Most retail wine and spirits shops follow a tried and true formula. Whether it’s prime location next to a grocery store, high product turnover and competitive prices resulting from large product buys, or expansion and brand recognition within a specific geographic area, most models have been served up before, and many fit one mold or another. In the last few decades we’ve seen retailers shift to online sales. For some it makes up a small part of their overall volume as they invest in the future of product sales as they see it. For others they provide a marketing blanket with fulfillment and sales technically taking place with the many retailers offering up distribution and supply through the marketing channel. For others its a way to reach a broader audience that’s not constrained to their geographic region.
Blake Riber, founder of Seelbach’s, an online-only spirits retailer, recognized an opportunity that was being overlooked by others - one that not just anyone else would - or even could - take advantage of.
A hint about what makes Seelbach’s different lies in the name. According to Riber, “The Seelbach’s name comes from [bartender Adam Seger] at the Seelbach Hilton in Kentucky, who found a pre-prohibition recipe in the basement of the hotel. He recreated this cocktail that he found. [And then] a couple years ago he said he made the whole story up. There are plenty of people claiming to distill and do all this stuff, but I try to get through the marketing and stories to figure out what’s actually going on.”
The concept seems simple on the surface - first, all the products are vetted by Riber and must pass his muster before being listed for sale at Seelbach’s. Second, products must also be considered “craft.” So while bourbons like Buffalo Trace or Four Roses might pass the first test, they don’t pass the second, and aside from a possible one-off single barrel selection you won’t see them for sale on Seelbach’s as a result.
Recognizing the need in the market to connect craft distillers and producers with end consumers provided the inspiration, but Riber’s background laid the groundwork.
A CPA by trade, Riber took his interest in bourbon to the next level by launching the Bourbonr app about eight years ago. Development became expensive, and eventually a blog was added that would replace the app. Intermingled with blog posts and reviews, Riber attributes a few key resources to the Bourbonr blog’s surge in popularity. Riber created Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection tracking maps - a grassroots and labor intensive effort that relied on readers to report when the spirits became available in their respective state(s), which Riber then updated manually. Mashbill breakdown graphics by distillery were also introduced, providing a much-needed and useful tool to help readers easily understand mashbills. Riding a wave of popularity within the bourbon enthusiast crowd, the Bourbonr Facebook group followed about three years ago, an interactive community that now has over 25,000 members.
The credibility Riber developed online with the bourbon community ultimately allowed him to merge what’s found in a traditional blog with the offerings of an online spirits retailer - a perfect cocktail of established trust, an organic following, and product accessibility.
But craft spirits come with a unique set of challenges - challenges not just anyone is willing to take on.
“I think craft spirits and brands have gotten a bad rap,” said Riber, as we discussed why he decided to focus on them. We’ve written about the lack of love craft bourbon has received compared to craft beer, and based on feedback it seems many would agree. While industry groups have proposed their own definitions of what qualifies as craft, there is no legal definition and room for interpretation, as we’ve previously discussed.
Riber provides descriptions and segregates products by Distillers and Blenders (i.e. non-distiller producers), in an effort to first clarify one of the key elements that should be asked of any product - did the producer distill it or did they source and blend it? This leaves room for carefully blended products that have been sourced from other distilleries, but meet other requirements allowing them to still be considered craft. “I think blending is a way overlooked thing in American Whiskey,” Riber notes.
While Riber vets and tastes every product available on Seelbach’s, he understands it’s not just about what he likes, but more about what meets a certain threshold of quality and authenticity. "I know my taste isn’t everyone’s taste…[and] I don’t put a rating on it because I know that. I’m not going to keep all smoked whiskey off the site because I don’t like it,“ said Riber. When it comes to vetting, he asks the question, “are they being honest about it? Treaty Oak calls their sourced bourbon ‘Red Handed’ [for example,] what better way to be honest and make a joke about it?”
Riber is able to work directly with producers and distillers whenever a particular product is not available through traditional distribution channels - which for craft spirits is quite often. This allows for small run craft products that might otherwise not be worth the time and effort for distributors, to find a way to reach more consumers than just those in their geographic area.
Because of the time and labor intensive nature of the procurement process, it means you won’t necessarily see an overwhelming number of products available on Seelbach’s right away. Riber is alright with that, and has set realistic expectations given his self-imposed ruleset and the fact that the company and concept is still in its infancy. July 13, 2019 will mark Seelbach’s one year anniversary.
“Seelbach’s is the ultimate combination of the past 5 years of my life...accounting and bourbon [backgrounds] crescendoing into something good. What I love doing is trying different stuff, talking with people about how they make it, and seeing what is up,” said Riber. “At this point I’m happy with [Seelbach’s] if it’s a somewhat successful small business. What more could you ask for from a whiskey nerd perspective? [However,] I’m not doing anything to halt the growth, and I won’t stop it from expanding. I’d love it to be the spot to go for all these small producers.”