By R.J. DeLuke
A different kind of liquor store is operating in Saratoga Springs, one that primarily is there to satisfy a growing market of people who enjoy their whiskies—bourbon, Scotch, rye or blends.
First Fill Spirits is the fulfillment of the visions of Charles Grabitzky and Holly Seidewand. Both started with a love of whiskey, the curiosity to learn more about it, and then a vision to make it a business where they can serve others who have a similar predilection for the product.
First Fill Spirits opened in August at 68 Washington St. It is not a place where people will go to buy, for example, Jim Beam bourbon, or Dewar’s Scotch. The stores does have some product that isn’t in the whiskey family. There is some single-cask rum and a few other products. “Everything has to be single cask if it’s not whiskey,” Grabitzky said. “We have a unique license that’s specific to whiskey and then any single-cask, non-whiskey. We have rum … but 95 percent of everything we have is whiskey.’
He added, “We have a few of the larger brands, but for the most part it’s distilleries or brands that are kind of under the radar. Smaller companies that we’ve discovered through our travels and whiskey careers.”
Those careers started a bit differently for both owners, then merged into a single focus. They were in whiskey-related businesses, in different roles and different places at first. Grabitzky was running (and still runs) a travel business called Rascal and Thorn in Saratoga Springs. That company organizes and leads tours around the world to whiskey distilleries. “We’ve done about 20 tours already,” he said, to places like Scotland, Ireland, Japan and different states like Kentucky, where bourbon is a large part of the culture.
There is also something he helped form called the Saratoga Whiskey Club, where people learn, and taste, all things whiskey
“We have over 125 members now. It’s become a really big group and a lot of whiskey enthusiasts. People are there to learn. It’s not about getting drunk or buzzed or anything like that. It’s really about just being able to try as many different expressions as possible and doing it with like-minded people,” Grabitzky said.
Seidewand got interested in whiskey, and to take time off her career and travel around the world visiting distilleries and writing a blog called Her Whiskey Love. “She visited over 120 distilleries. I also have been to at least 120 distilleries. And so it was really just this passion for learning that both her and I had around the same time that that brought us to where we are today.”
Seidewand worked in Massachusetts for a retail chain as their whiskey buyer. She left there and worked for Bacardi, which owns five different distilleries in Scotland. She was the North American brand ambassador for those distilleries in the United States. “So she learned a lot, obviously … so just over the years, we basically kind of taught each other or ourselves all all that we know,” said Grabitzky.
They met when she was with the Massachusetts chain. “She actually co-led a couple of my trips, one to Kentucky and one to Scotland. And on our Scotland trip, we started talking about the idea of a store,” he said. “This was before COVID. And then the pandemic hit.”
Things got sidetracked, but during the summer or 2020, while on a hike in the Adirondacks, they decided to go for it.
“It took us a year open. But the goal, basically, is to talk about and sell whiskey that we really like.”
“First fill” is a name of the whiskey at distilleries in Scotland or Ireland when it is put into a fresh barrel from the United States, “like a bourbon barrel or a sherry barrel from Spain, or import barrel from Portugal,” he said. “The first time that whiskey goes in one of those barrels that’s called ‘first fill.’ It’s when you’re getting the most characteristics from those particular barrels whether it’s bourbon or rye or sherry or port. The whiskey is taking on a lot of those characteristics. The second time a barrel is used is called the ‘second fill.’ The first fill is really that initial time that a lot of these whiskies are put into a barrel for aging.”
Grabitzky’s interest in whiskey goes back more than 20 years. One influence was the 9 Maple Avenue bar in Saratoga Springs that has a wide selection of quality whiskeys from around the country and the world. “The selection there kind of got me more interested. And when I started the travel business back in 2014, that was when I started to really get interested in trying all of these different whiskies and basically just learning about it myself and teaching people about it. Just passion for whiskey.”
The formation of the Saratoga Whiskey Club in 2015 allowed him to buy different kinds of product, “whiskey that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. Because it’s all shared in the club. And it’s split among however many people are participating in a tasting. So that’s one great way to afford to be able to try a lot of whiskey.”
Another aspect of the business is that First Fill gets curated bottles, those that are provided exclusively to them, under their license.
“Curated bottles come from different brands, from around the world … barrels that we select ourselves. At the current time, we have three barrels that we’ve picked, where we have all of the bottles from that barrel in our shop. So we have an Australian single-malt and we have two bourbons, where we have anywhere from 180 bottles to 240 bottles that come out of those barrels, but exclusive to us.
“Our goal is to basically continue to build our whiskey inventory and add really unique and wonderful things that we would like to have on our shelf at home.”
Thus far, “It’s been great,” said Grabitzky. “We had a really great November. Our website is live. It’s a full e-commerce platform. So you can you can buy through the website. We’re shipping within New York state to start. We hope to be shipping to more states soon. So yeah, we’re ready for the holidays. We do gift wrapping. All of that. So it’s a perfect place for gifts. Especially for any whiskey drinkers out there.”
The business is open Monday by appointment only; Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The phone is 518-886-1425. The website is www.firstfillspirits.com.