Behind the Bottle: a Chat With Henry Preiss
45 years in the beverage industry and still going strong!
Ask people in the booze industry what they think of when they think of Preiss Imports and the stock answer is typically, “Henry always has such cool stuff.” Henry Preiss specializes in bringing to market niche products by small, independent producers from family businesses—such as Viñas de Oro pisco, Rodinov & Sons Polugar, Hven Swedish malt whisky, La Fée absinthe, Domaine de Charron vintage armagnacs, Lindisfarne Meade—and many others that span categories from all over the world. These spirits are indeed special because they’re dependably not like any others in the same categories. How does Preiss stay cool in these heated times? Here’s a Q & A.
Alcohol Profesor: How did you get started in the business?
Henry Preiss: It’s 1973 and I was working in construction. Great pay but often in between jobs you get laid off. I figured it’s no way to build a life and career as much as I loved working outside. As an interim I decided to go work for my father. My father’s company the Erich Preiss Co. was an early importer of specialties and one substantial one—Jägermeister. In those early days, my father had Jägermeister for the 13 Western States and it was a hard sell. In any case, I went to help him out while finishing college and trying to figure out my future. During deliveries I could see opportunity to sell some of the wines and spirits my father imported and I slipped between delivery and selling. I carried a suite in my delivery van!
AP: What were those early days like?
HP: Our primary accounts revolved around a few of the best stores but a lot of German Clubs and German Delis and German Butcher Shops.
Along the way I fell in love with first German wines, giving regular seminars to large groups of enthusiastic newcomers to Germany’s great rieslings and then selling spirits. It became abundantly clear that I love the business, the business clubs (all long gone) and the people and lifestyle.
AP: What do you consider to be the Preiss Imports personality—what sort of products are you drawn to when adding them to the portfolio?
Our personality is defined by what I like to call an “old school spirits merchant”. We are the company people come looking for when they are in need or desire to have those kind of spirits [such as Hospices de Beaune Marc de Bourgogne, Fratelli Blood Orange liqueur or Bailoni apricot liqueur] that help them set their bar or store apart from the crowd.
AP: Have there been any surprise hits or trends you didn't expect to see?
HP: The biggest surprise came as we saw the cocktail revolution start sweeping the US market. Along the way we had gathered some terrific brands that today are common place in hundreds of bars, restaurants and stores. Many called us a visionary of the cocktail movement. The reality was we had been doing what we always do and that is find and sell great brands. The difference being that suddenly it was becoming fashionable to like and buy specialty spirits. We didn’t usher in the movement or even have a plan to be at the forefront of the movement. What happened was a thing of being at the right place at the right time. If there is credit due it’s for believing in ourselves and promoting brands and products we believe in personally.
AP: Is there a category that most excites you right now that you think is poised to become more popular, or one that is enjoying popularity that you are excited to see thriving?
HP: I like to think we continue to find products people haven’t heard of or seen and help build brands and categories. That said there is no doubt that agave and spirits in general from Mexico are a huge, rising wave right now. We see the trend continuing and getting stronger for our Mexican portfolio [Preiss imports Sotol Coyote as well as Espíritu Lauro, Santa Pedrera, Miel de Tierra and Buen Bicho mezcals]. We also see vermouth emerging from under a cloud of limp and boring vermouth to a lot of vermouth with defining character and complexity [Preiss imports Drapò from Turin, Padró & Co. from Spain and Ferdinand’s Saar from Germany]--vermouth that can stand on its own or make drinks dance.
AP: What do you consider to be the most important personality traits in maintaining a successful presence on the brand side in the industry? What do you consider the biggest challenges in the 2019 state of the booze business?
HP: Today’s business is so overcrowded with new brands as well as giant companies buying bartenders and offering huge incentives that at times you wonder how can you come out on top. Then there is encouragement when bartenders and store owners who can’t be bought, but are creators rather than followers, latch onto our philosophy. These people have a mind of their own and appreciate what we do and offer and that gives us the willpower to slog through and keep building what we believe is one of the best spirits specialty portfolios in the country. Our biggest challenge for 2019 is getting out into the markets where we have distributors and teaching about our portfolio. We are now in 30 plus states and as a small national distributor we run to try and keep up with the demands.
AP: As for the future of Preiss Imports?
HP: What I am most proud of is my partner and daughter. Nikki has latched onto this business and is riding out the storm and keeping the Preiss family name alive as we head towards 60 years as a family in the wine and spirits industry. We never rest and we constantly look at new opportunities to expand our book and keep alive the vision of selection rather than the corporate motto of “sell only the high volume brands and drop the rest from the portfolio.” We are fiercely independent and hope to survive doing what we love.
More proof that love makes the booze world, go round. Cheers, Henry!