Interview: Sammy Suleiman / Owner of Royal Liquors San Francisco

In May 2022 I posted about a Royal Liquors store pick of Buffalo Trace. In that post I detail my history as a customer of Royal Liquors, a San Francisco shop that’s been holding down the corner of Polk and Pine Streets since 1981. I’ll not repeat that backstory here in full (though it’s a great story, so be sure to check it out.) I’ll just say I liked the owner, Sammy Suleiman, from the start—a refreshingly candid, no nonsense guy who loves whiskey and runs a solid shop.

Sammy’s good humor can be found right on the sign out front:

That humor might also indirectly reflect complex feelings about San Francisco. Or at least about how San Francisco has changed over the years, and the whiskey scene along with it. The city’s tech-fueled gentrification has run parallel to the Bourbon Boom’s gradual mushroom cloud. The local city government shows no more signs of siding with longtime small businesses like Royal Liquors than the alcohol industry’s three-tier system seems eager to release its mafia-like grip on them.

I picked up my first Van Winkle from Royal Liquors, and at a fair price. That was in 2016, and Sammy would be quick to note those days are done. It was very shortly after then that the Bourbon Boom really started to crack its thunder. Half a decade later, in 2022 the market has altered such that those bright days of possibility when I myself was just getting into whiskey seem as far off as childhood. And back then in 2016 people were already complaining about the boom, which many track as far back as 2010.

In 2020, the pandemic altered my travel patterns in the city considerably. So I hadn’t been into Royal Liquors in quite some time when in January 2022 I finally stopped by for that Buffalo Trace pick.

I’d already asked Sammy a few times if he’d be open to an interview for The Right Spirit. He was always hesitant—rightly concerned about the pitfalls of social media, where users frequently earn their etymological connection to abusers. And then there are the politics of the spirits industry, with that three-tier system and its unwritten law of You Scratch My Back I’ll Scratch Yours, which, though not exactly legal is nevertheless effective.

But to my delight, Sammy finally agreed, and so here we are.

I stopped by the shop on a sunny Monday afternoon in early June, to chat between customers coming and going. Here’s our conversation.

MARK – Last time I was in, you told me your dad opened this store forty years ago. Could you tell me a bit about the history of the place?

SAMMY – My father started the store in 1981, him and my mother. Initially it was a store that specialized in decanters. A kind of gift bottle shop sort of thing. At least that’s what I was told. You can see some of them up top there.

As you know this area was the original Castro. This is where everything went down, so, it was very lively in the 1980s. I was told to go downstairs, actually, during Halloween and festivals. They didn’t want me to see certain things as a young boy.

So you’ve been behind that counter since you were a baby in the crook of your dad’s arm.

I have a picture of myself in diapers right here, yes, behind the counter with my mother and sister. Unfortunately, due to his passing in 2012, we had to move on to the next chapter. I didn’t really change the place much. I just added a sprinkle of salt to the recipe. My dad catered more to the fine wine world. But he always had a great selection of spirits. I definitely added more bourbon and single malts. I saw the bourbon thing exploding, so, I ordered everything out there.

Had your dad already done barrel picks, or did you start doing the picks?

I started doing the barrel picks. My first was in 2016, I believe.

Was that the Four Roses I picked up? The one that I signed the barrel?

That’s right here. I believe that was the first, yes. There’s your name right there. And this other barrel here was signed by Al Young, he helped pick that out. That was the second one.

What do you look for in a pick? What makes you pull the trigger on one barrel over another?

Normally I like to have a control, a standard release to compare with the single barrels. You never want to pick something that’s too close to the control. You want it to be different. I try not to go for things that are overly oaky. I really look for the oily quality, and for my cheeks to pucker when I first try it. I like that dryness. That’s what I look for, that combination of oily and dry. If it doesn’t have those characteristics I’m not so happy. I typically go for a lower rye content with Four Roses, for example. It’s less spicy and more approachable. The OESK is my favorite recipe from the Four Roses family. I wish I still had some more of that barrel.

Do you have any picks coming up that you’re excited about?

I’ll be doing something with Elijah Craig soon. Hopefully another something with Buffalo Trace Distillery—it’s something that’s a bit higher up the ladder, so I don’t want to speak about it until I have it. If Michter’s would do a pick I’d fly out there to do it right now. But outside of those, I don’t see too many others being sought after. People want a certain few brands. I could do a Laws Whiskey or something like that. But people aren’t going to line up for that sort of thing like they do the Buffalo Trace stuff.

And tell me about your amazing collection of mini bottles over here. It’s like a history museum!

My mother was actually the one who was into collecting the minis. It started as a hobby, I would say, and then it turned into a collection. Everything here is dipped in wax so they won’t get oxidized. If I was never born, this selection would be a lot larger! I definitely went through my share when I was a young lad.

