Sourcing High-End Booze For a Living Is Less Fun than it Sounds

"I could be in a vineyard with a small cognac maker, and if I asked the guy what the weather was, he wouldn’t answer.”

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Oct 9 2018, 1:00pm

Photos via PM Spirits.

Nicolas Palazzi is tired. He’s just flown back from France, and as much decent copy as has been written on him and his windswept journeys to find rare Cognacs, Armagnacs, and mezcals—the heritage grapes, the cool Alpine breezes, the lolling cows—this trip was decidedly less romantic. Most of his trips are less romantic. This one involved a flight from NYC, a windowless warehouse, an 80-page PowerPoint presentation from his French supplier, some shut-eye, and a coach ticket back. Thirty-six hours, in total. This is an ongoing situation for him, the grind of running his small (and niche) distribution operation, PM Spirits. He’s flying out again tomorrow. Or is it the next day? Time is persnickety at the moment. I glance at his espresso, and it seems as if the barista did not pull quite enough into the cup.

You get past the trips to the mountain top, the Saveur profiles, the gorgeous bottles, the boozehound’s romantic daydreams of encountering that perfect gentleman distiller and him whispering to us the family schnapps recipe, and you have this: the hustle.

Just reading his schedule for a recent week made my eyes bleed:

Sunday: Lyon. Fly to Paris in the am, meet the owner of the french company

Fly to Genoa on Tuesday, sit down for lunch with the owner of the Italian company. Lunch started at 1:30pm, i got up from that chair at 11pm. It was the two of us, we had 7 bottles of natural wine including a magnum. At 11pm the gentleman said: now let’s go to my office and taste rum. 3am i am in bed. 9am i hit the road for Lake Garda for a meeting.

Thursday i met with one of the oldest and best distillers of Grappa and eau de vies in Italy. One man operation, 5th generation distilling the wines and pomace from some of the best known italian winemakers as well as fruits when he deemed the harvest is of top quality. He made three apricot distillates in 35 years.

Friday: meeting in Milan

Saturday: flew to Paris for a dinner

Sure, a few of those itinerary items sound cool; mostly it sounds like smash cuts of Edward Norton waking up on airplanes in Fight Club. And that’s just the European runaround of all the good-food spots. Sometimes he has to go to Indiana.

“It’s a lot of coach,” he says. “People are like, oh yeah, you should come: You and your team should come, and spend a week! I wish me and my team could, but we’re busy trying to make things happen. So I have to try and do these trips in the least amount of time possible. So you land, you go, you try to keep your eyes open. We’re not in the phase where we can sit back.”

The hustle is real, in other words. The essence of networking in the rarefied world of handcrafted, small-production boozes (the team abhors the term “small-batch” as soggy marketing) cannot be overstated. To find the Cognacs that he loves, for example, he has to jump through various cultural hoops, differences that arise even as a Frenchman talking to other French people. Cognac is populated by a Protestant minority, a population that has historically been persecuted in France. Palazzi has a theory that this lends itself to a suspicious outlook and Cognac producers’ famously tight-lipped nature. When you drive down the roads in the area, if you do see anyone at all, they’ll stop and peer into your car. Do they know you? Who are you? Why are you there?

“Even the architecture is secretive,” Palazzi says. “The garden is inside the house, few windows. You have no idea who distills what, who sells what. I would be in a vineyard with a small cognac maker, and if I asked the guy what the weather is, he wouldn’t answer.”

This reticence is difficult for Americans to comprehend, what with our slick inborn profit-motive ever tickling at the feet of our endeavors. If you were making the best stuff, why wouldn’t you want the world to know about it? If you were to devote your life to producing something extraordinary, something so delicate and labor intensive that you only make three batches in thirty-five years, why wouldn’t you want to see the most amount of return from it?

That’s the wrong way to look at what these spirit-makers are doing, Palazzi suggests. At the end of the day, the reason many of these lovely boozes are hard, if not impossible to find even at specialty liquor stores here in the States, is a difference in worldview.

“They don’t even think of it as they’re making the best stuff. They’re making their own best. They’re not trying to outdo others. They have principles.”

(As an American: ouch. But not unfair.)

