Since opening its doors in Louisville, Kentucky, nine years ago, Westport Whiskey & Wine has built a reputation on providing customers with one-of-a-kind products and experiences. Co-owners Chris Zaborowski and Richard Splan like to say they’re in the hospitality business, but run a retail store.
A consistent stream of events and tastings hosted by Westport bring in curious visitors from all over the country, while seminars offer lessons on everything from mead to high-end Champagnes. But most importantly, Zaborowski and Splan make sure to keep their discerning customers happy with a first-rate whisk(e)y program. For building a vibrant whisk(e)y destination in the heart of Bourbon country, Chris Zaborowski and Richard Splan have been named Market Watch Leaders.
The idea for the store emerged from a friendship that sparked when Splan took Zaborowski’s wine class at Louisville’s Bellarmine College (now Bellarmine University). With a background in financial services and an enthusiasm for wine and spirits, Splan provided funding for the store, while Zaborowski—who had extensive industry experience—took on operations. Zaborowski got his start in wine and spirits working a part-time job at a liquor store while in graduate school for biochemistry at the University of Louisville. He later spent 21 years in the wholesale business before serving as a regional beverage alcohol manager for the SuperValu grocery chain, all the while still teaching wine and spirits classes.
Though the owners originally planned on purchasing an existing store, they saw an opportunity in the newly renovated Westport Village shopping center. The 3,800-square-foot space includes a 2,700-square-foot sales floor and about 900 square feet dedicated to the tasting room, as well as offices. With a selection of more than 9,000 wines, 2,100 spirits and 300 beer SKUs, Westport sees many neighborhood customers in addition to wine and spirits enthusiasts from across state lines. “We’ve been able to expand our footprint to more than just the neighborhood,” says Zaborowski. “We have a lot of new people who come in because they want to learn.” He and Splan make a point to invest in their staff, who are required to earn a Bourbon Steward Certification. Several members of the current 11-person team are also working on wine certifications.
Such efforts have helped Westport’s revenues increase every year it’s been in business. In 2014, sales grew 18 percent, followed by 9 percent in 2015. Then last fall, the opening of a 25,000-square-foot Total Wine & More two miles from Westport Village shook up the local marketplace. Initially, the new competitor had a profound effect on business, with annual growth slowing to 2 percent based off November and December sales. But Zaborowski and Splan were quick to respond to the new retail landscape and have kept growth in positive territory so far this year. “We had to rethink what our strengths are because we’re never going to be Total Wine,” Zaborowski says. “We have a healthy wine business, but it did take a good hit. However, the spirits category is growing phenomenally.”
Providing an exceptional spirits selection turned into a top priority, and Westport’s ratio of wine to spirits shifted dramatically in 2016. Upon opening in 2008, wine made up 65 percent of Westport’s sales, but following Total Wine’s Louisville debut, it was reduced to 40 percent. Spirits sales now make up 50 percent of sales, and beer comprises 6 percent. “I’ll err on bringing in a new whisk(e)y faster than anything else because we want to be noted for that,” Zaborowski says.
Single Barrel Standouts
Being a Kentucky retailer, Westport prioritizes its whisk(e)y selection, which makes up more than half of its spirits sales. Single barrel whiskies are the main driver. In 2016, Westport offered 25 single barrel whiskies, increasing to around 35 this year. Westport’s current single barrel selections include Maker’s Mark Private Selection #4 ($69.99 a 750-ml.), Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel #16-60 ($64.99), Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel #17-002 ($56.99) and Four Roses OESO Barrel Strength ($69.99).
Zaborowski is very active in selecting barrels, and as a result, many consumers have come to count on his choices for a certain taste profile. “When we get a new barrel in, we send out an email and instantly 30 to 50 people come in because they know the whiskey Chris picks is of a certain standard,” Splan says. But occasionally he’ll mix it up to keep things from getting boring. This year’s first four Maker’s Mark barrels feature entirely different profiles from barrel #5, which will be released in November.
While Bourbon plays an important role in Westport’s success, Zaborowski also highlights single malt Scotch in his whisk(e)y assortment. Glenmorangie 10-year-old ($40) is a top-seller that many Bourbon drinkers gravitate toward. Westport’s single malt business averages around $65 to $70 a bottle, but giving consumers options under $60 is a priority for the owners.
Despite whisk(e)y’s increasing presence in Westport’s business, wine remains relevant. Offerings range in price from $6.99 for brands like CK Mondavi, Yellow Tail and Jacob’s Creek to $300 for Opus One. The owners say the typical per-customer takeaway is higher than industry standards, with an average ring rate of more than $20 a bottle. “We try to be competitive on pricing, but not to the point where we’re totally out of whack,” explains Zaborowski, noting that the unique product selection allows for more premium pricing. “Moving toward that direction has helped us to keep our goal and profitability right where we like it to be.”
