By Richard Thomas
Few people wear as many hats in the whiskey business as Allison Patel. After starting the whiskey import-export firm Local Infusions and becoming a whiskey blogger, Patel made the leap into founding her own label, Brenne single malt. Offhand, I can think of half a dozen people who have filled two of those roles at different times, but no one who has managed all three.
In this first part of this interview with Mrs. Patel, we discuss the ins and outs of the whiskey trade. Incidentally, if your English or Scandinavian and can get the excellent bourbon coming from Texas distiller Balcones, you probably have Alison Patel to thank.
The second half of this interview will appear in one week, on Monday, July 22nd, covering Brenne and Patel’s personal tastes in whiskey.
RT: You are the proprietor of Local Infusions, an import/export outfit; a whiskey blogger; and a whiskey-maker. Under which of these hats is it that you got your start in the whiskey business?
AP: Well, I produce and I founded Brenne Whisky, but I am not the distiller, just to make that clear, just so that doesn’t get misconstrued along the way.
I’m a little bit of an envoy I guess. I’d never worked in the industry before setting up my companies. It was a combination of passion and dreams and planning and the right time and opportunity that put the whole thing together for me.
RT: Looking at the product list for Local Infusions, if you were looking to the United States, the only import is Brenne. The rest are American micro-distilleries: Finger Lakes, Balcones, Kings County. As an expat in Europe, I’m wondering where is all this American whiskey going to?
AP: First of all, in the import-export world, it takes a long time to get your contracts set up and get your markets on board. In all honesty, once I started importing Brenne, it was agreed with the American craft whiskey-makers for the most part that we would quietly stop work. I’d worked for two years building up the export portfolio and made contact with a lot of great potential buyers in other countries, a few deals were in the works, but as a sole entrepreneur, I didn’t have the hours to manage it properly. I promised all the brands I worked with that I wanted to do right by everyone.
But Balcones we did launch in Norway, Sweden, and in London in the UK, and there were a couple of deals that were passed off to other companies, and that could do some things for Balcones.
RT: It sounds like the export side [of Local Infusions] is on the back-burner for the time being. But you are importing your Brenne. Is there the possibility you’ll import some other rare and hard to find whiskey products into the United States?
AP: Absolutely, but I can’t tell on those details.
But Brenne, I founded and I own that company, and that is my main focus now. Since […] my focus is the United States market and building the brand. I’m really just a passionate whiskey geek, and the whole reason I started Local Infusions was because when I was traveling and going to these amazing distilleries and tasting some things and these whiskey shows, and seeing the selections that were available in some of these countries that were not available in our country, in the U.S. A couple of years of waiting for those things, and clearly nothing was happening, so…
It was not my intention to have my own label, that was not the initial focus, but certain things happened and Brenne happened, and I was so blessed and so fortunate and so truly grateful that I’ve been able to do this. I’ve always been told that people starting out in business need to have a plan and need to have a focus, but I think that once you have that plan, the most important thing is to stay flexible. Until you get started, you never know how it is, and opportunities may come up that, for whatever reason, are better and more appropriate for you than what you [originally] set out to do.
RT: Before we even started, I could tell you’ve got your toes into a lot of different types of whiskey. When you were working with those American micro-distilleries on export, what was it that you said to people in Europe about these crafty bourbons and ryes, when over here they drink mostly scotch and Irish?
AP: I love that. As much as we’re all passionate about what’s inside, you start with the bottle, because that is what people see. Principally, I wanted to work with distillers who were extremely honest about what they were doing, whether they were sourcing the thing or making it themselves. I didn’t want any false or misleading advertising. Truth in what you were doing would trump a lot for me.
I have a soap box just for that, because people paying attention to the craft American scene would ask me “are they really making that, or is it sourced whiskey?” So that was number one.
Number two, perhaps people drink mostly malt over there, but perhaps that’s because they don’t have the selection we have here. I think there’s a lot to be said for variety to being the spice of life.