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Grainworks Old + New: A destination for bourbon enthusiasts

Shop owners said popularity in barrel-aged whiskey increased during the pandemic and has remained high since

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March 5, 2024

NEENAH — According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States — the national trade association representing producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in the U.S. — more than 31 million nine-liter cases of American whiskey were sold in the U.S. in 2023.

That’s up 132% since 2003 — generating nearly $5.3 billion in revenue for distillers, with high-end and premium revenues up 274% and super-premium up 2,150%, respectively.

Suffice it to say, bourbon, a type of whiskey, is having a moment, and the owners of Grainworks Old + New are primed to meet it.

All things bourbon
Brothers Chad Duncan and Brian Duncan, along with business partner Andrea Simonis, opened the bourbon market, located at 200 Main St. in Neenah, in November 2022.

The business got its start in 2017 through Facebook Marketplace, where the brothers said they bought and sold whiskey barrels.

Simonis said Grainworks is one of Wisconsin’s largest suppliers of retired whiskey/bourbon barrels.

Now, the 3,000-square-foot retail space offers a range of bourbons, bourbon-related food and gifts and barrel products.

Simonis said the space, complete with tin ceilings and original wood floor, features rustic aesthetic and neutral colors — therefore putting the focus on inventory.

“Anything we can find that relates to bourbon, we bring into the store,” she said. “In the last four years, the interest in bourbon has exploded. People got into it during COVID-19, and it’s stuck around.”

Simonis said Grainworks offers a variety of items, including giftware, cups and coasters and bourbon-infused food items, such as spices, sauces, snacks, maple syrups, beverages and more.

Those products, Chad said, proved so popular at the grand opening event that stock was nearly wiped out and he had to make a special trip on Thanksgiving Day to acquire more items to meet Black Friday demand.

Bourbon enthusiasts gathered in downtown Neenah for a bourbon drawing event at Grainworks Old + New Sept. 16, 2023. The shop had 80 limited bottles available and distributed 600-plus tickets. Photo Courtesy of Grainworks

Simonis said they try to source local products from small businesses for stock if they can — with bourbon-flavored gourmet popcorn from OshPop in Oshkosh and coffee by Bedrock Coffee Roasters in Neenah being two examples.

Other items for sale include barrel art and dÈcor featuring barrel heads, sides and staves, as well as items that can be custom engraved by Chad.

Simonis said many couples opt to commemorate their wedding date or anniversary on these items — though other businesses and larger companies are getting on board the custom engraving route as well.

“Instead of a plaque for a retirement, people are doing custom signs,” she said. “It’s cool to see the excitement over their special days and make those connections with people.”

Bourbon, too
Though Grainworks started out not selling actual bourbon, Chad said once a liquor license became available in Neenah, that changed.

The license also allows the partners to offer one half-ounce sample per day, per customer — which he said is also available during in-store tasting events featuring products from different distilleries.

“We originally started with about 20 different bourbons, now we’re up to more than 400,” he said.

Chad said they do a considerable amount of research to find out what customers want.

“We see what’s popular now, what people like and what they’re looking for in terms of batches,” he said. “It’s interesting. There have been times we’ve had hundreds of people outside waiting in line for certain bottles.”

Brian said some bourbons are so rare they are elusive, such as the coveted Pappy Van Winkle, which even they can’t get their hands on.

According to its website, Pappy Van Winkle is released in limited numbers and aged 10 years minimum, sometimes up to 23 years, before it’s released.

“It’s the most sought-after bourbon in the world,” Brian said. “If you have a $150 bottle it can sell for thousands of dollars. Bourbon has become like sports cards. People hunt them, and they collect them, and Pappy is like a rookie Michael Jordan card. We can’t get Pappy bourbon, but we can get Pappy products, like the hot sauce or maple syrup.”

Brian said most bourbons for sale at Grainworks range from $30 to $200.

Chad Duncan, left, brother Brian Duncan, center, and business partner Andrea Simonis opened Grainworks Old + New at 200 Main St. in Neenah in November 2022. Photo Courtesy of Grainworks

“We try to stick to the mid-to higher-end stuff because you can go to any grocery store and find the lower-end stuff,” he said.

Simonis said what differentiates Grainworks from other liquor stores, however, is that it will offer all varieties for one brand because it is not limited like liquor or grocery stores for shelf space.

“We try to stay competitive in price because we want people to come back, and we’re a one-stop shop,” she said.

For the customers new to bourbon and unsure which to choose, Simonis said the staff at Grainworks is happy to help.

“It can seem overwhelming when you walk in and you see that huge display of bottles at all different price points,” she said. “We try to help people out with choosing gifts and steer them in the direction of something that appeals to them as a customer as well.”

A part of the community
In addition to in-store events, Simonis said Grainworks hosts private tastings at Greene’s Pour House, a Neenah bar and restaurant located at 134 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Any profits made from private events or tastings are donated to local causes, such as food pantries, animal shelters or Toys for Tots, to name a few.

“Our customers have been generous, so that’s been awesome to do,” Simonis said.

All events can be found on Grainworks’ Facebook page, which Chad said has amassed a following of nearly 35,000.

“Social media is our main form of advertising,” he said. “It’s been good for us.”

As for the future, the Grainworks group said they want to continue to build on what they’re doing and perhaps venture out across the state.

“We want to keep finding those products so people want to come here and support local and keep us going,” Simonis said. “It’s neat to learn about. You can be this avid drinker with a huge collection, but what you taste versus what someone else tastes is different. There’s always more to learn.”

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