That's the Spirits
It’s not all about the vintage For Berkshire liquor shops
Most Berkshire towns, save for maybe a few of the remotest hamlets, are close to capacity with their liquor license allotments. More than 50 package stores, wine cellars, and discount retailers dot the map from Sheffield to North Adams, each presumably with its own loyal clientele looking for spirits to chase away the seasonal gray. But John Kelly isn’t sitting idly, hoping that people will walk in the door.
“I grew up in the business, and I understand the parameters of what’s going on,” says Kelly as he and his team ready for a wine-tasting dinner at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket.
Kelly’s Package Store doesn’t just sell liquor over the counter from its Dalton location; it offers a full-bar mobile catering service for area events and co-hosts dinners at restaurants throughout the county, including Italian wines at the Cork & Hearth, French wines at Chez Nous, and beer vs. wine at Dewey Public House. For whiskey fans, Berkshire mixologists are invited to Kelly’s to work their magic on a Friday night.
“If you’re going to succeed, you need to be ahead of the next iteration of what’s going to happen in this marketplace,” says Kelly. “This industry is changing rapidly.”
The package store has been around since 1951, and this third-generation owner/manager watched his grandfather and father run it with a no-nonsense, traditional hand. Times have changed, though. “The business has evolved to allow me to offer people, well—fun! I mean, 68 years ago, this was a small community store in an active mill town.”
They are no longer taking 50-case orders for oversized bottles of Zinfandel and Jim Beam and other mass-produced spirits, although—they’re not crazy—there’s still plenty of Bud Light and Coors in stock. The demand for trending craft brews and artisan liquors, most with bespoke, narrative-driven branding; a much savvier, curious consumer are shaping how Kelly does business.
“Millennials and Gen Xers are dictating to the industry about what they want,” says Kelly. “They find a small-batch bourbon they want to try and they’re seeking validation that it’s a good bourbon or a wine or a beer. And they come here—we have customers from Philly to upstate New York—and really take their time.”
Social media has been a powerful driving force for getting millennials and just about everyone else through the door at the recently renovated and reopened South Egremont Spirit Shoppe. New owners Tom Morrison, former “wine guy” at Spirited in Lenox, and Dan Thomas, a ten-year veteran sommelier at the Red Lion Inn, know not to rely on foot traffic. The town may be sleepy, but it’s ready for an anchor, and spirits might be just the thing. But the challenge to draw customers is even here, despite the location (on Route 23) and its proximity to the New York border (just a few miles away). Bringing people into this historic retail space requires wit, interesting events, and Instagram.
“Wine is the intersect with other things," says Morrison. "That’s how we draw people in.” So are wine-isms scrawled on a sandwich board and posted on Instagram, such as “This is a sign you need wine.” They are already starting to host events in the empty gallery space that abuts the shop—there is a holiday wreath-making and wine tasting event with the gents at Township Four floral design on November 30 and December 14, and their Friday night tastings are seeing a lot of faces.
The alchemy of learning and light partying (or “friends making” as Morrison calls it) is the secret to success among many spirit shops. Nejaime’s Wine Cellars is a mainstay for Tanglewood picnickers in need of gourmet snacks with their spirits. (They also create serious holiday baskets.) In Williamstown, The Spirit Shop caters to its clientele, with more beer tastings and a delivery service to both MCLA and Williams College students for impromptu parties and events. During wintertime, many vineyard managers travel from their headquarters—France, Italy, Napa and other locations—to visit their loyal distributors. Oftentimes, these savvy out-of-towners present their spirits at in-store tastings and off-site pairing dinners at local restaurants.
“People ask, ‘What’s a good wine to bring to a dinner?’ and yes, there are a million different wines to pair with different foods,” says Morrison. “The best glass of wine, or the best beer, or the best scotch, is that way because of the people you’re with.”