state passed a bill regulating Direct Shipment of Wine by Wineries.  In a nutshell, if a winery wants to sell to an individual, they are required to obtain an annual permit and pay Hawaii’s General Excise Tax.  Thus, there are wineries that don’t want to pay for a permit and Hawaii’s taxes.  The winery decides if it’s worth it.

Regardless of all these laws and regulations, it’s in place to protect businesses and insure that taxes are being paid to the State of Hawaii.  It may frustrate the consumer but if having that wine or that beer is a must, there’s always an internet store or space in a visiting relative’s luggage.


Category : Blog

Shoplifters: You Have Been Warned

Everyone has experienced some degree of theft.  It doesn’t matter if it’s pennies or millions or if it’s tangible or not.  Theft is theft.  At SWAM,  theft is a seldom occurrence but never underestimated.  Many have asked about this sign and if the sign is true. Yes, it is true and perhaps it’s an experience worth sharing.

When I realized I was a victim,  I was extremely anxious and pissed off.  However, it did prepare me to make changes to the store, imagine scenarios that would help me visualize a plan of reaction, and learn about the painstaking process of the judicial system.

In 2008,  a charming, Sunday dressed couple shoplifted from my store not once but twice during the year.  We knew this couple would be back so we studied the surveillance video and secured the potential items of interest.  Sure enough, they were back.  Without even knowing it, a friendly regular assisted us by answering all the distracting questions from the male partner.  Mom was able to watch the female and I called 911.  Then Mom courageously followed them out and got their license plate number. It wasn’t too long before the detectives found the owner  of the vehicle, the female partner.

Identifying her in a photo line up was extremely difficult, especially when they were all crack addicts and very different from what she looked like now.  Nevertheless, the woman was identified and swiftly arrested, but she never gave up her partner.  Trial was the most frustrating part of the process.  Continuance after continuance from both sides to prepare their case would make any witness give up and not show up for court.  Giving up was not an option.

Things happen for a reason, even if we don’t know what it is.   ~unknown

She may not be a rat but her partner was an idiot.  One fateful day at court, her partner sat right next to her in the courtroom.  I asked the prosecutor if I could make a ‘citizen’s arrest.’  With the help of the HPD officers, he was identified and arrested at the courthouse.  In cuffs, he was blabbering on that I was a liar and he’d never been to my store.  My emotions skyrocketed to a level of anger that I never want to experience again.  Calling me a liar? He was caught on video stealing a 40 year old port! I wanted to slap his smug, arrogant face and rip the hair of out her head when she came out of the courtroom to glare at me.  If not for the coincidental bystander who just happened to be there and to distract my attention by preaching the gospel to me, I might have been arrested as well.   It was so surreal, so emotional, and so empowering.  I never had any one arrested before but this was just unbelievable.

After a year and him jumping bail, it ended.  Convictions for both.  No jail time for her, just drug treatment.  Minimal jail time for him with drug treatment.   Was it worth it?  Hell yeah!  I come to work everyday knowing that SWAM got justice.  Commit a crime at SWAM,  you will be prosecuted, and you will be convicted.  Plain and simple…don’t do it and we’ll live happier lives.


That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.  The time is always right to do the right thing.   ~ Dr. Martin Luther King

Category : Blog

Branching Out and Changing Directions

Don’t let the title fool into thinking SWAM is expanding or changing directions. A little foreshadowing? Well..not yet. This is just an article on a pair of individuals with a common direction and a motivation to change.

In my business, I meet a lot of diverse people. On the more professional level, I also meet many passionate oenophiles but not quite like this duo. Meet Patrick Okubo and Elton Nichols, who I first met through an informal industry wine tasting.  At that time all I knew that they were two hard-core wine enthusiasts who loved to study about wine. Because of all that studying, they achieved certifications at a level that very few pass and will continue on to one day become Master Sommeliers. Today, they are advance sommeliers with an ease of explaining the intricacies of wine speak. Just listen to their radio show on Saturdays at 11 am on Honolulu’s Money Radio AM760, A Perfect Sip. They are not just a pair of wine geeks who talk on the radio. They are perfecting their wit and knowledge to be the next generation of Gary Vaynerchuk’s, The Wine Library, the most successful video blog about wine. With the success of their own show, Patrick and Elton are branching out into the direction of phone apps, twitter updates, iTunes and YouTube downloads and of course…blogs. I know their genuine love for wine and spirits have not made them into snobs but rather the Perfect Spokesmen.

