Outlook 2023: Pair using Saratoga Springs shop, club, travel company to spread passion for the ‘whiskey world’

A man and woman tap spirits glasses
Business partners Charles Grabitzky and Holly Seidewand at their boutique whiskey shop First Fill Spirits in Saratoga Springs
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SARATOGA SPRINGS – First Fill Spirits, a curated whiskey shop in downtown Saratoga Springs, is an endeavor forged in friendship, travel, gastronomic experiences, a shared appreciation for the Adirondacks and something else — oh, right! Whiskey, of course!

Unofficially known around town as “the whiskey shop,” First Fill Spirits is not your grandmother’s liquor store. Sure, technically it’s a liquor store on paper, but in real life it’s much more.

Think Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but swap the Wonka bars for whiskey, and only (adult) kids at heart can get their hands on the real golden goodness. There might not be any chocolate waterfalls or everlasting gobstoppers at First Fill, but visitors will find floor-to-ceiling shelves that pack a punch, each one holding endless ounces of aqua vita — the water of life — in a kaleidoscope of beautifully warm shades of straw, golden and caramel.

In fact, don’t be surprised if the hit song “Amber” by 311 starts playing on repeat inside your head when First Fill Spirits comes to mind. “Whoa, amber is the color of your energy. Whoa, shades of gold display naturally … ”

Speaking of energy: Just like Ben and Jerry, Bonnie and Clyde, and a burger and fries, Charles Grabitzky and Holly Seidewand, the cofounders/owners of and masterminds behind First Fill, fit nicely into the iconic duo crowd. Grabitzky and Seidewand met — where else? — in the whiskey world.

What started as an email exchange about Tasmanian whiskey quickly blended into a friendship between the two, and the rest is history, according to Seidewand. However, in order to understand what First Fill is all about and what makes it so special, it’s important to understand who Grabitzky and Seidewand are as individuals, and how their paths crossed in the first place.

So, here’s the CliffsNotes version: Seidewand, originally from Rochester and a self-declared “true upstate New Yorker,” fell in love with whiskey after she was handed her first glass of Lagavulin 16. She already had her hands (and taste buds) in the spirits industry at the time, working as a Scotch and whiskey specialist for a Massachusetts-based spirits company, when she and Grabitzky first made contact.

By then Grabitzky, born and raised in San Francisco, was living in upstate New York by way of Nashville after transitioning out of a 20-plus-year sales and marketing career in the health care industry.

Channeling his inner Anthony Bourdain and harnessing his marketing prowess, Grabitzky launched Rascal + Thorn, a company providing, in his words, “the ultimate experience in gastronomic travel.”

Rascal + Thorn believes in experiential travel: Whether it’s the art of crafting the perfect dish or the method of producing a special spirit, they curate culinary trips and experiences for foodies. From whiskey tours to cocktail workshops, the Rascal + Thorn team provides unique travel adventures built around great places, food and drink.

On the day of his recent interview for this story, Grabitzky had just returned from the Adirondacks, where he spent the coldest weekend of the year hosting multiple dinner parties at the historic Hotel Saranac as part of Rascal + Thorn’s dinner series.

Whiskey is a great way to stay warm during an upstate winter, Grabitzky said. The Rascal + Thorn adventures continue this March when Grabitzky goes global, leading a sold-out, 10-day whiskey tour through Japan filled to the brim with food, culture, and — what else? — whiskey. However, it’s not just Grabitzky who’s racking up the frequent-flier miles: His Rascal + Thorn business partner and renowned chef John Sconzo is conducting a private food tour in Spain.

Grabitzky was able to quench his thirst for whiskey by adding and leading niche whiskey tours throughout Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the U.S. to the trip calendar, proving that mixing business with pleasure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Cue Seidewand, who Grabitzsky tapped to co-lead one of his tours down in Kentucky on the Bourbon Trail; there, they led a small group of whiskey lovers through exclusive distillery experiences, tastings and mouthwatering Southern meals.

In fact, it was during a ferry ride in Scotland during a subsequent Rascal + Thorn whiskey trip that Grabitzky and Seidewand sketched out their whiskey-shop wish list, envisioning what their “whiskey world” would be.

While there were several unknowns at the time, both knew retail would somehow be involved; however, slammed with their regular jobs, they couldn’t pull it off at the time. But the pandemic soon changed that.

