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First Fill Spirits’ Story in Relish Whisky Magazine

Published April 15, 2022

Written by Holly for Relish Whisky Magazine.

The journey I have been on from my first days fresh out of college to now owning a brick-and-mortar, boutique whiskey shop has been an ironic one. With Amazon and the other e-commerce goliaths in the world, brick and mortar have been dying a slow death for well over a decade now. My career before whiskey was designing and manufacturing luxury retail store environments for a Swiss watch and jewelry company. After a few years of jetting around the world building storefronts, I could see the writing on the wall, retail was not the future. On the flip side, I also noticed how fast online marketplaces in our industry were growing. With this sort of quick growth though, it can leave windows of opportunity for those consumers that want the personal touch and engagement, a community to be a part of.  

While working in retail store design, I observed that whisky was the drink of choice while out to dinner with clients. I quickly found whisky to be my drink of choice as well, particularly peated Scotch. I loved savoring the aromas and unpacking the bold taste. My new interest in whisky quickly developed into a hobby as I found myself drinking everything from Speyside whiskies to Bourbons and Ryes. 

One evening in Oakland California, as my roommate and I were sipping Lagavulin 16, we began chatting about careers and the next steps in our lives and I realized I had to make a change. I did not want to witness the decline of retail firsthand. My roommate and I, now bot a few drams deep, decided I should work in whisky. My friends always turned to me to pick out their next pour or tell them what rye should go in their Manhattan. I stopped in the bookstore the next day and picked up my first, and still my favorite, whiskey book: “Whiskey” by Michael Jackson. 

After marking it up and re-reading it multiple times, I knew I was ready to level up in the whiskey world. I got on the internet and started researching whiskey education programs. Mind you, this was back in 2015 and if you weren’t in Kentucky near the Bourbon Trail, it was difficult to find anything of substance. Educational opportunities within spirits and whiskey in particular have exploded in recent years, but I was a bit too early. I kept returning to the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) because at least it had spirits in the name. After a few phone calls, I was registered for the next set of classes at UC Davis. After just a few weekends of study and classes, I should have known that a program like this in California wine country would be focused on alcohol produced from grapes and I wasn’t there to learn about wine. 

Frustrated, I leaned upon advice from my father: “if you just show up, you’ve already beat out most people”. Taking the first step towards something gets you closer to your goal than you think. I decided I needed to pack my bags and go to these whisky distilleries to absorb everything I could. I wanted to meet these people, and learn their processes to truly get my foot in the door and see where I wanted to be within the industry. I pulled out a sheet of paper and started planning a worldwide tour to experience as many distilleries as possible. It would become a syllabus of sorts for what I would call my “whiskey master’s program”. Off I went diving in the whisky world with a backpack and empty notebooks. 

Scotland would be the first stop on my tour de whisky since it was my first true love. Next was Ireland, Japan, Tasmania and then wrapping up back home in the United States – mainly Kentucky and Tennessee. With my life packed into my 70-liter hiking backpack, I was ready to go. I stayed at Airbnbs where I could rent out a single room (more privacy than a hostel) but still would have the opportunity to meet locals who could potentially ease the loneliness of solo travel. There was also the chance that my hosts may be connected to the whiskey world themselves, especially in rural parts of Scotland and Ireland. 

Throughout my travels, I was able to visit and document well over 100 distilleries, and even intern at two of them! The capstone of my travels was earning my Certificate in Distillation from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling through Midleton Distillery in Ireland. Because of this program, I connected with and formed many friendships, both within and beyond the whiskey industry. Everyone from distillers to marketing managers all the way through to grain merchants. Anyone who would talk to me, I was there ready with my notebook in hand and questions to match. I documented all of this through a blog and Instagram account, “Her Whisky Love”. I didn’t realize it at the time but eventually, people would ask if I was retracing the steps of the beloved Alfred Barnard book from the late 1800s called “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom”. It was not my original plan to impersonate this man on horse and buggy from the 1800s, traveling around Scotland meeting excise men and telling distillery tales, but our journeys did have a lot in common. 

