Gifting spirits by mail can be tricky — archaic, even — if you’re working with the wrong company. But Merchants of Beverage makes the process not just simple, but an actual creative, curated process. That’s because its founders are both extremely passionate about the wine and spirits worlds, and have the experience to back it up. We caught up with co-founder Jeffrey Meisel and asked him about both himself and the business. You can tell from the thoroughness of his answers that he adores what he does. That’s something we always toast to. (Oh, and here’s something else to toast to: a $25 credit toward a cocktail kit on their site.)
Wine is in your blood! Talk a bit about your background… it’s quite accomplished in the vino department.
I grew up around wine – my parents are terrific cooks, and it was always on the table and in the conversation. I lived in Florence, Italy, twice during my college years and even moved there when I graduated (after saving up money from waiting tables!) I was enthralled with the world of wine and how it is such a vital part of the culture and daily life.
I worked in restaurants while attending the University of Michigan, and I’ve held pretty much every job from busboy to bartender, culminating in my time as the Wine Director at Delfina in San Francisco. In the mid-1990s I worked in NYC at San Domenico with Scott Conant when he was a very talented line cook. I then moved to Napa Valley and managed the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Restaurant.
I briefly left the world of restaurant operations in 1999 when I co-founded wiredKitchen.com, an online marketplace that connected restaurant chefs with their purveyors. We were way ahead of our time but it was one the most important parts of my career. I love riffing off the old way to create something new — and technology is one of the best ways to do that!
After we closed wiredKitchen in the recession of late 2001, I joined another startup, but on the wine and spirits side of the business. Domaine Select had begun in NYC a year before, and I joined them to launch their business in California and beyond. Over a decade, I had varying roles, beginning as Director of Education and concluding as the VP of Business Development.
In 2011 I joined Gilt as the consulting wine director at Gilt Taste. I had the opportunity to collaborate with an incredible team that included Ruth Reichl, Jen Pelka, and Shan-Lyn Ma. After Gilt Taste closed, I stayed on for a bit at Gilt City. By late summer of 2013 the wheels started to spin on creating an ecommerce site for wine and spirits. It all came together when I met my like-minded business partner, David Raad.
How and why did you come up with the idea for Merchants of Beverage?
I’ve always been an early adopter of e-commerce, and for a long time now I’ve believed that the online platform has a place for wine and spirits. I love introducing people to wine and spirits, telling stories through bottles, generally opening eyes to the world of taste that I’ve been lucky enough to experience.
Alexis Maybank, one of the founders of Gilt, introduced me to her friend David Raad, who is a distiller and something of a spirits savant. He and I got talking, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and my background in building and marketing wine and spirits brands, we thought we could strike all the right notes with this venture. It’s exciting to encourage people to drink better at home, and with our site, we can do that on a much larger scale.
What makes the company stand out?
Our site stands out first and foremost for our expert curation of products. We work with committed artisans, both the old and the new, and I’ve spent my career seeking out some of the bottles we are able to offer. We like to put things together in an interesting way, a way that tells a story – for example, we have one product we call the Evolution of Bordeaux, and it’s two Bordeaux blends, one from Bordeaux and one from Sonoma. Tasting them takes you from the traditional to the modern. We like for our members to be able to compare and maybe learn a little bit from the products we offer.
Second, we have really innovative tech features that make our site ideal for gifting. Rather than go the traditional route of a gift card, which can sometimes feel insincere, we developed products called “The Perfect $100 Gift” (and $200 – $300 and $50 are coming up soon). This is a product that you can purchase and send to someone instantly via email address and text message. The purchaser enters the email and mobile number instead of a physical address as well as a personalized gift message. Merchants of Beverage sends a link that is automatically generated and emailed/texted to the recipient. The recipient clicks the link and opens an intuitive page that has the personalized gift message up top with instructions to choose a gift. Below the gift message, the page has 6-9 curated products with a call-to-action of selecting “I WANT THIS ONE”. No prices appear on the page. The recipient selects the one they like the best and enter their own shipping address.
Any product on the site can be sent instantly this way as well – it doesn’t have to be one of the “Perfect Gifts”. You can choose what you want, enter your recipient’s email and mobile, we’ll immediately notify them that you’ve given them a gift (hence the instant) and they can enter their own address.
Talk about your cocktail kits … we’re all itching to get one in time for the holidays.
I love our cocktail kits – they’re one of my favorite features of the site. We put together all the bottles you need to make a specific cocktail (sometimes citrus or garnish is needed, but we tend to stick to booze-heavy cocktails so that our kits can be as complete as possible) and sell them as a set. They come with a recipe card, and soon we’ll be selling bar tools and accessories as add-ons if you need them.
We started with classic cocktails, and now have started this really interesting program where we get a bartender from top bars across the nation to curate a kit for us using his or her original recipe. For example, if your favorite bar in New York is Pouring Ribbons, you can order a kit and be prepared to craft Joaquín Símo’s “Midnight Marauder” at home! In addition to that one, we’re also featuring Jack McGarry from the Dead Rabbit NYC, Natasha David from Nitecap NYC, Maxwell Britten from Maison Premiere, Joe Campanale from Anfora NYC, Ryan Fitzgerald from ABV SF, Greg Lindgren from Rye SF, the Bon Vivants from Trick Dog SF, and Martin Cate from Smuggler’s Cove SF.
What’s your signature cocktail to drink? And to make?
Negroni. It’s easy, classic, and delicious. I love when bitter meets sweet.
What 3 things should every well-stocked bar have?
I will add Champagne because you must always have Champagne on-hand.
Give us an idea for a holiday-themed drink; we could use one (or three).
Soon we’ll be featuring the Stinger, which is a great holiday cocktail:
2 ¼ oz cognac or brandy
¾ oz crème de menthe (preferably Tempus Fugit)
Add cognac/brandy and crème de menthe to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Another one is the Frenchman’s Roulette created by Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere in Williamsburg.
What can we expect to see from Merchants of Beverage in the future?
We’re working right now to optimize our Concierge program, which is an expert service you can use to find the right bottle(s). We know that our site is ideal for gifting, both business and personal, and we will continue to expand on our gifting features and offer more value for users looking to gift. Concierge is a perfect example of this, we really want someone to be able to come to us and say ‘Here is my budget, and here is a list of clients I need to gift – take care of it.’ And we’ll be able to.