I had the privilege to engage in a Q&A with the Senior Vice President of Martignetti Companies (Parent company of Classic Imports). Gary Keimach is leading the Company’s national initiative as an importer and supplier of fine spirits for Classic Imports. Classic Imports is responsible for three single malt whisky brands: Benromach, Brenne and Gordon & MacPhail. Read on and gain some insight into the thought process of a spirits importer.
Take us through Classic Imports’ process of finding and partnering with a distillery, importing their product and and ultimately grow their brand in the US
Gary: Quality liquid is the primary factor. Beyond that, we are interested in representing products with a pedigree / history which have significant points of difference within their competitive set. Packaging is also important.
What is the average time it takes to build a brand?
G: No blueprint but it takes a long time. Some of today’s ‘hot brands’ like Patron have been around for over 20 years. Tito’s Vodka, for example, has been in business a long time but many look at it as an overnight success.
In your portfolio you have an established distillery (Benromach) an independent bottler (Gordon & MacPhail) and a new world whisky (Brenne). What’s the strategy behind this diversity?
G: Again, the common threads are quality and points of difference within the single malt category.
Does Classic-Imports have plans to add any new brands to your portfolio in the near future?
G: Yes we are seeking new partnerships but will be highly selective in making these choices. We have the infrastructure in place to help establish brands in all key markets throughout the U.S. Classic Imports will continue to invest in additional resources as we form new alliances.
Other than flavor and quality of the spirits, what attracts you to a certain brand of whisky?
G: Packaging, pedigree, points of difference, competitive set.
Where does single malt whisky rank in the US spirits market? Is vodka still the dominant spirit? Is single malt whisky increasing it’s market share?
G: Single malt is a relatively small but growing category. Most scotch whisky sold in the U.S. and world wide is blended scotch whisky (still about a 9:1 ratio between blended and single malt in terms of sales). Other countries have jumped into the single malt category in a big way which will continue to fuel awareness and trial. Brown spirits, in general, is having a strong resurgence. The bourbon category in the U.S. is on fire! Rye is coming back in a big way. Vodka is still the #1 category.
Where do you see whisky trending in the next five to ten years? (e.g. are prices going to increase as labels rebrand themselves as luxury brand)
G: Yes the growth seems to be continuing and yes prices should increase. Re-branding is part of the story but the supply/demand continuum is also driving prices up.
Is it true that Scottish distilleries are unable to keep up with demand for older whiskies thus we are seeing a trend of no age statement (NAS) whisky and recent investment by alcoholic beverage conglomerates into increasing production (Diageo, Macallan, Pernard Ricard etc)
G: We are dealing with a product which needs to age for many years before it is ready for release. If worldwide demand continues at its current growth, older vintages, especially for years in which stocks were low could create shortages. (i.e, availability of, and decisions made, for distillate produced 21 years ago could cause a negative supply bubble for whiskies in the 18-21 year range over the next few years.)
At the moment, what is your favorite single malt whisky?
G: I cannot give an answer to this. I have many ‘favorites’. If I was to choose one, in particular, it would be looked as either shameless self-promotion, or unfair to one of the other fine whiskies available not chosen. Personally, it is more about the occasion and how the profile of the whisky fits that occasion.