Any favorites?

My favorite back then was Cardhu. That was my go-to. I had a fine palate when I was a young man. [laughs] Unfortunately, I’ve taken a lot of bottles home because of the attempted burglaries. The bourbon section, I pretty much hid them all away.

And what are some of the old bourbon minis you have, that you wanted to keep out of the burglar’s hands?

A lot of Stitzel-Weller stuff. I have an Old Fitzgerald from 1953, and one from 1920 with the pre-Prohibition tax stamp on it, and the penal code written on the back about breaking the law if you refill the bottle.

What’s the oldest mini you have here in the store now?

I don’t want to say. I’ll be honest, after I got burglarized in July last year, for the first three months I was not sleeping at all. I was up from three to six watching my cameras.

I remember you posting about that online. And they went for the minis?

No, they went for the scotch. But luckily I keep all my heavy-hitter scotch boxes empty. And when they realized those were empty they went for other stuff. I took the best minis home after that. Just in case. You can’t know nowadays what people want to steal. It’s unfortunate.

So all things considered, what’s a great day at work?

A great day at work is not dealing with a single crack head. Not having to throw a single customer out of your business. A good day at work is talking to a person like you, coming into my shop and talking about bourbon.

I’m not going to lie, I dread it sometimes. I got a guy who comes in, he looks like he hasn’t showered for five months. He’s got blackened hands. He’s got no shoes. The things I deal with on a daily basis, I can’t imagine how the people further down in the Tenderloin deal with this stuff.

I interviewed Edmond Kubein over at Bourbon County, and he said back when his store was in the Civic Center he couldn’t keep count of how many people died there over the years, shot or knifed.

And I deal with it to a small degree compared to that. A guy comes in and tries to steal ice cream, and no you do not let him steal ice cream. It only costs $4.50, but you can’t be known as the store where people can steal because then you’ll get targeted.

Polk Street has obviously changed over time. What’s better, what’s worse, what feels the same?

That’s an interesting question. The neighborhood has definitely gone through its ups and downs. When I first started working here—legally working here, when I was twenty-one—there were more arts students and people going to the culinary academy down the hill. This was the late 1990s, after the first dot com boom went under, so the tech thing wasn’t really here so much yet. To be very frank I liked it better back then.

What about that time did you like?

It wasn’t so complicated. Now things are so complicated. The customer base has changed. Their thought process has changed.

How would you describe the customers back then when you first started working? What was their thought process?

People were nicer and friendlier, I feel. Back then people just wanted a quick drink. Mixology didn’t really exist. We didn’t have the whole craft cocktail scene back then. It was a different world. I liked it because it was less bougie. It was easier to deal with those people. Nowadays people are so cutthroat. They’ll do or say whatever they can to get that sought-after bottle.

And the internet didn’t exist back then in the same way.

You had to do all the research yourself. Now the internet does all the work for you. Just type it in. Back then you had to do the leg work. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. I don’t know how I feel about that question. I like both worlds. It’s just two different ways of doing things, with pros on this side and pros on that side.

So your customers now cover quite a range, from those stealing ice cream to someone who’s flown in to town on business and is looking for a unicorn bottle.

I have customers who are in that elite world, and those who are buying a $1 shot. You have to know who you’re dealing with.

I’m thinking about how you said the customer base—specifically the whiskey customer—has changed. You’ve been very outspoken on your social media about customer behavior, which I find refreshing. You stand up for small businesses, pointing out they don’t need friends, they need customers. It doesn’t mean you’re unfriendly. It just means you’re running a business here, so people don’t need to chat you up to get things. Considering all that, what makes a ‘good’ customer, and what makes a customer… I’ll say, ‘challenging.’

A good customer shows their face, and buys something.

But it’s hard, because this is a drug we’re pushing. And you don’t want to cause someone to ruin their lives. But you still need to make money for your business. Customers have to buy bottles so you can get your allocations. It’s a tough line.

There was a woman I sold a Pappy 15 to, for example, because she would come in and buy two $13.99 bottles of wine a day. Was she an alcoholic? Yes, in my opinion, she probably was. If she had been coming in stumbling drunk, I wouldn’t serve her, of course. But she wasn’t doing that. She was a business woman and life was going fine for her. And those are the customers you want to take care of, the people who keep your doors open.

One reason why whiskey customers have gotten challenging recently is because a bottle’s msrp is listed online. We don’t talk about msrp in any other category of product. Cell phones, clothing, a pair of Nike Michael Jordans, we don’t know the msrp. It’s not discussed in the same way. But because the distilleries state the msrp on their websites, customers know it and want that price.

