Industry Insiders: Steven Abt, Co-founder of Caskers.com
Last fall, Steven Abt and partner Moiz Ali launched Caskers.com, a website that sells small-batch spirits like whiskey, gin, and vodka by featuring one a day–along with the history behind it. "The idea is to understand what you’re buying, so if you’re having a party you can tell the story of the distiller," Abt explains. "That reflects on you, and makes you look cool." We chatted with Abt to get the lowdown on the company’s unique business model and find out where he likes to go to research new product offerings. Take a look.
What’s your background?
I’m a former lawyer, and like most lawyers I enjoyed a drink from time to time. I’ve always been fascinated with craft products generally, and spirits specifically. Traveling around the country, I noticed that there are some products that are really good that you can’t get in California, only in New York, and there are certain products that you can’t get in New York, only in California. That’s an issue with the distribution network with spirits, and the fact these small craft brands don’t have much of a marketing budget. So I had this idea, along with Moiz, to figure out a way to spread the word about the better products we had tasted. The spirits we feature each have a story to tell, and we do that by telling the story of the master distiller. The idea hatched for a way to let people get to them.
How did the company come together as an invitation-only website?
You walk into a liquor store, and even if it’s a good liquor store, they have a ton of products. If you don’t know what you want, if you haven’t heard of something, it’s hard to discover a new product. We didn’t just want to be a site that has every craft liquor under the sun. With that, you’ve solved the availability problem but you haven’t solved the discovery problem because you’re overwhelming people with choice. We send out a daily email, and we have products that are featured for about two weeks. We give you a little hint of the story in the email, and you can click on it and read more, but that way it’s not taking too much of your time. If we put up 100 products it would take hours to go through. But one per day is a bit more manageable, and you can actually understand what you’re buying.
What are your most popular spirits?
Bourbon is the most popular. We’ve had a couple of vodkas that have done extremely well, and gin. There are people who are making sipping vodkas now. We taste everything before we put it up. When I’m drinking for fun, it’s usually rye whiskey. We’ve got one now called Catoctin Creek from Virginia that’s really good. I’m originally from Philadelphia, and there’s a burgeoning craft spirit industry in Pennsylvania. Out in Pittsburgh they make Boyd & Blair vodka, which has been named best vodka in the world twice. It’s our best selling vodka.
How often are new spirits added?
One spirit a day on weekdays, which is available for two weeks. We work with fulfillers around the country. We don’t take inventory, which helps us with startup costs. It’s a free membership, and you can purchase as much as you like.
Why are you guys the first to take advantage of this business model for spirits?
The regulatory maze we have to navigate scared a lot of people off. That’s where my three years of law school come in. We work within the traditional three-tier system, so all of our products go through distributors, with rare exceptions. In New York, distillers are allowed to sell directly to retailers, but that’s pretty much it.
Why do you like working with craft distillers so much?
These are people who quit their jobs to do what they love. It’s their passion, and they’re extremely proud of what they do. We’ve gotten so many emails from customers saying "This is a fantastic product." We forward those emails to them and it makes their week. They love the exposure and, of course, they like selling their product.
Are spirits geeks your core customers?
The biggest core group is people with an intermediate knowledge of spirits. And then there’s they hipster type and the local organic lover who wants all his products to be handmade and locally sourced. And all of our products are like that.
What bars do you like to visit for tasting spirits?
My favorite place in New York for trying new things is Rye House on 17th Street. They have a ton of rye and pretty much everything else. It’s a great bar with knowledgeable bartenders. And there’s Employees Only, of course. They make the best cocktails.
Into high-quality spirits? Then sign up for a Caskers account. Visit www.caskers.com/register and enter invitation code BLACKBOOK.