This advertising content was produced in collaboration with our partner, Winebow Fine Wine + Spirits.
The word “wine” is enmeshed in the very name of Winebow, which has become known for its high-quality portfolio of the world’s best wines. After all, celebrating wine made sense in 1980 when the wholesaler began importing fine Italian wine to America, focusing on quality products from producers of great integrity.
But as a decade passed, Winebow’s portfolio carefully expanded to include spirits in 1992—in particular Mexican agave spirits and American whiskeys, spurring a 2019 rebrand. Now the company is known as Winebow Fine Wine + Spirits, better reflecting its dynamic portfolio led by Jessica Partington and Monique Huston.
You can call them kindred spirits.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning newsletters and get insider intel, resources, and trends delivered to your inbox every week.
“It’s the most perfect work relationship that I’ve experienced,” says Partington, the vice president of spirits sales for wholesale markets. She works hand-in-glove with Huston, the vice president of the spirits portfolio for wholesale markets, to bring trend-defining smoky mezcal, small-lot American whiskey, and rarely tasted Japanese shochu, whiskey, and rum, as well as mainstays from partners like Sazerac, St. George Spirits, Breckenridge, and Haus Alpenz, to bartenders and liquor stores across America.
A Work Partnership Rooted in the Bar
Huston first embraced the spirits profession more than two decades ago in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Dundee Dell, where she oversaw the world’s largest collection of single-malt Scotch whisky. In time, the erudite whisky expert judged international spirits competitions and joined the exclusive Keepers of the Quaich, recognizing her commitment to Scotch whisky. This sparked a smoldering interest in Mexican agave spirits that speak loudly of terroir.
Growing up in Kentucky, Partington was steeped in bourbon and salesmanship, selling cars as a 16-year-old. In Lexington, she worked at the Horse & Barrel Pub, a now-defunct bar with more than 200 bourbons. Her grandma was a Heaven Hill Distillery tour guide and introduced her to Parker Beam, a scion of the famous distilling family. She moved to New York City and landed a job at Idle Hands, a downtown bar focusing on craft beer and bourbon.
“Tuesday nights were ‘Bourbon With Jess,’ and I would lead an educational flight tasting,” says Partington. Following her grandma’s footsteps, she went to work for Heaven Hill and sold some of the best-known tequila and whiskey brands to bars across New York City.
“Our backgrounds are very different from any other vice presidents,” says Partington, emphasizing that their shared experiences help them better understand the needs of distillers, sales consultants, and customers alike. “Monique and I both worked behind the bar, and I think that’s probably why we respect each other.” When you’re working the bar with somebody, there’s an art to anticipating when someone might need a specific bottle, handing it off to complete a job.
“She and I are definitely one plus one equals three, four, or five,” says Huston, who began at Winebow in 2015.
Dividing Duties Between Front-of-House and Back-of-House
The vice presidents approach their partnership from a hospitality mindset. “She’s more back of the house, and I’m front of the house,” says Partington, who started at Winebow in 2019. “Those two areas have to work simultaneously together.”
Huston handles the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting. “I’ve got a fabulous team of people that makes sure that we have the right product mix in the right amounts, with the education, pricing, inventory and tools to support it,” says Huston. “Just like a kitchen would, we take this beautiful finished product that is the portfolio and hand it to Jess and her team.”
Consider it knowing your competencies. “I can geek out about [spirits], but I understand we are a sales and distribution company,” Huston says. “I’ve learned more in the past two years from working alongside Jessica than at any other point.”
Partington’s team is composed of spirit specialists supporting sales consultants spread across the country. “We do not call them sales reps,” she says of the consultant title. “They’re consulting with what buyers need.” The educated specialists, many hailing from bartending and retail backgrounds, and consultants work in tandem to smartly communicate a brand’s bonafides and discuss what’s trending. Try this tequila, and the next great cocktail might be an arm’s length away.
“It’s fine to have the portfolio, but if we can’t sell it, track it, and push a team out there to tell the distillers stories, then who cares?” notes Huston.
Investing in Agave Early
Winebow attaches its impressive spirits portfolio to three main anchors: agave spirits, American whiskeys, and Japanese spirits.
The typical distributor allocates around 40 percent of its portfolio to vodka, Partington says. At Winebow, one third is allocated to agave, a reflection on Winebow’s forward-looking approach to the category.
In the late 1990s, Winebow brought to New York City one of the first premium mezcals to be distributed in the market. “[Executive vice president of spirits] Richard Driscoll had a vision that a smoky, funky spirit would be the ‘it thing,’” says Partington.
A quarter-century later, Winebow continues to nurture relationships with compelling independent agave producers. A select sampling includes the traceable, traditional, and terroir-rich tequilas and mezcals of Siembra Spirits, the company started by tequila advocate and Philadelphia restaurateur David Suro-Piñera. Another estimable brand is Tequila Fortaleza; fifth-generation owner Guillermo Erickson Sauza makes tequilas according to time-tested traditions including cooking agave in brick ovens and fermenting in wooden tanks. Winebow also offers agave spirits from Haas Brothers, the San Francisco marketer, merchant, and importer of Cimarrón Tequila.
“Every bartender should be pouring Cimarrón at their bar,” Partington says of the bright blanco tequila.
Up-and-Coming American Whiskeys
This is a golden age for American whiskey, and Winebow prides itself on selecting up-and-coming producers ideal for any list. “We’re able to work with producers that are really in it for that passion and that drive,” says Partington.
Standouts include Milam & Greene Whiskey, the women-run Blanco, Texas, distillery from entrepreneur Marsha Milam, whiskey savant Heather Greene, and master distiller Marlene Holmes. There’s also J. Rieger & Co., a revived pre-Prohibition brand from Kansas City, Missouri, which manufactures some of the Midwest’s most nuanced whiskey.
Huston and Partington are extremely proud of Field & Sound, a bottled-in-bond bourbon from seafaring Long Island Spirits, in collaboration with Winebow. “It has a beautiful salty, maritime quality,” Huston says.
A New Interest in Japanese Spirits
Some importers might take a winning bet on tequila and mezcal and coast on those accolades. “At Winebow, we have to stay ahead of the game,” Partington says. “We have to think five years from now.”
Winebow is casting an expectant eye to the spirits of Japan, looking beyond the country’s corporate whiskey and seeking out smaller producers and overlooked fermentations. “Only one to two percent of shōchū is exported from Japan,” Partington says of the spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, rice, buckwheat, and more.
To build knowledge of indigenous rum and gin, intriguing shōchū, and whiskey producers such as Fuji, Takamine, and Kaiyō, which ages whiskey in native mizunara oak, Winebow’s team spent eight months writing its education program. “Our team was on weekly calls with Japan,” Huston says, learning proper pronunciation and the inside-out of distilleries and their spirits. In 2021, Winebow premiered two luxury Japanese whisky brands to the U.S. market: Fuji and Takamine.
Adds Partington, “Some of these distilleries have been around Japan for generations. But to be able to give them a home in the U.S. is so rewarding.”
Building upon its long history of selling great spirits, the future for Winebow only looks more promising—and delicious.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.