A Toast to Merchants of Beverage (for Inspiring Our Inner Barfly … and Making Wine & Cocktail Gifting a Cinch)

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.

Jeff Meisel

Jeff Meisel

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?

Whiskey

Gin

Bitters

I will add Champagne because you must always have Champagne on-hand.

Tequila too!

 

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)

Mint leaf

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.

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Burning Love: Nicole Richie on Her Candle Obsession (and New Home Fragrance Line)

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Nicole Richie’s new House of Harlow 1960 Home Fragrance Collection gives the celebrity designer an entré into a new world, beyond clothes and accessories. But she clearly went into it with as much forethought and personal insight as she puts into everything for her House of Harlow brand, which, she says, is “a world of no rules, of dreams, and music.” We got some backstory from Richie about her fragrant new venture (and its familial connections):

Your empire is expanding fast — how did you decide to move into fragrance? Are there other categories you’re interested in pursuing? Stepping into the world of home has been a passion of mine since the day I started this brand. I designed my home. Candles set the tone of a home; they warm up a room and fill the room with a mood.

Tell us about the process of developing fragrances. Where did you begin? Did you have specific scent references you brought to the team? Developing a fragrance is very personal. I had to go back to the root of House of Harlow and what it stands for. House of Harlow celebrates individuality. It is a world of no rules, of dreams, and music. I wanted each scent to send you to the place of feeling free. Like Baby when she finally did the lift in Dirty Dancing.

What are some of your favorite scent memories? My mother has been pairing and mixing oils, options, and perfumes since I was a little girl. I always remember the way she smelled.

Are you big on using candles to set specific moods? How do you use them in your home? My home has candles in every room, and I burn them every day. Candles give the room movement and warmth.

Candles are such a go-to gift…do you plan to give your House of Harlow ones this season? DUH! Nothing screams “Im thinking of you” like a gift with my name on it.

What is the best holiday gift you’ve ever gotten? given?  I still use a real camera. I love a tangible photo. My husband got me a photo printer last year and I love it.

What’s on your holiday wish list this year? I’m in a minimal head space right now. I’m focused on appreciating all that I have. That being said, I wouldn’t return a diamond … HOT DAMN!

What are your favorite family holiday traditions? How do you welcome the season? We go big for the holidays. We start decorating the house on October 1st for Halloween, and it’s nonstop for the rest of the year. Thanksgiving and Christmas are big for us; we do every tradition you could think of.

Your personal style has really evolved…how would you define it these days?  It’s hard for me to define my style because I am me. My experience is that I have been playing with different looks since I was a little girl. I went through a Punky Brewster stage, a grunge stage, but this is the fun part about fashion. You don’t have to make rules for yourself. Your point of view changes, and your eye changes. You can appreciate things you didn’t in the past. From colors to construction, fashion is a constant evolution, and if used the right way, can be your biggest tool in helping you express yourself.

Has motherhood changed your approach to fashion? Has designing? I’ve always been led by comfort, so that has not changed. I still love to experiment, and probably always will.

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We Love a Hot Ride: Why Jetson Bikes Stand Out

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Vespa, move aside; slide over, Segway, and Citibike, take a back seat. Make way for these cute, colorful bikes from Jetson Electric. Here, founder Josh Sultan talks about pedal power and being one of Oprah’s Favorite Things:

It’s got more than good looks. “What we’re learning every day is that people are looking for alternative modes of transportation, whether it’s a skateboard, a folding bike, a beach cruiser, or a scooter,” says creator Josh Sultan, who had a background in wholesale manufacturing and product development for the likes of Nike, Levi’s, and electronics firms. “ I’d see Vespas and then Chinese food delivery guys with these beat-up electrical bikes covered in duct tape, and I thought, What if it could marry the two? That’s how it came to life,” he says. “Most electric bikes are kind of ugly,” he says, “with the battery hanging off the back.” His goal was a sleek design. “It looks like a regular bike. Basically, we hide the battery inside the frame of the bike so nobody knows you’re riding an electric bike.” That is, until you zoom on by…

It’s just like riding a bike—but better.  …at a reasonable speed, of course. “Our bikes max out at 20 miles per hour,” says Stetson, who tootles around Manhattan on his array of electric vehicles (including a mountain bike that’s “a beast,” he says). That makes him, at least, feel a lot safer in traffic than he did going 40 to 60 mph on the Vespa he used to own. Rather than being gas-powered, Jetson bikes have a rechargeable battery making them a green choice—it has functional pedals. “A lot of customers use them for fitness, because they’re heavier than regular bikes. They’ll pedal for a half mile, then use the electric,” which operates via a throttle on the handlebars. Because it’s considered a bicycle, not a motor vehicle, there’s no special license, registration, or insurance required. “It’s also half the width of the Vespa, and much easier to control strength-wise. Then there’s the price difference.” Jetsons ship to your house fully assembled. “We want you to open up the box, jump on, and ride,” Sultan says.

Everybody likes them. “My first customer was a surgeon at NYU Medical Center,” says Josh Sultan. “We have bankers, college students… even Oprah,” who showcased them on her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” telecast in 2012 before they were even for sale to the public. She was such a fan she had a bunch of them shipped to her home in Hawaii, which led to a little misunderstanding. “Everyone in my family knew I was working with her. And it’s 9 p.m. in my kitchen and I get a phone call—from an anonymous number,” says Josh Sultan. “I hear somebody on the line saying, ‘Hi Josh, it’s Oprah Winfrey…” I said, “Sure it is, Oprah. Kiss my ass.” And I hung up. She called back and said, ‘Please tell me you didn’t just hang up on me. Nobody hangs up on me, Josh.’”

You can color-coordinate them with your phone case or your shoes. “We offer the bikes in 12 different colors,” says Sultan. “These days people have the ability to personalize their life. You can match literally anything you own to something else you own. What I wanted to offer was—if you are someone who likes lime green or orange, I wanted to be there to support you.”

 

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Dominique Ansel’s “Glittery Champagne Granita”: Get the Recipe Here

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When a master pastry chef like Dominique Ansel makes an exclusive recipe, you take out your pencils and jot it down *IMMEDIATELY*. That’s just what he did for us at Gilt (and, by association, for you). Without further ado, here’s the recipe for his “Glittery Champagne Granita.” It’ll reawaken your palate (and improve your life in general), during the upcoming holidays and well beyond:

 

“Glittery” Champagne Granita

Serves 10-12

 

350g water

350g granulated sugar

1 bottle of Brut Rosé Champagne

2 sheets of 24-karat gold leaf

Heavy cream (to serve)

 

  1. Over a pot on low heat, combine the water and sugar and whisk until all the sugar melts (make sure the water doesn’t boil).
  2. To the syrup, add one entire bottle of champagne.
  3. Carefully remove two pieces of the gold leaf and mix into the water until it breaks up into tiny flecks.
  4. Pour the mixture onto a shallow casserole pan and place it over ice to chill briefly before transferring it to the freezer.
  5. With a fork, scrape the top of the granita every 20 minutes or so and repeat 4-5 times for a light and airy granita.
  6. To serve, whip up your designed amount of whipped cream until it reaches soft peaks.
  7. Lightly “fluff” the granita by scraping it with a fork. Scoop the granita into a champagne flute and top with a dollop of whipped cream.
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