The Wagner Family portfolio plays an important role in wine sales, particularly Conundrum, which is Westport’s top-selling white wine, and Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon on the high end. Oregon Pinot Noir and Spanish wines are gaining traction, while GSM blends in general do well with Westport’s clientele. Main wine buyer Seth Williams recently set up a seasonal section showcasing 32 rosé labels, up from about a dozen the store carries year-round.
Following Total Wine’s opening, Zaborowski and Splan initiated a major reset across the store and rearranged the wine section by varietal. Consumers can now explore the wines offered and learn something new through exposure to more grape varieties and wine-producing regions. The Cabernet section has remained roughly the same, but the number of other red varietals has expanded by about 44 SKUs, largely from Italy, Spain and the south of France.
Crafting A Niche
To maintain an intensely competitive edge, Zaborowski and Splan zero in on local, craft products across categories. “The craft piece of the business is going to be the next niche for us,” says Zaborowski. “If you’re looking for a craft spirit, we’re going to be the place to go.” That focus can be seen in Westport’s vodka section, which is more selective and premium than many retailers. Westport carries only one flavored vodka brand, Burnett’s, because it’s made at the local Heaven Hill distillery.
Gin is another area they’ve expanded with more craft options, while rum is next in line to receive a reset with craft products in mind. Zaborowski and Splan have recently spent a lot of time and energy rearranging their Tequila section by blanco, reposado, añejo and extra añejo expressions. Splan is also seeing increasing interest in mezcal. “We’ve been able to educate people on mezcal,” he says. “That’s one area where the dynamic of educating and tasting has translated to more sales.” A Mala mezcal tasting ($15 a person) was held in June with founder and CEO Marcos Mendoza and brand ambassador Kyle Higgins.
The local focus spills over to Westport’s beer selection, which almost exclusively features craft breweries. While the store carries Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite in 12-pack bottles and 18-pack cans, the owners knew early on that their beer business wasn’t going to be in domestic premium brands. By resetting their beer selection seasonally, Westport is able to offer an array of beers from such breweries as Louisville’s Against the Grain, Lexington, Kentucky’s, West Sixth, Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist and Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes. Westport also works with a number of local brewers like Great Flood, which created specially commissioned, Bourbon barrel–aged ale for Westport.
Under the direction of beer buyer Emily Meadows—who is Zaborowski’s daughter—Westport’s selection doesn’t favor one style of beer, but rather local brewers who can offer canned products. Six-packs of craft beer range in price from $8.99 to $12.99, with most at $10.99. The majority of beers are domestic, but Westport also carries imports with an emphasis on Belgian styles or lambics. Westport’s educational program includes beer nights two to three times a month highlighting styles like sour brews.
As Westport gears up to celebrate 10 years in business next summer, Zaborowski and Splan are looking for more opportunities for the bar business and special event programs. Westport’s tasting room, which was revamped four years ago, features more than 240 Bourbons and other whiskies, many of which are hard-to-find specialty releases like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon ($6.75 a pour). Even if the owners receive a bottle or two of a highly allocated whisk(e)y, they prefer to sell it by the glass in the tasting room to bring enthusiasts into their store. Westport will also host master distillers and winemakers in the back room for consumers interested in learning more about a product. In June, Westport hosted a Storybook Mountain Vineyards wine tasting ($25 a person), a New Belgium beer tasting ($5 a person), and a Woodford Reserve Bourbon tasting and bottle engraving, among others.
While state law restricts what kinds of perishable foods the retailer can sell, Westport often teams up with local restaurants in cross-promotional efforts. The store recently partnered with its Westport Village neighbor, hiko-A-mon Sushi Bar & Fish Market, for a sold-out, 27-person sushi and sake dinner featuring six dishes, each paired with a different sake. Other past pairings include dinners with Louisville’s Brasserie Provence, La Chasse and English Grille, and single barrel selections in partnership with Volare and Butchertown Grocery. The dinners usually include a 15-percent discount on featured wines. “For us, it’s a marketing expense because to fulfill the order they have to come pick it up here,” Zaborowski says.
At press time, Westport was also preparing to launch local delivery in Louisville this fall. While the company doesn’t rule out opening a second location, it’s not currently in the works. In the meantime, Zaborowski and Splan are aiming for a 5-percent growth rate this year while maintaining the competitive advantage they’ve carved out with a superior selection in spirits. “We’re never going to abandon wine,” Zaborowski says. “It’s what built the store. But I don’t see that Bourbon trend waning in the next 10 years.”