The romantic small town of Bamberg is a world heritage site. Another highlight of the city is hidden between the imposing cathedral and the picturesque Little Venice. Surrounded by bumpy curbs, two large corner shop windows offer a glimpse into a world of enjoyment. Hundreds of bottles from the finest distilleries around the world rest in wooden wine crates. No matter whether whiskey, cognac, gin or rum: the PREMIUM-MALTS store is a true treasure trove for every spirits lover. When it comes to high-alcohol pleasure, René Tröger is the right person to contact. He is the owner of the cozy Bamberg whiskey shop and has been advising his customers on choosing the right schnapps for three years.
Hello René. Your store PREMIUM-MALTS is all about spirits. The focus is on whiskey. What was your first bottle?
I bought my first whiskey in 2012. Originally I was simply looking for a high-quality spirit that I could offer to my friends at social evenings. I was already familiar with whiskey from films and television, so I looked in that direction. Just like James Bond, I chose a Macallan 12 Sherry Oak for my first bottle. At the time, I wasn't aware that there wasn't just one bottle of Macallan, but rather more than 50 bottlings. Suddenly I was standing in front of a huge selection of completely different whiskeys. The range of tastes and the variety of unique distilleries awakened my passion for collecting. One or two whiskeys for the drinks cellar quickly became a collection of more than 300 different bottles.
In 2019 you opened PREMIUM-MALTS on your own. How did the idea of your own business come about?
At the beginning of 2018 I was very dissatisfied with my career prospects. Although I enjoyed my job at the time, it was clear to me that I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. I invested more and more time in my new passion, whiskey, and started selling samples of the bottles from my own collection online. The demand for the small whiskey samples was greater than expected. I earned up to 600 euros a month. Through the sale, my hobby financed itself and I suddenly began to see the whole thing as a business case. When I announced that I wanted to open a whiskey shop, my family thought I was crazy. My friends also expressed their doubts. Just for fun, I still started looking for a suitable location. Then I discovered an interesting advertisement on the Internet. A small shop with two large shop windows on Untere Sandstrasse in Bamberg. I thought I'd let fate decide: If I get the property, I'll open the shop, otherwise I'll leave it alone. I was the first applicant and what can I say... I've had a liquor store for three years.
The “Grand Opening” of PREMIUM-MALTS will take place on August 2, 2019. How did that feel?
Overwhelming. At the same time I was very excited. There are no other liquor stores in Bamberg that offer higher quality bottlings. Nevertheless, before the opening I was unsure whether there were enough people in the region who were willing to spend a little more money on a bottle of schnapps. August was also very devastating at times. We are not in the busiest corner of Bamberg, I had this painful experience right at the beginning. There were days when we didn't have a single customer. Then doubts arose in me as to whether it was the right decision to become self-employed. I had initially hoped for online trading, but it didn't really take off. From the beginning, retail worked better than online business.
When did things start looking up for the first time after the initial difficulties?
Since December. The Christmas business was bombastic. I think we were able to score points with our unusual range. The inclusion of Zanzibar and the regional Elk whiskey in particular was a real spark for us. This showed people early on that we offer very special things and not just off-the-shelf bottlings. Without them, things could have turned out differently. Elk whiskey is still our best-selling product and one of the most important brands.
The corona pandemic began in 2020. In March, Germany announced its first lockdown. How did PREMIUM-MALTS fare during this phase?
As a newly self-employed person without a lot of savings, news like this is the worst case. The first few weeks were extremely stressful, especially for the head. Nobody knew what would happen next. As a systemically important business, we were open, but due to the lack of walk-in customers, the necessary sales were not generated. It was a particularly difficult phase for my friend and colleague Axel. I had only recently brought him on board at this point and now I had to make it clear to him that he might not have a job in three months. In the first year I was able to cover a lot with private money. However, there was nothing left for his own salary.
More than two years later, PREMIUM-MALTS is still open. What measures were you able to take to stay afloat?
When it became clear that we would hardly receive any government aid, we had to think about something. This is how the idea of live tastings came about. A whiskey tasting via live stream for the living room with a sample package put together by us. This was incredibly well received by people and the sales afterwards also worked great. With this idea we certainly took a pioneering position in Germany and we at least managed to cover our cost costs. At that moment I also noticed for the first time that I wasn't just a brick-and-mortar retailer, but also took place online. During the first wave of the pandemic, we had a lot of time to get our online shop up to speed and made new contacts in the Bamberg gastronomy scene. For example, we collaborated with our cocktail expert Sven Goller.
When was a clear upward trend noticeable?
That was in May 2021. When the Corona rules were relaxed again, we received significantly more customers than before the pandemic. Some people had been following us online over the months, attending tastings and were looking forward to coming to our store. That was nice to see. Our work had paid off. No matter how severe the crisis is – as a self-employed person you can’t bury your head in the sand. You have to look for solutions. What resources do I have? What options are there? Standstill is what must not happen. The pandemic has shown me this.
