Interview: Jennifer Chin of Martin Scott Wines

Martin Scott Wines is a wine and spirits distributor that I came into contact with when I was searching for Kilchoman in New York. With regards to whisky, they tend to focus on craft distillers. I met Jennifer Chin at the Balcones booth during Whisky Live and she was gracious enough to sit with me for an interview. Jennifer has an extensive background in distribution. Hopefully this interview is as enlightening for you as it was for me. Cheers!


What is your role at Martin Scott Wines?
Jennifer: My background is mainly in old world wine. Martin Scott hired me because I have a wide range of skills that they need to tap on at any time. For example if you need to run an event, I have done large conferences. I can also have conversations with people about which press people they need to meet and set them up with them. In the same conversation I can talk about strategic goals and based on what the financial objectives are, then talk about pricing and competitive analysis. I was very lucky in my career development where I got to do a lot of different things and wear a lot of different hats.The best way to describe what I do is I pick up what everyone else leaves off. My role changes on a day-to-day basis and is entirely driven by what the president of marketing wants me to do. I’m very much a consultant.

Scotland Highlands

How does spirits distribution work? In other words how does a bottle of scotch from Scotland make it to our local liquor store?
Jennifer: To keep this simple I’m going to focus on two models. The first is a traditional common model: the three tier system. [The three tiers are producers, distributors, and retailers. The basic structure of the system is that producers can sell their products only to wholesale distributors who then sell to retailers, and only retailers may sell to consumers. Importers are classified as producters.] Essentially anything alcoholic related is brought in via an importer or an importer/distributor.

What’s the difference between an Importer and a Distributor?
Jennifer: Generally speaking, an importer only brings the product into the United States. Distributors have salespeople who sell the spirits to a retail buyer or a sommelier. There are some distributors who have an importers license, but not all of them do.

What’s the process of finding and partnering with new distilleries?
Jennifer: Martin Scott started out as a fine wine company specifically focused on Burgundy. If you ask anyone about the top 10 Burgundies in the world, Martin Scott distributes a large portion of them in the NY/NJ area. There is a driving mentality behind fine wines. It’s like any other luxury product. There is a different sales approach and different level of education expected when you sell a luxury product versus a commodity. When you sell a commodity, the expectations are lower because the price is lower and all sorts of other reasons. So when you take the approach and mentality that it takes to sell a luxury good and you take a look at the producers who craft spirits, there are remarkable similarities. Martin Scott chooses to work with producers who have similar values and ethics.

Editor’s Note: A distributor looks for the proper fit in their producers. Similarly when a college basketball team is recruiting players for their system they need to look for players who are not only talented, but also fit the system. A talented shooting guard who loves to play isolation may not fit into a team who likes to run their guards off of screens. Also there a player with an attitude problem, no matter how talented may be passed by a program due to intangible fit” issues.

Jennifer: There are all sorts of tangible and intangible elements. The basic criteria that we always look for are the quality of the portfolio and the personality of the producer. Does it fit within our current set of offerings and do we feel like we can grow with them? Because this is a long-term decision. The amount of effort that it takes on both sides to build a brand is significant.

What’s the average time it takes to build a brand?
Jennifer: It entirely depends, but let’s take Balcones as an example. They started in 2008 and we launched them in New York last year (2012). Do we know how quickly their star will climb or if they will make it big? We don’t. [It’s not a fine science].

How long do you stick with a brand before you move on and cut ties?
Jennifer: It’s not that cut and dry. A good distributor acknowledges the possibility that things will not move as quickly or positively as the producer will like. A good distributor will come to the producer with a set of solutions: i.e. Here’s what’s happened. Here’s what we’ve tried. Here is what we suggest moving forward and how we’re going to work together.

How does Martin Scott earn revenue? Do they use the wholesale or consignment model?
Jennifer: The consignment model does exist, but it’s more unusual. Typically Martin Scott will make pay the producer for the spirit, then make a profit based purely on volume of sales.

Who are your favorite whisky retailers in Manhattan?
Jennifer: Some of my favorite places to go are Astor Wines, Drink up New York, Brooklyn Wine Exchange and Park Avenue Liquor. I like retailers who have a strong portfolio of craft distillers.

At the moment, what is your favorite single malt whisky?
Jennifer: Balcones. I’m a huge fan of Japanese whisky and also a big fan of traditionally made scotch whisky.

Where do you go out in Manhattan when you’re in the mood for some good whisky?
Jennifer: Rum House, Idle Hands, Flatiron Room, Maysville to name a few.

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