By Maia Merrill Gosselin
Take a look at Lauren Clark’s resume and the first thing you’ll notice is that this is no ordinary beverage industry professional. During her years in the business, she has held a diverse range of titles including bartender, brewer, blogger, cocktail historian, writer/editor and importer marketing manager, among others. In addition to this, she was a founding member of LUPEC and established and ran the website DrinkBoston which was de rigueur reading for the devoted drink enthusiast.
But Lauren has done more than just work in various segments of the business. She is one of a key group of Boston-based mixologists (some current, some former) who all contributed significantly to the renaissance of the classic cocktail scene that began in the early 2000s. In many ways, this group was responsible for shaping the Boston scene into what it is today. All in all, it’s been a most notable career. What, you might wonder, hasn’t she done? Well, she hasn’t owned a wine shop . . . until now. On November 1st, Lauren and her business partner, Miranda Brown, jumped into the retail side of the industry and opened the Tip Top Wine Shop in Easthampton, filling a much-needed void in western Mass. The store carries a meticulously curated selection of wines, craft brews, aperitifs and specialty foods. They are actively engaged with their local community and have already begun a series of wine classes. I caught up with Lauren recently to find out all about her newest endeavor and chat about her past, present and what the future holds. She may be new to the retail game but she’s off and running and 2024 is shaping up to be an amazing year!
MAIA GOSSELIN You recently opened the Tip Top Wine Shop in Easthampton. Congratulations! What inspired you to get into the retail game?
LAUREN CLARK A market opportunity and a love of good wine. My business partner, Miranda Brown, and I were tired of driving to another town to get a decent bottle, and we figured we weren’t alone. Plus, we were both ready to be our own bosses.
MG What was the process like to go from vision to brick and mortar?
LC Long and arduous, but we learned a ton. It took about two years of research, writing a business plan, getting funding and licensing, designing the shop, and waiting for the buildout — we’re in a quirky old mill building that took a lot of work to renovate. In the meantime, we met with distributors and tasted a lot of wine, and we conducted weekly business meetings at our local bar the Brass Cat.
MG How did your partnership with Miranda come to be? Between the two of you, what is the breakdown of responsibilities? What are your individual areas of expertise?
LC We were friends and knew a lot of the same people in music, the arts, and the culinary scene in western Massachusetts. (Miranda is a musician, and I was the editor of a New England-focused arts and culture magazine.) In terms of responsibilities, there is a lot of overlap, but basically, I am the Purchasing Department (we both taste the wines I buy), and Miranda is Accounts Payable. Areas of expertise: Miranda is the mastermind behind our popular selection of odd-flavored potato chips, mostly from Asia; and I keep our beer cooler stocked with nerdy stuff. Oddly, neither of us has a deep background in wine, but we have good palates and are learning a lot on the fly.
MG Does the store have a particular niche or area of focus?
LC Our focus is great wine at every price point. We bring in bottles from smaller or lesser-known producers around the world who make compelling wines out of local grapes that often don’t have wide recognition but that represent excellent value. The majority of these wines are also natural, organic, biodynamic or sustainably farmed.
MG How has the reception to the new store been so far and how are you involved with the local community?
LC The reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive. There are a substantial number of people who, like Miranda and me, were yearning for a proper wine shop in Easthampton. Several other business owners in town and around the Valley are friends or acquaintances, and those relationships have generated good word of mouth.
MG What are some events and programs you’ve started or have plans for in the future?
LC We are doing regular tastings and are planning classes on topics ranging from wine basics to natural wines to appellations to wine-based aperitifs and cocktails. People can follow us on social media or sign up for our email list (via tiptopwineshop.com) to be notified of events.
MG Where are your customers’ interests in terms of what they’re purchasing? What are some current trends in the world of wine and beer you’re seeing?
LC First-time customers will often gravitate toward familiar varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio. On subsequent visits they might branch out to, say, an interesting field blend, or an unfamiliar but awesome wine with a cool label. People are really curious about orange wines, too. Regarding current trends . . . it seems there are more and more new winemakers popping up around the world who are moving beyond the established categories of yore. That development has inspired a slew of independent shops like ours. As for beer trends, well . . . customers seem to appreciate our focus on lagers, clean ales and farmhouse beers — a departure from the ubiquitous hazy IPA.
MG You were most recently the national marketing manager for importer Haus Alpenz. How long were you with them and what were your responsibilities? What is their portfolio like?
LC I was there for seven years. Haus Alpenz specializes in reviving lost or endangered categories of spirits and fortified wines (such as Old Tom gin, Velvet Falernum, Vermouth de Chambéry, and Madeira). My role covered everything from launching a new website to updating the print catalog to designing shelf talkers to doing all the social media. Eventually, I hired a stellar graphic designer and illustrator (Meghan Albers) who made our visuals shine.
MG Although you initially started out in publishing, over the years you’ve established yourself as a notable cocktail historian, blogger and beer expert. Who are some of the mentors/role models you’ve been inspired by and learned from?
LC Oh boy, where to start. In the 1990s world of beer I worked alongside and/or followed brewers such as Todd Mott, Chris Lohring, Will Meyers and Dan Paquette. The late beer writer Michael Jackson influenced us all. Later, as a drinks blogger, I watched David Wondrich become our eminent historian of cocktails and spirits. I ended up being a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, which he edited. I learned to make pre-Prohibition and midcentury recipes by reading Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails and Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail. Finally, hanging out with the Boston bartenders who revived serious cocktails in that city was formative: Brother Cleve (RIP!), Misty Kalkofen, John Gertsen, Jackson Cannon, Scott Holliday, Josey Packard and many others were both mentors and friends.
MG You are a published book author! How did Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day come to fruition? Are there any plans for another book in the future?
LC I came back from a year living in California, with no job and a backlog of knowledge from my side hustles as a brewer, beer writer and drinks blogger. I ran into a publisher I had unsuccessfully pitched before, who asked if I was interested in pitching her on a history of New England beer. The pitch was successful, and I had a book contract! No current plans for writing a new book. Maybe if/when I retire.
MG This is an industry that creates tight-knit friendships and relationships. You can travel the world and inevitably find yourself sitting next to someone who is one degree of separation. What kind of lasting camaraderie experiences have you had?
LC It’s true. Overall, I have loved the people I’ve met in and around the hospitality industry. I mean, they all like to work hard and have a good time. When I was in Los Angeles after blogging about the Boston cocktail scene for five years, I went to the Varnish (a speakeasy in the back of Cole’s French Dip) for an after-work Martini. I was the first customer there, and while I was enjoying the first few sips of my drink I checked in on social media. About 5 minutes later, a guy came in and said, “Are you DrinkBoston?” “Yes,” I said, a little taken aback. He held out his hand and introduced himself by his own blogger handle, which I knew very well: ThirstyinLA. I ended up befriending a number of other cocktail bloggers in LA who I’d previously only known online. Back then we were a very small community.
MG And finally . . . when you’ve closed up the shop for the day, what’s your favorite libation of choice to sip on?
LC Hmmmm. Any wine I need to evaluate or reevaluate. Or a boilermaker (bourbon-rocks, beer chaser). Or both.
EDITOR’S NOTE We’d love to hear from you! Do you know of someone notable in the Massachusetts beverage alcohol industry? If you would like to nominate someone for consideration, please email Maia Merrill Gosselin at email@example.com.