I want people to realize, prices in Kentucky are totally different than prices in California. Gas in Kentucky is what, $4 or $5 a gallon right now? And in San Francisco we’re at $6 or $7 almost? You can buy a home in Kentucky with five acres for $500K. What’s $500K going to get you in the Bay Area? A condo that’s 600 square feet? So it’s really not fair for Kentucky to list the msrp and set up those expectations.

And I totally get it. They want to be fair with bourbon prices. But it doesn’t work. And you have this constant fight between distillers and distributers. They’re both pointing the blame at each other. But when it comes down to it, it’s up to the distributer. They buy the product from Buffalo Trace or Wild Turkey or wherever, they put it in their warehouse, and now they own it. It’s up to them where it goes at that point. And I have to pay what they say, which means the customer has to pay, and it’s frustrating.

It’s a system.

It’s a system that’s really messed up for the small guy. To get a Four Roses barrel pick now, they want me to buy fifty cases of standard Yellow Label. Safeway can do that in a second. But for a small shop like mine, yes, I can do it, but it’s going to take me a very long time to sell those fifty cases.

I love the way you handle selling the unicorns, and how you advertise it on your Instagram. You keep coming up with playful and creative ways to do it. I especially loved that one where people had to shop at another Polk Street store and bring in their receipt to get a bottle.

Nobody did it!

Nobody did it?

Not one single person did it!

Why? That was the easiest thing! Just go to Bob’s and get a donut and then come down and get your bourbon!

I know, it wasn’t that hard, and nobody did it!

What were some of the other things you did?

I did an Easter egg hunt, where the eggs were hidden throughout the store, and inside the egg was a card that revealed whether you won the option to purchase a bottle. I did something similar with Eagle Rare, whereby I put sixty or seventy bottles on a shelf and they all had an envelope attached. The envelopes revealed whether you had the option to purchase something really nice as well. I’d love to do raffles, but raffles are actually illegal. I wish there was an easier way to hand out allocated bottles to customers.

The ways you’re coming up with are much more fun, though, than people getting in line at two in the morning and waiting.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m upsetting some of my regular customers when I do those things. They’re saying to me, But I’m a regular customer, you shouldn’t sell those bottles to other people that way. And that’s where it gets tricky, because I feel I’m allowed to do whatever I like with my bottles. I’m the one who stresses out every single year with allocations. I’m the one who gets on the phone and orders X Y Z product just to get the allocated bottles. It’s hard when the customer thinks they deserve something, and I have to bite my tongue. Just because someone spent $400 here once doesn’t mean they deserve something.

It goes back to what you posted on Instagram, that businesses don’t need friends, they need customers.

People try to befriend me all the time. They bring me samples, they go to Kentucky and bring me back mini bottles. I don’t need those. If you go to my house, I have a whole shelf of sample bottles that I’ve been given that I barely ever drink. I might take a sip now and then, out of respect. But I don’t drink that much, because I don’t drink by myself.

I’ll admit, when I first got into bourbon I thought, oh, that’s what you do. You bring samples to people, you talk with people. And it seemed like a cool thing to me, getting to know people.

Yes, if it’s pure, that’s awesome. If someone says, Hey Sammy I tried this amazing bourbon, I’d love for you to give it a try, that’s awesome. But nowadays it’s motivated. It’s not just being nice.

They come back later expecting something.

They don’t say it, but they wink. So now I don’t take anything. If someone offers me something, I don’t accept it. If you’re my close friend, or a longtime customer, maybe.

Well I hope you’ll keep coming up with the creative ways to handle unicorns, like the egg hunts or the local business receipts.

I’m trying to make bourbon fun again. It’s not fun like it used to be and I’m trying to bring the fun back. The big corporations caused it. The corporations who own the distilleries are pretty much dictating how it all works. I have no other option but to buy from their distributer. It would be illegal for me to go to Safeway and buy their six-bottle deal and resell it to my customers. But that would be cheaper!

Cheaper for you to buy it as a Safeway customer yourself than from your distributer?

Yes. The best price for Jack Daniel’s from the distributer is by ordering twenty cases. I could get the twenty-case price per bottle by buying six bottles from Safeway. But I can’t do that. The business is skewed toward chains and corporations. Again, I can’t always order twenty or fifty cases of a product in one shot. It just doesn’t make sense at my scale.

Do you think the bourbon bubble will pop?

As you see with brands like Buffalo Trace, they are not going to allow it to pop. In the 1970s and 1980s nobody was buying whiskey. If you asked for whiskey in a bar, you were considered a drunk. They couldn’t give away barrels even in the 1990s. That’s why they signed all those contracts with the Japanese and exported. They were hurting. They were driving beat up old Fords. Now they’re driving Mercedes and Teslas. They’re making a ton of money, so, they’re not going to let the Bourbon Boom go.

