Our June issue of Beverage Dynamics magazine recognized the Top 100 Retailers, including Beverage King of Norwalk, CT. These beverage alcohol retailers represent the best of the best in the industry.
Harsha Bethi graduated college in 2015 and wanted to run a business. His family is in the gas station/convenience store business, including a store in Norwalk, CT, with a small liquor retailer next door.
On a whim, Bethi purchased that 3,400-square-foot shop, then called Beverage Boss.
“I thought that running a liquor store would be easy, but boy was I wrong,” he recalls. “That first year and a half was a struggle. But I had amazing reps who helped me along the way as I learned more about the industry. It was a real learning curve.”
Among the lessons learned by the young entrepreneur was the importance of establishing a business identity. The former owners of Beverage Boss had other locations under the same name, and did not want to share the branding.
“I thought, ‘What’s better than a boss? How about a king!’” Bethi laughs.
“When I first bought my store, it was always known as a neighborhood corner store where you stopped in to grab your beer and nips after work,” he adds. “It had great wine and liquor selection, but was never known for that. Beer and nips, that’s not where the mark ups are made. Volume does add up, but that’s not where you make the money.”
The “aha moment” came in 2019 thanks to a loyal customer. Bethi and Connecticut whiskey fan Michael Hertzberg were having drinks in Bethi’s basement “whiskey bunker” when Hertzberg suggested that Beverage King tap into the booming trend of single barrel whiskey picks.
“There were already several big players in single barrel picks in my area [in the upscale Fairfield region], so I didn’t know if it would work out for me,” Bethi says. “But Michael twisted my arm.”
The first Beverage King pick was an Elijah Craig Small Batch. For a sticker, Bethi went with Tom Brady. It was perfect timing. That barrel showed up early — the week after Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, with Tampa Bay.
“That barrel sold out within a day,” Bethi says. “That’s when I realized that maybe there was room for another player in the game.”
Today, Bethi is recognized for running one of the best barrel programs in Connecticut, a state known for its abundance of whiskey picks. The Facebook group Connecticut Bourbon and Whiskey Enthusiasts has more than 4,000 members, growing into a leading New England whiskey club. Fans throughout the northeast travel into the Constitution State for its superb single barrel selection.
Beverage King’s recent drops include a Starlight rye finished in a barrel that had previously held both Jack Daniel’s and Foursquare rum, and a Penelope bourbon finished in a Tokaji wine cask.
“The single barrel game has changed recently with more and more retailers doing it,” Bethi says. “Some are doing it just to do it. There’s no rhyme or reason. I did the same thing at first. I picked a few duds. I learned the lesson of quality over quantity. I realized that a pick has got to mean something to me for me to put my name on it.”
Harsha has also excelled on social media. An avid Instagrammer, he has also built a strong following by connecting with whiskey fans in the aforementioned Facebook group.
“That group is retailer friendly. A lot of other social media is not retailer friendly,” Bethi says. “Facebook offers a platform where retailers can go on and promote themselves. One guy came to my store from Rhode Island, traveling several hours, because he had heard about it in the group.”
As for other stores considering single barrel programs, Bethi has this advice: “Don’t just take any barrel. Do your homework and know that you can actually sell it to your customers.”
He reiterates: “Quality over quantity.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece The 2022 Spirits Growth Brands Awards — Honoring the Hottest Brands.