“They’re artists. They’ve perfected the family art. They’re third, fourth-generation. They’ve modified what their dad or grandfather was doing. They’re making the best of what they have, whatever fruit it is, whatever still. They’re not pushing boundaries because they want to be better than their neighbor. They’re just doing their thing. That’s the reason why a lot of these small guys in Europe, they’re still tiny.”

Distribution of these boozes and varietals is understandably all over the map. Literally, too. Take your flinty Cognac maker. He has his stuff in a couple of restaurants in the village. But a Belgian friend convinced his grandfather to distribute in that country after the war, so our small scale Cognac maker has a clientele in Brussels, too. Then someone at a trade show who tasted it two decades ago will talk the product up, an Instagram pic surfaces, a trip is taken and a deal is made, and all of the sudden that Cognac is behind a bar in Hong Kong. This is the race that Palazzi is running. For all the one-of-a-kind finds, there are a lot of dead-end leads, six- or seven-hour talks with pensioners, tasting bum product, and earning trust for relationships, trying to convince salt of the earth people that he is not just, in his words, “another douchebag.”

“The relationship is part of the product. You look at the product, and it’s not just the bottle, the label, the juice there, it’s about the men and women who made it,” Palazzi says. “Their expression of something. Not only that, but you’re going to be dealing with them, talking with them, you’re going to have input and they’re going to have input. It’s not like buying shit on Amazon.”

So what we have then is the romantic, old-world philosophy translating roughly into a modern, new-world market. Actual artisanship versus saleable artisanship. It’s a gap that Palazzi and PM Spirits eagerly tries to bridge, with zero percent of the authenticity lost. One whole wall of their modest studio office inside one of those labyrinthine Bushwick warehouses is dedicated to shelves of “the juice,” tens of thousands of dollars worth of single-cask Calvados, tomato brandys, oak-barrel finished gins, and award-winning single malt whiskys from India. (No, I will not draw you a map.)

But then, how does he and his team actually sell these niche boozes, once they’re Stateside? It’s a problem of which Palazzi is well aware. While it has evolved slowly, an appreciation for fine spirits has made gains trailing the cocktail movement. A core tenet of the PM Spirits manifesto is that booze and spirits should be viewed like wine, as products of the land they grew from, taking upon themselves characteristics unique to that land, their terroir. A fascinating aspect of his business is how it seems the terroir of Brooklyn has affected the brand aesthetic: the website is clean, easily navigable, with a errant style that retains a friendly edge.

Their self-aware tagline is that they are a “Provider of Geeky Spirits,” but the approach is warm enough for the layman while still satisfying for those deeply-soaked gin blossoms: on the page detailing the process by which they started producing their own Mic Drop Bourbon, they go into the tastings with Palazzi’s phone notes of each cask, down to the design of the label, inspired by a sarcastic immigrant’s exaggerated views of America (The Eagle, The Rattlesnake, The Superhero). They have an online comic book—really, and it’s pretty good—based around their line of well booze, The Street Pumas. For the real liquor wonks out there, the tech sheets on the distribution page are a delightful timesuck: I spent ten minutes looking up elevations and thrilling to descriptions of clay pots and ninety year old mezcal fermentation vats.

“I like facts. The good thing with facts is that they don’t steer you in one direction or the other,” Palazzi says. “It gives you the story: it tells you where it comes from, why it tastes like it does. Then it’s your decision.”

That makes sense. Palazzi used to be an engineer, after all. He hated that, so in 2011, he started hunting spirits.

His upcoming schedule looks like this:

NYC for a few days, then meetings in Orlando and Miami, back to NYC for 3 days, then off to France for 72hrs to discuss 2019 with a supplier, back to NYC for 3 days, now going back to France again for another 72hrs until monday, then in NY for a week afterwards, then Miami for a portfolio tasting, then Indiana.

Told you he went to Indiana.

Still, even that is worth it. It’s all a part of it, at the very least: the small business hustle, the love of the juice, the cellars suffused with the essence of apricots, the interminable PowerPoint slides.

“It’s about learning things and being curious,” Palazzi says. “Booze is something that talks to your brain. You put something in your mouth and it’s either disgusting or you enjoy it. It’s immediate. You don’t get that with a pair of socks.”