Meet Russel Kealoha and Bully O’Sullivan of the Two Beer Queers, who all ready achieved success through their video podcast. From the short time that I’ve known them, I’ve witnessed their popularity sky rocket. I first met Russel and Bully on a Two Beer Queer beer run to SWAM. I had no idea that they were involved in a video podcast about beer. They were very low-key and didn’t clue me in until 13 episodes later. Using their techno-know-how, the Two Beer Queers paved their way into the social media limelight by creating their own iPhone app, interviewing the hot shots in the beer-world, and making public appearances with newsmakers and party people. Keep in mind this is just a hobby to them. The Two Beer Queers produced over 5o episodes and still going, but now are moving into other avenues of point of view. Just read Russel’s blog Awesome Online Money Making Blog. Changing gears have opened up the duo to experience more than just reviewing beer (belch) and I like where they’re going.

Both dynamic duos have influenced a direction in my business.  Watching their growth and accomplishments can only be worth following.

Category : Blog

Groupon: Reflections of a Business Owner

This morning Russel Kealoha posted on Facebook an interesting article regarding Groupon. I went further and read the blog in her own words.

I can relate to her experience with Groupon and credit her for posting it. Business owners are apprehensive to share mistakes especially in a public forum where we can be criticized as being whinny, unappreciative, and idiotic. After reading some of the comments posted, the blacklash can be overwhelming.

So what do I think about Groupon? It has an upside and a downside. On the up, unlike traditional advertising, I instantly recognized what brought this customer to my store. I’ve gained new customers and awareness of our location. My Yelp reviews, Google Search, and Facebook Page ‘Likes’ have increased. More traffic was directed to my website which led me to update and revise the site. I’ve sold some hard-to-move inventory. I’ve given my customers an opportunity to buy a gift certificate at 50% off.

On the flip side, SWAM is a retailer in a competitive business which solely retails liquor and tobacco. Price margins are very important. Thank goodness for Mom, I don’t have a payroll. Because of our low overhead, we can be competitive with pricing. Competitive pricing means lowering the profit margin. No other liquor store in Hawaii has done a Groupon and that is why. Why did I do it? For the same reasons Posie Cafe did it. I’ve been told Groupon customers will spend more than the Groupon value. After five months in, I don’t agree with that sales pitch. I should have known better when I noticed the shopping habits of my own mother. On a deal, she rarely buys 10% over the minimum purchase. If the coupon states ‘get $10 off on purchase of $30 or more,’ she’ll cleverly buy as much as she can and stay at the minimum. For SWAM, it’s an ‘Ouch’ moment and I’ve experienced many ouch moments.

Another experience is the amount of time spent reconciling the redeemed Groupons. It’s our responsibility to be vigilant on duplicate printed Groupons. Manually imputing the data helps to keep track of spending patterns and outstanding Groupons. So far, I have not witnessed intentional Groupon fraud but I did see duplicates in a customer’s possesion that have been redeemed. I politely reminded them not to use them.

Also, I have not encountered the expired Groupon experience or the impending rush upon its expiration. In Hawaii, there is a gift certificate law that requires a minimum two-year expiration date. Groupon does make clear that once it’s expired, the Groupon can only be redeemed for what you paid.

Fair Warning to all who have outstanding Groupons for SWAM. The expiration date is August 8, 2011 at 8:00pm from then on the Groupon will be worth $10 until August 8, 2013.

Overall, the experience of Groupon was worthwhile. Will I ever have another Groupon or Groupon like promotion? The simple answer is … no.

Category : Blog

Allocated Schmalloacted


Allocated wines or beers in the fine wine business are like having aces in your poker hand. You want them but they’re not always dealt to you.

So what does ALLOCATED mean? By SWAM’s definition, it means setting aside desirable and limited items to qualified businesses or individuals. For example, a ‘mailing list allocation’ usually implies to individual consumers. Wine clubs normally offer an allocation of their exclusive wines to their best customers. Being on an ‘elite’ mailing list for some is a status symbol but it comes with a hefty price tag.  Mark was once on the Harlan Estate mailing list. He skipped his allocation one year because the wine had become unaffordable. Then the following year he did not receive an allocation notice. Go figure.


Category : Blog