When you stop by the new Washington Street whiskey shop, First Fill Spirits—and trust us, you’re going to want to stop by—don’t expect to find shelves lined with every flavor of Crown Royal. You can also count out the possibility of finding Jack Daniel’s, Jameson, and pretty much every other whiskey that’s widely available in US liquor stores. What you will find is a whole new world of whiskey.
That world is one that First Fill cofounder Holly Seidewand sort of stumbled upon. “I worked in store design and manufacturing right out of my MBA program,” the Rochester native says. “I would frequently travel overseas with clients, and many of them drank Scotch. I decided, ‘What better way to connect further with your clients than to ask them about their favorite whiskey?’” So she signed up for a few classes through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, decided those classes weren’t going to cut it, and eventually, embarked on a year-long, worldwide quest to find out everything there was to know about whiskey.
Seidewand’s global trek began in 2016 when she donned a 70-liter backpack and hit the road, traveling to more than 120 distilleries throughout Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Tasmania and the US, documenting her adventures on her blog, Her Whiskey Love. “I was a nobody,” she says. “I wanted to learn, so I was just showing up at these places.” On one tour at a distillery called Knockdhu near Aberdeen, Scotland, she was taking notes for a blog post when a man asked her if she was stealing the distillery’s trade secrets. She explained that no, she was just a blogger, and he asked her to come see him after the tour. When she did, she discovered that he was the distillery manager. He told her that the best way to learn about whiskey was to work at a distillery, and asked her if she could take the 6am shift the next morning. “I was like, ‘Really? I don’t have to sign a waiver or anything?’” Seidewand says. “So I actually took the 6am shift and got to work almost two weeks with them. I was running the stills and doing all of the valves and pipes. The running joke was that if you get a bad anCnoc in 12 years, it’s because I was the one working the distillery.” (For those unfamiliar with Scottish whiskeys, anCnoc—pronounced “a-nock”—is a single malt Scotch whiskey created using traditional production methods.)
But the distillery manager was right, and after passing her distillation exam in Ireland, Seidewand was contacted through her @herwhiskeylove Instagram account and offered a job as the whiskey specialist for a small retail chain in Massachusetts. Since then, she’s worked as a brand ambassador for Bacardi, a whiskey specialist for two event companies, and is currently in the process of importing barrels of Tasmanian whiskey to bottle and sell at First Fill.
About the same time Seidewand was first discovering her love of whiskey—her all-time favorite is single malt Scotch—Charles Grabitzky was also having his fair share of eye-opening experiences on Scotland’s whiskey trail. The Saratogian returned home wanting to try as many different styles as he could but not looking to spend a fortune on his new hobby. His solution was to found the Saratoga Whiskey Club with a few friends who would split the cost of bottles and sample to their hearts’ desire. Today, the Saratoga Whiskey Club has grown to more than 120 members and has hosted 90 tastings to date. Grabitzky also takes whiskey lovers, many club members included, on whiskey-centric trips all over the world through Rascal + Thorn, his “worldwide gastronomic experiences” travel company.
In 2017 the stars aligned and Seidewand met Grabitzky at Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky. The friends stayed in touch, and Grabitzky even invited Seidewand to be a presenter at a Saratoga Whiskey Club event while she was working at Bacardi. Eventually, the pair found themselves on a hike in the Adirondacks, “where all good business meetings happen,” per Seidewand. “We really honed in on what we loved about the whiskey industry,” she says. “We love finding the new distilleries and whiskey brands, along with underrated whiskey that never makes it to shelves or back-bars. What better way to bring that to light than with a specialized, boutique whiskey shop where everything that is on the shelf we would love to sip and enjoy ourselves?”
With that, Seidewand moved from New York City to Schuylerville to found First Fill Spirits with Grabitzky in Downtown Saratoga (it opened this past Travers Day). The name comes from whiskey industry lingo: “About 70 percent of all flavor that we taste in whiskey is coming from the type or style of cask,” Seidewand explains. “‘First fill’ means that this is the first time whiskey has been put in that particular cask. For instance, if it is a sherry cask, the last thing to live and mature in that cask would have been sherry. First-fill casks are highly sought after, because they tend [to produce whiskeys that are] rich and bold in flavor.”
But while First Fill might sound like a store only for those most knowledgeable whiskey drinkers, it’s far from that. The shop carries bottles that cost anywhere from $50 to $300, and the owners are just as happy to discuss the difference between whiskey made in a pot still and whiskey made in a column still as they are to offer someone who’s never even heard of a still guidance on what bottle to buy. “It’s a very welcoming community,” says Seidewand, who herself was once the newbie in the whiskey world. “There are a lot of women involved behind the scenes, even though whiskey is still marketed as a ‘man’s drink.’ I’m hopeful that will change, because it’s 50/50 men and women within the industry, from my experience. We just have to get that presented out to the rest of the world.”
Experience a selection of First Fill’s specialty whiskeys at Saratoga Living‘s Whiskeys of the World Tasting at Putnam Place on November 17.