Nick Conti and his three beverage alcohol retail stores in Connecticut, under the Greens Farms brand, have become the center of the state’s whiskey culture.
For one, it’s a matter of supply and demand. With Connecticut so far north from the bourbon Mecca down south, many consumers in the Constitution State have just now turned from whiskey drinkers into connoisseurs. Top bottles fly off of shelves. Tracking down the good stuff is difficult. Often this requires a pricy foray into the secondary market.
Which is why Conti’s talent for selecting single barrel store pick whiskeys has set his businesses apart.
The three locations under his brand’s umbrella vary greatly in size. Sav-Rite Liquors in North Haven contains 10,000 sq. ft. of retail space. Greens Farms Spirit Shop in Westport is 2,600 sq. ft., while Ye Old Wine Shoppe in Wallingford measures 1,500.
Nevertheless, each store boasts the same local reputation: they’re place to go for the best whiskeys around. Conti, a longtime veteran of the alcohol industry, helped introduce store picks into Connecticut when first he bought barrels, of Four Roses, in 2013.
“I remember, back then, when you could buy all the barrels you wanted,” he says with a laugh. He could have purchased eight to nine Four Roses barrels, but was unsure how well they would sell. “I left with three. I put a couple in my stores and sold the rest to whiskey groups.”
The picks moved well enough to convince Conti that single barrel whiskeys had untapped potential.
“I began calling everybody about single barrels, and what can we do,” he says. “I called my friends at Buffalo Trace to see whether they had single barrels for sale. And sure enough, they did.”
A Career in Alcohol
It helped that Conti had built up contacts during a career in beverage alcohol that had spanned multiple tiers of the industry.
Some of his earliest hands-on (or feets-on) experience was helping his grandfather make wine in Queens, NY. Conti stomped grapes and assisted elsewhere in the homemade process.
Later, he opened his first retail store at the age of 23 in 1996. Conti’s Wine & Spirits in Southington, CT, was 3,600 sq. ft. Growing up in Southington, in a family that loved wine, Conti followed the same path, taking WSET classes in Manhattan while running a wine-focused business in central Connecticut.
“My intent was to be all about wine,” he says. “At first I had wanted to open up a bar in Boston, but ended up coming home to Connecticut and opening up a liquor store.”
Add onto that raising a young family, and Conti began to feel overstretched. In 2004, he sold his first business, and took a sales position with Robert Mondavi Corp. Soon afterwards, Constellation Brands bought the national wine brand, and Conti began rising through the corporate ranks. He became sales director for New England for a division of the company.
Many rounds of corporate reorganization followed. Eventually, Conti decided that he had had a good run with the company, and eyed a return to retail. He purchased Sav-Rite with financial partners in 2011. “My partners are hands-off and really let me do my own thing,” he says.
In 2018, Conti solely bought Greens Farms. In doing so, he acquired a store with 50 years of celebrated local history. He opened Ye Old two years earlier.
Greens Farms Taps into Whiskey
Operating Greens Farms, Sav-Rite and Ye Old afforded Conti an interesting window into the greater potential of American whiskey.
Greens Farms is located in Westport, an upscale town in Connecticut’s Fairfield County, part of the state’s famous Gold Coast. Ye Old and Sav-Rite are about an hour east, more into the state’s middle-class, south-central section.
Despite these different socioeconomic surroundings, Conti noticed a similarity. No matter the neighborhood, good whiskey did not last long on retail shelves.
“When I started seeing whiskey go out the door so quickly at all my locations, that’s when I knew I had to get heavily into it,” he says.
Greens Farms was already known as a Scotch destination. Conti began building up its bourbon selection as well. With top-brand whiskey distribution not the best in Connecticut, he saw opportunity in single barrel picks.
“I honestly think they are more unique than any other product in any other category in the alcohol industry right now,” he says. “These are one barrel from one level in one rickhouse. And they can be so different, even from the barrel located directly beside it.”
“Single barrels can blow away the unicorn whiskeys,” he adds. “And you have guys and girls on social media showing off the unique store pick whiskeys they bought. And they’re drinking these whiskeys with friends. You have people sharing whiskeys that they think are special with the people that they think are special.”
Indeed, in Connecticut’s whiskey Facebook groups — like Connecticut Bourbon and Whiskey Enthusiasts, with 2,200+ members — Conti’s picks are often posted as a point of pride. He has worked with more than 50 distilleries, and this year will do more than 150 barrels.
Making the Pick
How does Conti single out such well-regarded whiskey selections? Naturally, he spends a great deal of time sampling kits sent to him, and regularly visits Kentucky and distilleries out of state.
When Conti launches a new pick, it’s often the first time the brand is available in Connecticut as a single barrel. This is true for a wide variety of distilleries. To date, Conti has worked with distilleries from the world of emerging craft producers — which Conti follows closely — to the leaders in American whiskey.
He delighted Connecticut whiskey nerds last year with the state’s first E.H. Taylor Single Barrel store pick. This bottle, in the ultimate sign of praise, now fetches a number on the secondary market multiple times its original retail price. On Facebook and Instagram, the EHT SiB is often brought up among the best picks in 2020 for Connecticut, along with Conti’s equally well received Russell’s Reserve, Weller Full Proof and Willett Family Estate 7yr Single Barrel Rye.