In addition to the pandemic, a lot has happened on the whiskey market in recent years. What changes have you observed?
The whiskey is currently enjoying greater media presence than ever before. Whether Frankfurter Allgemeine, Süddeutsche Zeitung or Berliner Tagesspiegel - the major newspapers now also report on the latest auctions and awards in the spirits sector. This means that the topic has become increasingly accessible to a broad audience. While whiskey was once exclusively a luxury item for lovers, today it has become an investment investment. Prices have tripled in the last ten years. People who are new to spirits now also buy there. This naturally annoys connoisseurs who not only see a fake as an investment but also want to drink it. They can no longer afford their hobby because everything is becoming more expensive.
How can this enormous price increase be explained?
The rising prices are partly the result of the high sales volumes in recent years. This is a problem with old whiskeys because they cannot be reproduced overnight. Demand for old bottlings has risen sharply, but stocks are running out. We simply don't have any old bottles anymore. And the bottlers sell what little is left at a high price. At the beginning of the year, many importers assured that prices for whiskeys aged 18 and over would double, if not triple, in the near future. Age is not a quality feature!
There are many new distilleries and many young bottlers. There should be bottles there that you can afford.
Here too, prices are skyrocketing. That's because of the marketing. Every bottling is now a special edition. Every debut product from a new distillery is highly exclusive. People speculate and buy in order to resell at a higher price. New bottles sell out within minutes and are sold on the secondary market for many times their original price. The focus is no longer on the quality of the whiskey, but rather on its value as a collector's item. A resell bubble has developed, which we originally know from the clothing and sneaker sector. If you want to enjoy it, you either have to be quick or pay enormous sums on the secondary market. That is too bad.
Storage and maturation in barrels are particularly important for whiskey. What developments have you observed here?
There is currently very strong interest in bottlings from strong wine barrels. Barrel aging gives the whiskey a dark color over the years. The trend here is very clear: the darker, the more popular - the more expensive. I notice this very strongly in Asian customers: If it's dark and it says sherry on it, then people buy. If it's dark and it's from a bourbon barrel, then don't take it. This drives the price up.
The color is not a qualitative criterion. Whether the schnapps looks like cola or has an amber appearance says nothing about its high quality. In the past, the jet-black whiskeys were even labeled as defective products and sold off to Russia. Today no one wants anything else.
And the difference in taste?
As a rule, it tastes sweeter and is easier to drink. People like that. In my opinion, that can be a very good thing. However, a sherry cask can also ruin a whiskey if it overpowers everything else in terms of taste.
I estimate that cask quality will decline in the coming years. The barrels used today are no longer at the same level as they used to be. We’ll see whether this has a negative impact on demand. So far the prices and sales figures speak against it.
It sounds like prices for high-quality spirits will continue to rise in the future?
Yes, I think everything will be even more expensive. When I look at the market development over the last few years, I can't imagine that prices will fall. Even an economic recession won't change that.
The watch market experienced a similar hype and then completely collapsed. Can't the whiskey business feel the same way?
I think things will be different in the spirits market. Watches were a pop culture phenomenon and appealed to the general public. There were a lot of people who had no idea about the topic and bought blindly. With the spirit, you have a targeted audience behind it that engages with the topic. Even speculators are starting to explore the area. I also have a good that cannot be reproduced in the short term. This keeps the price up in the long term.
A stable market: entry into the spirits business seems lucrative to me.
I would be rather skeptical. Natural selection through price developments will soon occur among independent bottlers. Due to rising market values, it will soon be almost impossible to purchase an inexpensive barrel and sell it at an acceptable price. Gordon Macphail, Signatory Vintage but also shops like Zanzibar, North Star Spirits, Wilson and Morgan - these are people who know their craft, have built up the appropriate network and will survive. The bottler that comes along and wants to jump on the trend will no longer have a chance in the future.
PREMIUM-MALTS has now also brought its own bottling onto the market. What else can we expect from you in the future?
We are very satisfied with the current house whiskey. The taste is really exciting: pepper meets vanilla. We have more barrel projects planned with the guys from Wu-Dram Clan for 2022. We are also getting a new edition of Elk Whiskey.
On August 24th we launched our new online shop. This was definitely one of the biggest projects this year. I'm also looking forward to the feedback from our customers. We also want to include tequila and mezcal as agave schnapps in our range. For us, Mezcal should only be sold online, as a premium product with its own website. This will be very interesting.
So mezcal won't be available locally in the store?
Correctly. But that doesn't mean that we won't advise our customers on this matter. At PREMIUM-MALTS, online business and in-store business mesh seamlessly. We want to exchange ideas with people, advise them on their hobbies and promote their interests. With us you are not in classic e-commerce, where the customer is just another number. You will be noticed directly and will always receive expertise. Whether in the store itself or by phone, Instagram or Facebook – we are always there for our horny connoisseurs!
Thank you for the interview!The interview was conducted by Andreas Apetz.