I was fortunate to secure a job when I returned from my travels – thanks to my passion for whisky and the following I had built on social media. I moved to Boston upon my return and worked as the whiskey specialist for a small, family chain of liquor stores in Massachusetts. From there I was asked to join the Bacardi team to re-launch and shine a light on their single malt brands. The single malts that I was responsible for within North America included Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Aultmore, Royal Brackla, and The Deveron. Both of these roles were fantastic and taught me an invaluable amount about the struggles that exist for any small brand trying to make it here in the United States. The major hurdles are the three-tier system and the fact that every state enforces its own liquor laws. Why weren’t all of the small brands I saw during my travels even trying to be represented here in the United States? Or if they did make their way here, they were underrepresented and left to fade away on a shelf where it didn’t belong.  

Between independent bottlers, small craft producers in The United States, and New World Whisky, I had seen and tasted so many different styles of whiskey on my travels that I knew there had to be a better way to market these small brands. Then it hit me – the best way to go about telling the stories of these mostly unheard-of distilleries was by channeling my old ways, a true hand-sell, at a brick-and-mortar store. I feel there is something emotional about whiskey, a fiery passion that wants to be fed, and if there is someone there to guide you then you have something truly magical. First Fill Spirits is where our passion is met with quality products and education. This is how my business and store came to be. In an interesting way, I felt as if First Fill Spirits was a reincarnation of some of my favorite brands and independent bottlers from Scotland that started as small shops and merchants. Those seemed to work out okay, giving us fantastic whiskey brands such as Gordon & MacPhail along with others we love to explore even today. My good friend Charles (who I met at a distillery in Kentucky!) and I both share a passion for underrated, underrepresented brands that deserve more attention. We keep our focus away from the mainstream whiskey scene, and rather on whiskey that we feel is fantastic but not getting the recognition it deserves on a random liquor store shelf. We feel there is no such thing as a bad whiskey and I absolutely enjoy a mainstream pour every once and a while but these larger brands can afford to play with the big chain stores and execute massive marketing campaigns, while note every emerging brand can. 

At our shop, First Fill Spirits in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, you will find different sections that take you on a quick trip around the globe. We start with an area for Scotch Whisky lovers, lined with independent bottlers, blended malts, alternative blended Scotch, and many of the newer Scotch Whisky distilleries such as Ardnamurchan and Wolfburn. Next, we have the North American Whiskey section which is sprawling with Bourbon from all over the country, not to mention Rye, American Single Malt, Canadian Whiskey, and even light whiskey. Pick one to sample, take a seat on our Terra Cotta orange couch, and open one of our educational books to learn something new. As we continue on your quick whiskey trip through time, we also have choice selections from Ireland, Japan, Canada, and beyond. Finally, we have our new world section! This section is a labor of love for me; we have fantastic whisky coming from all over the world including Germany, Poland, Denmark, India, and more. I love seeing the shock and awe on people’s faces when they look at where all of these bottles come from. For some added flare we also have all of our personally chosen shop exclusive single barrels which are a true reflection of Charles and my palates; we love sharing our experiences with our customers and this is a great way to do that. 

With all of this, you’d think it would be difficult to service a large number of customers. It can be daunting but we are passionate about providing the education and guidance that people crave, but don’t have time to find in piecemeal articles or unreliable online stores. We want to help our customers become that person who will go on to guide their own group of friends and bring them into our community of alternative whisky, recruiting people who are looking to challenge their palates and push the boundaries of the industry bottle at a time. I have not forgotten about the demise of retail within many industries in my past life; we have invested a lot of time and energy into our e-commerce platform. Charles and I have spent many hours and weeks developing and fine-tuning our website, truly making it an extension of the store, a reflection of us complete with our tasting notes, personal opinions on why we stock that bottle, and all of the details you could ever think to ask about a particular whisky. 

We strive to be the launchpad for brands that have spent decades working to perfect their craft and create their vision of a perfect whiskey. I hope they now know their whiskey is safe with us and we intend to show them to the world. It won’t just gather dust on a shelf because no one at the store knows how to talk about it or they didn’t have the marketing budget for a brand ambassador. We are their home; their mini brand ambassadors. We have it on our shelves because we believe in it – let us show the world how great these whiskies are!