The winners arrive in a steady stream. So what does Conti look for in a whiskey?
“Trust your palate, and don’t just buy a barrel to buy it,” he says. “You will have to sample plenty of barrels before you find the one that fits your store. Very rarely do I visit a distillery with an agenda in mind. Be open to a barrel that sings to you.”
“I’m a big texture guy,” he adds. “I want that mouthfeel, that viscosity. I like sweet, fruity profiles. Those are the ones I tend towards, but I keep an open mind to things that are unique to that brand.”
Finding profiles that are right for your store — or intriguingly offbeat — inevitably takes time.
“You may have to pass on a number of picks and sampling kits before you find that right barrel,” he says. “Don’t think the distilleries are holding out on you. And go to the distilleries every chance you can get. There’s nothing like becoming an ambassador of a brand yourself, because you’ve been to that distillery and know what it’s like there.”
Visiting producers in person, you are also more likely to come across a special barrel that is way off the brand’s usual profile.
“Something that’s off the mark, that’s a luxury for someone like me who has been picking for a long time,” Conti says. “You’re never sure how a consumer is going to react to it. But it’s always better if you can back it up with the knowledge and experience you have of the brand, and your reputation with other picks.”
Among his recent releases is a WhistlePig 10 Year that tastes fruitier and less spicy than the rye’s typical profile. “Now a customer will want to put it next to a normal WhistlePig and compare the two,” Conti says, “and this increases my sales.”
One interesting strategy Conti employs is patience with his releases. Rather than put out new picks right away, he will often sit on single barrel inventory for months and months. This is partly because of how much happens on the back end — applying all the stickers and wax that enhance the uniqueness of these bottles.
But it’s also more than that. His stores feature a nonstop flow of new picks, with a specific pattern, a beat and rhythm.
“I try to find the meaningfully right time to drop every pick,” Conti explains. “It’s like making a mixtape. You’ll start off strong and then take it down a little bit and then build it back up. There’s nuance to it.”
“When you introduce something, you need to think about what comes after it,” he adds. “I lay out all of our releases as a calendar. I know more and more about what the reactions are going to be from the consumers.”
What’s Next for Greens Farms Whiskey?
For someone who helped usher the first wave of single barrels into Connecticut, what does Conti see next for the category?
How about micro batches.
“I want to start blending together my own whiskeys,” Conti says. “I want to take multiple single barrels and blend together my own stuff.”
“There’s a problem with the single barrel market,” he adds. “A lot of barrels that should be used for blending instead become single barrels. Hopefully barrels like that don’t turn off consumers who are trying just that bottle.”
Conti believes that micro batches and blending for store picks will become more common.
“It’s essentially what Maker’s Mark is already doing with their single barrel program,” he says. “Once more of the major players realize that retailers are open to it, it will take off.”
Conti is known for the creative, colorful stickers and wax on his store picks, and sees this artful trend continuing.
“Waxing makes a single barrel even more unique,” he says. “It makes a good purchase pop. Some bottles deserve wax and some don’t. But it’s one way to make a bottle stand out. Same with the novelty stickers. And that’s partly why I think single barrels are here to stay.”
He also believes that the attractive qualities of this category will eventually cross over into store pick beers, rums, malt whiskies and tequilas.
“Store picks give me the opportunity to make something unique to me at a relatively low cost,” Conti says.
Like other retailers on the forefront of picks, Conti is now exploring single barrel tequilas. And he’s “boomeranging” barrels across the border. “I sent some empty bourbon barrels that I picked down to Mexico to age tequila in,” he says.
Other Retail Trends at Greens Farms
Greens Farms, Sav-Rite and Ye Old sell more than whiskey, of course. As with beverage alcohol retailers across the country, these stores have recently seen the trend of consumers drinking less but better.
Wine shoppers reach more now for Burgundy and premium red blends, Conti observes. Some pre-pandemic trends also remain true. Rosé is still hot, along with lighter reds and sauvignon blanc.
“People are becoming more educated about wines,” Conti says. “They’re starting to realize that just because a bottle says ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ on it doesn’t mean that wine is all cab.”
With more education comes comfort in making higher-end purchases. “People shopping wine are spending $5 more and trying new things,” Conti notes. “I’m selling more $50 wines, not $5 wines.”
Premiumization has also extended into beer, with more adjunct releases. Sour remains a reliable niche, and still there are customers who ask for quality pilsners. The days of consumers chasing white whale beers, however, have seemingly ended.
But it’s not just White Claw and High Noon that customers buy. Beverage alcohol retail has come a long way since the pandemic first hit in 2020, when people panic-bought name brands in large formats. Now more than a year removed from those frightening first days of Covid, Conti notices that consumers are “out trying and asking for new things again.”
And when your stores offer the most diverse and flavorful variety of single barrel picks around, that puts you in excellent shape for continued growth ahead.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece What’s New With Louisville Tourism and Your Favorite Distilleries in 2021.