The Internet has done nothing if not bring the world to our fingertips—and our pantries. In a click, we can source caviar from Russia, Wagyu beef from Japan, saffron from Italy—fulfilling our palates' latest whims in an instant. But finding what you’re after and enjoying the experience of the search don’t always go hand-in-hand—especially when it comes to the bar cart. (Browsing Bevmo’s cluttered list of bottles might actually be more unpleasant than visiting the brick-and-mortar version.) Thankfully, two online boutiques—Caskers and Merchants of Beverage—are changing the game, offering connoisseurs and neophytes alike unique shopping experiences as thoughtfully and expertly curated as the selections of fine wines and rare, premium booze lined up on their virtual shelves.
Caskers has been inviting visitors to choose less mainstream spirits since the website first launched in 2012, incentivizing members with small, short-term discounts on unique craft bottles. Their clean, streamlined homepage encourages exploration of smaller makers like Few distillery from the Chicago area and Avua Cachaça made outside Rio de Janeiro, plus small-batch expressions from the industry’s most respected names—Talisker, Appleton Estate and Highland Park, to name a few.
More recently the craft spirits e-tailer debuted a service for those who don't need to browse, they already know exactly what they’re looking for: Years in the making, the concierge program helps spirit enthusiasts track down rare and premium bottles from all over the world. “We have a network of people throughout the country as well as relationships with distilleries that help us identify where bottles are and how to get our hands on them,” says Caskers co-founder Steve Abt. Whether it’s yet-to-be released or rare, sold-out and decades old, “We’re able to secure bottles that your local liquor store can’t.”
Requests can range from the specific (a $27,000 bottle of Macallan Lalique 62 Year Old) to the general (any really old Willett bourbon). Their experts will learn your taste—or help you craft one over time—making the experience as personalized and collaborative as any you'd hope to find in your favorite liquor store.
Like Caskers, the two-month-old Merchants of Beverage wants to grow a population of better-informed drinkers. But instead of encouraging exposure through a single bottle, this service is about power in numbers—and more importantly, context. “We want to answer the question, ‘Why are we drinking this?’” says the site’s founder, Jeffrey Meisel, whose background includes stints as a wine and spirits importer, restaurant wine director and manager of Gilt Taste’s former wine marketplace.
Using Meisel’s industry experience and the help of top bartenders from around the country, Merchants offers unique packages hand-curated by the experts themselves, which include everything you'd need to recreate signature cocktails from the likes of Ryan Fitzgerald of ABV bar in San Francisco, Jack McGarry of New York’s The Dead Rabbit and cocktail authority David Wondrich, at home. Their selection of wine and Champagne also comes cleverly bundled, whether it’s a pair of organic French chardonnays, a set of three Oregon Pinot Noirs or four reds selected for fall. While more familiar bottles appear throughout the site—Four Roses is the rye of choice for the Manhattan cocktail—here, too, spirits with supporting roles are given their due, including Suze, Averna, Gran Classico, Maurin Quina and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, among others. Organized by occasion (New Year's Eve, Americana, The Nightcap, The Perfect Gift) or drink of choice (wine, Champagne, spirits), the site's straightforward, handsome design—with the occasional lifestyle shot included—is enough to inspire a regular cocktail hour at home.
While anyone looking to stock up can use Merchants of Beverage to fill an ideal bar cart, Meisel designed the service to make gifting wine and booze a more elegant, effortless experience for both the giver and receiver. Users can personally select a package for their friends and loved ones—like McGarry’s Irish Whiskey Old-Fashioned set, which comes with Benedictine, Jameson and Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters—or let the receiver choose their own adventure from any of the “Perfect Gift” options, set at flat rates of $50, $100 and $200. Either way, the tightly curated selection means the giver bolsters their own drinking cred while also passing on that insider know-how to friends.
Bur more than convenience, the feeling of personalized treatment or access to some of the world’s best bottles, all of which both sites offer in abundance, Caskers and Merchants of Beverage are in the business of selling good taste. Thanks to their tightly edited lists, shoppers are endowed with the purchasing power to look past the comfort of big brands in exchange for the cachet of trying something new, different and brag-worthy. It’s knowledge as power; liquor as lifestyle; e-commerce—for once—as elegance.