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Neman: On free booze, sales and golfer Ernie Els
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Neman: On free booze, sales and golfer Ernie Els

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Nick Blandina

Nick Blandina, shown at an in-store tasting, is co-founder of Total Tastings Missouri.

Photo by Judi Henke.

You go to a grocery store and someone offers you a taste of bourbon. You try it, decide that you like it and buy a bottle.

But how did that friendly person happen to be there with that bottle that was so tempting? And are there any laws governing such things?

I talked to Nick Blandina, owner of Total Tastings Missouri, one of a handful of companies in Missouri that produce these tastings, and it turns out that the people who are offering free alcohol cannot use the words “free alcohol.”

“That’s a no-no,” he said. And the workers must check the ID of anyone who looks under 40 years old.

But they do not need to pass a test and be certified by the state to serve alcohol, which is required of bartenders and anyone who sells booze directly to customers. Instead, it is the stores where they offer their samples that need to have a tasting license in order for alcohol tastings to be offered, he said.

Blandina said the tasting companies are contracted by breweries, distilleries and wineries to market their goods, not by the stores. The distilleries (or whatever) provide a couple of bottles of their product for testing, and the store makes more bottles available for purchase.

“The purpose of a tasting is not to get someone to buy it just the one time they are in the store but to keep on purchasing it,” he said, which explains the distilleries’ motivation for paying for them.

It’s a win-win-win-win situation. If all goes right and the product is good, the distilleries gain new repeat customers. The store wins by selling bottles at the time of the tasting and beyond — and it makes the stores more attractive to customers who might get a free taste. The tasting company wins because they get paid for the work; if they are good at it, they get more business.

And the consumers win, because they get free samples of alcohol and may find new favorites.

Total Tastings Missouri has just two full-time employees, including Blandina, and a crew of about 100 part-timers who do the actual tastings. Blandina still goes out a couple of times a month, especially to bigger events, to keep active and because he enjoys it.

“If you’re into sales, it’s really easy to sell. You get the instant adrenaline rush when you make sales,” said Blandina, who is 27.

The entrepreneur began his career in label sales, primarily selling to breweries, wineries and distilleries. One of his clients was golfer Ernie Els and his caddie Cayce Kerr, who have partnered on a liqueur called Els Iced Coffee. Blandina started running tastings for them, and “we decided to make a full-on company of it.”

That was less than three years ago. Today the company represents many large and small wineries, breweries and distilleries. All told, the company represents perhaps 200 different brands, he guessed, because the bigger corporations each have many different products.

“We try to keep that small-business mentality and teach everybody every minute detail to help sell the brands,” he said.

Blandina is looking to expand into other states, but for the time being he is content to specialize in liquor tastings only. “I want to make sure this goes really well before I get into the next big thing,” he said.

Meanwhile, things seem to be going well. At a tasting at a store in New York, they sold 936 bottles of Els Iced Coffee over two days. That’s more bottles than the store’s top seller, Tito’s vodka, sold over the same period.

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