Empire Merchants of New York City made an internal announcement today of its forthcoming launch of Independent Spirits, a new division dedicated to craft spirits. Independent Spirits will formally launch on April 1, with 18 newly hired sales reps and three sales managers focusing on brands from about 40 suppliers, including The 86 Company, St. George Spirits, Royal Dutch Distillers, Buffalo Trace Distillery (part of its portfolio), and Compass Box Whisky. The move marks the first time a major distributor has formed and staffed a separate division dedicated exclusively to craft spirits, according to Ari Rubinstein, the new division’s director of sales.
Independent Spirits has been in the works at Empire for more than a year. “The craft and artisanal spirits segment is outpacing the general spirits category significantly,” says Rubinstein, adding that Empire executive vice president David Drucker spearheaded the project initially. “We looked at our current sales structure,” Rubinstein says, “and realized we weren’t optimizing the trend.” Rather than allowing smaller suppliers to get “lost in the shuffle” or overlooked by reps focused on bigger brands, Empire executives saw a solution in carving out an entirely separate distribution arm for the craft spirits segment. “We believe that having dedicated and commissioned salespeople will lead to the greatest focus and accountability to our craft suppliers,” says Rubinstein. “And that, in turn, will accelerate growth.”
Rubinstein adds that the move will also allow Empire’s current sales reps to focus more attention on the distributor’s bigger brands, like Brown-Forman and William Grant & Sons. “Empire is very proud of our relationships with large suppliers,” Rubinstein says. “By pulling these [smaller] brands out of the larger selling division, we clear up space for sales reps to focus on those larger brands … and at the same time, we allow these smaller brands room to grow without having to share that focus and attention.”
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To staff its new division, Empire looked to the service industry, tapping beverage directors, bar managers, and other hospitality professionals with significant spirits knowledge and experience, knowledge of cocktail development, and passion for craft products (among them, a former manager of the Dead Rabbit in New York City). Each Independent sales rep will focus on a geographic territory while working with both on- and off-premise accounts, an idea borrowed from beer distribution models that Rubinstein says will allow reps to cover more ground daily. Onboarding for the sales reps will require a month of education, tasting, and training, with all the reps earning their Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 Spirits certification in the process.
Rubinstein notes that much of Independent Spirits’ portfolio focuses on products that are “cocktail friendly,” which the company plans to highlight in its on-premise sales. “We plan on targeting a lot of menu placements,” he says, “and working together and collaborating with restaurants in order to get these products in cocktails and on menus.”
In addition to marquee suppliers like Buffalo Trace (whose portfolio includes highly allocated whiskeys like Pappy Van Winkle and George T. Stagg), Independent Spirits has also brought on some niche suppliers that the company previously couldn’t accommodate because of their small size. “In the past,” says Rubinstein, “we’ve had to turn people away because we said, ‘We don’t want you to come to us and not get focus and attention.’ But with this division, we’re able to take on some of these premier—sometimes one-off, one-SKU—suppliers that can really be like a feather in our cap.”
One of those small suppliers is Chufly, an importer of Bolivian wine and spirits. Says Tealye Long, a partner at the company, “Working with Empire’s new division will give our niche brand and handcrafted spirit, Rujero Singani, exposure to a wider audience.” This partnership, she says, “shows that even the largest distributors are taking note as to how the craft spirits market is growing and shaking up the industry.”
“We’re excited for this move by Empire Merchants,” says Mike Duggan, the CEO of Phillips Distilling Company in Minneapolis, whose brands include Prairie Organic Spirits, Tomatin Scotch, Marca Negra Mezcal, La Hechicera Rum, and Centinela Tequila. “We anticipate this increased focus on the craft spirits sector to be a big opportunity for the Phillips Distilling portfolio. Consumers value great-tasting craft brands with authentic stories. We’re looking forward to these brands being shared with customers and consumers through the hard work of this new team.”
Adds Rubinstein: “Empire has over 14,000 accounts—between hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and retail. Independent Spirits now provides an opportunity for these smaller brands to get a foot in the door, and to have a [chance] to get into those accounts.”
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Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.