Edmond told me he once had a Pappy 15 single barrel pick that he couldn’t sell. And he was charging $40 for it. A completely different environment than now.

Distillers are doing creative things to make the attraction stick. The Buffalo Trace Weller line—they made the single barrel program, then their own single barrel release, the full proof, the craft-your-perfect-bourbon experience. They’re going to keep on creating new things that are really just a rebranding of the same stuff.

Something like that George Dickel 15 Year on your shelf there is what makes me wonder how long the boom can last. Once enough people figure out they can pay $60 for George Dickel 15 Year, versus $150 or $250 for the same stuff sourced from George Dickel and bottled by a Non Distiller Producer, why would anyone keep buying from the NDPs? I wonder if it’s the explosion of NDPs that will pop the bubble.

That very well could be how it goes. I think if the distilleries would raise the prices on the unicorn bottles, it would make it a lot easier on everybody.

If they raised the prices?

Absolutely. If Old Rip 10 cost a store $200 before their mark-up, fewer stores would buy it. The reason stores buy it is because they can make such big crazy margins. I don’t do that anymore, those kind of prices, I don’t believe in it. But if the distilleries would raise the prices, it would be less profitable for the stores. They’d just sell it with the normal 30% profit margin. It would help the situation. But distilleries don’t want to do that. So in my opinion, I guess the real culprit is the distilleries, not the distributor. It starts at the distillery.

My own point of view is that the culprit is us, the customers. Because if customers wouldn’t plunk down $1000 for a George T. Stagg from somebody selling on Facebook, it wouldn’t then also get priced at $1000 in so many stores. But I don’t see there ever being the collective will among customers nationwide to stop doing that.

Well, anything I should ask you that I haven’t? Anything you want people to know about Royal Liquors that hasn’t been said yet?

I just want people to know that I really am a nice guy. [laughs] I just deal with so much bullshit that I have to be an asshole every now and then. When you’re older and a business owner, you can’t let people walk over you. With my distributers, I have to push on them sometimes, I have to be mean sometimes.

Are you being mean? Aren’t you just standing up for your business?

I think I’m standing up for myself. But they might think I’m being mean. But you have to be. It’s a boy’s club, this business. It’s about who you know and who you talk to. This business is just as dirty as pharmaceuticals. I mean, come on, cancer. Alcohol causes cancer. It’s a known fact. But they won’t say it because there is so much money in the alcohol business, and so much lobbying power. So they never talk about it themselves. And yet I have to post these big signs in my business saying drinking alcohol causes cancer and birth defects in kids. I have to by law, or I’d get a violation.

I hope this interview doesn’t go bad and bite me in the ass.

[laughs] I think it’s going well. The reason I’m here is because I think you run a good business and have a valuable perspective, and I want to highlight that for people.

Well, thank you. I just don’t want to upset people by being honest.

I think as customers we need to hear about how our behavior, positive and negative, impacts small businesses, and how that in turn impacts the city we’re living in. I wanted to do this interview because of my own belief in the increasing importance of small businesses in San Francisco. We’re losing them. I wonder what it does to a city to have fewer small, local businesses than it once did. Do people care? If so, who?

I’ve been living in San Francisco since 1989, and have watched it change multiple times. Change isn’t bad in principle, but it’s not a golden good either. I’m interested in how we can interact with our city, day to day, in ways that keep it a positive place. Anyone like yourself who’s running a small business is encountering people, like you said, from every strata of society, all day long. That’s an important corner to occupy and to preserve.

Thank you. I do wish customers would realize that when they’re walking into a one-room business like this, think of it like you’re walking into your friend’s house. How would you walk into your friend’s house? You’d take off your earphones. If someone acknowledged you and said hello, you’d say hello back.

I’m a very open person. I say things, not always things I should. I was really reluctant to do this interview. I believe honesty is the best policy, like the saying goes, but not everyone agrees.

I think ultimately people recognize honesty when they hear it. They might not always like it, but they appreciate it. What’s the alternative to honesty, anyway? Do we really want that?

Last question. A favorite whiskey moment?

There have been a lot. That’s a hard one…

It was around Christmas, I’d say maybe 2016 or 2017, over at Hard Water on the Embarcadero. Unfortunately they’re closed now. Just good friends, probably one of the best laughs I’ve had in my life, and sitting at Hard Water drinking whiskey. We were drinking the ‘Willett Wheated Warrior,’ a single barrel of their wheated bourbon. You can’t get that bottle anymore. I love the Embarcadero during Christmas time, the way it’s lit up. So add to that my friends being there… Probably one of my favorite moments.

Nice. Thank you.

Thank you, Mark, I appreciate it.

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