A Shot of Customer Service: David Mandell
“It was one of those moments where if we weren't able to do this, the business was in real, real jeopardy.”
When a new business concept disrupts generations of tradition and hard-earned expertise, that means confronting the pressure of customer service and marketing to guide the business toward success. How do leaders navigate new sensitivities in a legacy industry?
Eighteen whiskey producers comprise the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail, something of a mecca for bourbon aficionados. They come to wander the trail and sample each distillery’s golden recipe—a guarded combination of grain types and grinds, cooking times and temperatures, yeast blends and finishing processes borne from generations of tradition and training.
Among the trail’s newest stops: Bardstown Bourbon. Founded in 2014, the distillery has decidedly less than a generation of tradition under its belt. But it has shaken the industry with a new approach: a “collaborative distilling program” serving brand owners and non-distilling producers eager to market their own unique whiskies.
Along the way, it’s learned a thing or two about rocking tradition—and serving customers.
For co-founder and WashU alum David Mandell, AB 1996, a lawyer and former chief of staff for several high-profile federal agencies, Bardstown Bourbon exploited an opportunity revealed when the US bourbon market began to boom. Indeed, its model was so successful, Bardstown sold out its own planned capacity before it finished building its facility. The company quickly attracted big-name brands, including a well-known global manufacturer that had committed tens of millions of dollars to a contract with Bardstown. That’s where a chink in the model first appeared.
Turns out producing custom whiskey for multiple companies isn’t easy. Everyone wasn’t always satisfied—including that high-profile customer. And when Bardstown’s master distiller balked at being questioned about his ability to deliver a product that satisfied their strict requirements, Mandell had to navigate the intersection of tradition and customer service—and quickly.
“Nobody was used to giving customer service like we were promising in this industry,” Mandell said. “And that customer was roughly 50% of our business at the time.” How did Bardstown Bourbon solve the problem? What did they learn from the experience? And how did one of Mandell’s earlier industry failures inform the creation of Bardstown?
- The Bourbon Trail homepage
- WashU profiles David Mandell in Washington Magazine
- Stoli Group announces hiring David Mandell at Kentucky Owl Real Estate to lead construction of a new distillery
- Raphael Thomadsen’s WashU Olin homepage
- Recent Thomadsen research: “Forecasting the spread of COVID-19 under different reopening strategies”
This podcast is a production of Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. Contributors include:
- Katie Wools, Cathy Myrick, Judy Milanovits and Lesley Liesman, creative assistance
- Jill Young Miller, fact checking and creative assistance
- Hayden Molinarolo, original music and sound design
- Mike Martin Media, editing
- Sophia Passantino, social media
- Lexie O'Brien and Erik Buschardt, website support
- Paula Crews, creative vision and strategic support
Special thanks to Ray Irving and his team at WashU Olin’s Center for Digital Education, including our audio engineer, Austin Alred.
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Download the podcast transcript (PDF)