Meanwhile, back in Saratoga in between gastronomic adventures at Rascal + Thorn, Grabitzky had been using his sixth-sense whiskey radar to gather a group of Saratogians who enjoy “hanging out and sharing information about whiskey,” thus starting the subtle-but-cool, semi-underground, “if you know, you know,” Saratoga Whiskey Club. Launched in 2015, the club not only survived the COVID-19 pandemic but thrived.

Thanks to a quick and successful pivot to Zoom in the early days of the pandemic, the group didn’t miss a beat (or a drop), hosting virtual tastings and meet-ups, a catalyst for ultimately boosting membership to 83 whiskey aficionados with some pretty impressive stats: At the time of print, the club has visited 88 distilleries and tasted 302 whiskeys.

When Seidewand became the North American ambassador for Bacardi’s Single Malts portfolio and moved back to New York City, she seized every opportunity to sneak upstate to visit “this amazing whiskey community that [Charles] had built right here in Saratoga Springs.”

If that wasn’t a sign to pack her bags to head north and open the shop, then she must have seen one in the Adirondacks, because it was on a hike with Grabitzky and her fiance in the summer of 2020 that Seidewand decided it was time to “truly spread [her] love and passion for the hidden corners of the whiskey world” and told Grabitzky it was time to make moves.

By August 2021, just one year later, Grabitzky and Seidewand celebrated the grand opening of First Fill Spirits, the Capital Region’s first and only specialty liquor store dedicated to whiskey.
One of the elements that differentiates First Fill from your average liquor store is that it only carries certain products, like whiskey, known in the industry as the European model.

According to Seideward, who has traveled all over the world visiting, studying and documenting more than 150 distilleries, specialty spirits and whiskey shops are the norm in Europe, but here in the States wine shops are as nuanced as they get because the industry and culture hasn’t yet translated to spirits. Enter First Fill, an elevated yet approachable whiskey retail experience.

Experience is a big buzzword for Grabizky and Seideward, so it was important to them to create a community both online and off that radiates the same “judgment-free-zone” vibes found at Planet Fitness.

“That’s what we love to do, is whiskey from all over the world: new distilleries, single-cask, independent bottlers. … This should be fun, and making sure that people get to go home with that cool new bottle and brag to their friends about it.”

Both recognize buying a bottle isn’t cheap, so they want their customers to learn and feel good about their purchase.

While First Fill Spirits has a healthy online business thanks to its owners’ expertise, enthusiasm and ever-changing offerings, opening a brick-and-mortar specialty liquor store can be risky these days.

Small business owners must compete with the Amazons of the world, but according to Seideward, attention to detail and providing a certain level of service are what it takes to go from good to great.

Her rules?

Simple: Great selection; no cardboard stacks; and no dust.

Seideward wrote an article for a whiskey magazine called “Reinventing Retail One Mall at a Time,” in which she maintains retail is not dead, “it just needs to be rethought and presented in a different way.”

For Seideward, that means a strong digital or social media presence needs to translate to a bona fide real-life experience or destination to amplify the customer experience, and that’s the approach she and Seideward are taking on this new journey. So far it’s working.

Already, First Fill Spirits is leaping off the smartphone screen and becoming a destination, as people from New York City, Boston and everywhere in between have made this a part of their route when heading north for a weekend at the track or in the Adirondacks.

Real-life collaborations between First Fill and other small businesses in the Spa City are happening, too, such as honey and whiskey paired tastings at Saratoga Tea and Honey; monthly beer and whiskey classes at the Henry Street Taproom; and talk of projects involving a local chocolatier.

“Charles and I have always viewed whiskey as a lifelong journey of exploration and friendship. … We are in this for the long haul and can’t wait to see where this whiskey world will take us,” Seidewand said.

No matter where you are on your personal whiskey journey, you’re in excellent hands with Seidewand and Grabizky as your guides.

It’s “just” the two of them at the shop, but their combined connections, contacts, knowledge and know-how are boundless and more than make up for their small team.

And if you can’t make it into the shop in person you can still get a taste by tuning into their podcast, “It’s Whiskey #FFS | First Fill Spirits,” where they discuss all things whiskey and single-cask spirits in addition to new products to the shop, blind tastings, distillery reviews and more in a compact 30 or so minutes. Find it streaming on Apple Podcasts and Anchor by Spotify.

More Outlook 2023: Looking Ahead – Our annual report on Capital Region business

Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Outlook 2023, Saratoga Springs

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