When Mack McConnell founded Taster’s Club in 2012, he was on a mission to share the thrill of discovering a brand-new spirit. Over the past five years, he’s learned a thing or two about how to tell a good story, the power of collaboration, and the way spirits are kind of like cultural ambassadors for the places they come from. We caught up with Mack to learn a little bit more about Taster’s Club’s origin story and what goes on behind the scenes.  

Mack McConnell

What inspired you to start Taster’s Club?

Well, I was living San Francisco, and I had this little standing get-together with a couple of friends. We would all buy whiskey and learn about what made it special, and then bring the bottle and drink it together. And that was really fascinating to me. I sort of have this tick where I get obsessed with the things I’m into, so I started to learn everything I could about spirits. I thought, if I could just package this experience and give it to people, I might be able to get people lit up about this stuff, like what happened to me.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I love talking to customers! I’ve stepped out of that role at this point, but Christmas is coming and that means we have to be all hands on deck, so I’ve been talking to customers again. I love it when people call us up and ask, “So what do you guys do?” You hear from everybody, from a retired guy in Vermont to a younger college-grad in LA. Connecting with all those different kinds of people is great.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?

Building a company. It’s a complex task, and in order to execute any vision, you’ve got to build a team; you’ve got to get people to work with you. It’s a human, messy process sometimes. But assembling a good team that works with each other is seriously rewarding and helped us take the company to the next level. I think we’ve picked really great people, and finding those people is not easy. We’ve been lucky.

Let’s talk about the booze. There are so many spirits in the world today. How do you choose what becomes a Taster’s Club selection?

We try to find something at the intersection of interesting, high quality, good value, and that tells a compelling story. We want something that can’t be easily found at a liquor store. Why sign up if you can just go down the street and buy the same thing? So we try to seek out new releases and are increasingly offering Taster’s Club exclusive bottlings that are only available for our members.

And, of course, we want to get people fascinated with this stuff. It’s not that interesting to send you a bottle of standard Kentucky bourbon. But if I can send you a variation of that bourbon that’s not available on the wider market that comes from a small distillery you haven’t heard of but was founded by the grandson of a bourbon luminary, inspired by his grandpa’s recipe or something like that, we can tell a great story around it.

Is there one spirits category that’s particularly dear to you?

The new one I’m really into is mezcal. I’ve had the chance to go down to Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, a couple times for Taster’s Club to meet with distillers. The culture is so fascinating. We’d visit these small distilleries that were the size of my bedroom growing up. The distiller would sleep in one corner and his entire operation would be in the other corner of the same room. Then, he’d walk us out back and show us their agave.

In Oaxaca, there’s a spiritual side to their connection with mezcal; When they drink, they pour a little out for the Earth. There’s such a contrast between that part of Mexico and Jalisco, where Tequila is made. There, the agave looks like the corn in the Midwest, huge fields, everything perfectly lined up. Tequila is great, I’ll always love tequila, but I also love the contrast between tequila and mezcal.

Can you name one or two bottles you were particularly excited to share with members?

One of our first home runs was Hillrock Bourbon from Upstate New York. It’s an awesome product, all made grain to glass at the distillery, and people just loved it. It was right after I started the company in 2012, the early days, we didn’t have that many members, and people were reaching out saying “I really love this.” It was around Thanksgiving, and people said they’d shared it with their family and it made their holiday better. That was so cool, and that’s when I knew I was onto something.

Barrell Craft Spirits has also been a great collaborator. We did a really cool shipment where they gave us the exclusive release on Barrel Bourbon Batch 003B. We had a fantastic response. Their product is so high quality, getting Barrell to partner with us felt like a real privilege. After that we realized the more collaborations we could do as a company, the more we could set ourselves apart.

What do you think it is it about spirits that makes them so fascinating?

For me, it’s the cultural element. Here we have a thing made in literally every country in the world. Almost every country has some degree of their own variation on spirits. So to some degree, native spirits, the ingredients used, the production techniques, those are windows into a culture.

Going to visit those mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca was deep lesson in indigenous heritage and Mexican heritage. Bourbon is one of the only food categories legally protected in the United States by the FDA. In a peaty scotch, you literally taste the land in Scotland. How about rhum agricole? Here we have a rum really only made in ex-French colonies in the Caribbean, so you’ve got the history of colonization and its intersection with cane agriculture. You’re experiencing the world through something we all do: drinking.

What’s your long-term vision for Taster’s Club?

We’re a spirits discovery service. I want people to think of us as a trusted advisor. We’re going to send you stuff you can’t find very easily (and, sometimes not at all!), and we’re going to tell you what makes it special. It’s like we’re a bartender. It’s a Tuesday night, 1 a.m., nobody’s around anymore, and we’re like, “Oh, you like whiskey? Well check this out.” And then we just start pouring you stuff and getting you excited about it, leading you down a path to better and better stuff. That’s what we’re after.

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