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CX Obsession

Westland Distillery: Above and Beyond

For most people, thinking about whiskey conjures up images of foggy Scottish highlands, peat moss, kilts… and flannel shirts? That’s what Westland Distillery’s Founder Matt Hofmann hopes to achieve by making his Seattle-born whiskey just as authentic to the Pacific Northwest as those ubiquitous plaid shirts are.

But how do you build a brand and earn customer loyalty in a very established category (that you fully intend to disrupt)? Check out Matt’s talk from our recent CX Obsession event in Seattle, Washington:

Keep it authentic

Westland Distillery has made its mark as an American Single Malt, a category that doesn’t technically exist in whiskey (not yet anyway — there is a lot of support for it to be officially adopted). Whiskey enthusiasts  have a lot of options when considering where to spend their hard-earned dollars. How does Westland convince them to take a chance on their product?

By delivering on their unique authenticity and value, even when the client isn’t necessarily expecting it. For example, they only mature their whiskey in locally-sourced, Pacific Northwest oak. But the natural habitat for that oak is dwindling. In order to protect and preserve that habitat, they only use oak that has fallen naturally.

They could have stopped there, checked the “sustainable” box, and moved on. But because they are committed to going above and beyond for their clients, they also actively work with an organization called Forterra to plant new oaks and start reversing damage. Giving back is something that everyone at Westland knows is near and dear to a Pacific Northwesterner’s heart.

Clients, not customers

You may have noticed above, I say “clients” instead of “customers.” That’s deliberate. When Matt explains how they celebrate their customers, he tells us that “one of the key ways that we do that is by thinking about them as clients, not customers… In whiskey, I could go and sell you a bottle, and you could buy it, and then we could be done. But... if you are my client, then we have a relationship.”

Placing a priority on relationships over transactions is just one way they foster brand loyalty. Watch his full talk to hear about all the other ways Westland Distillery connects with their clientele.

Big thanks to Matt for sharing the Westland Distillery story with us. Be sure to stay tuned for more videos, stories, and details on our next event.

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My name is Matt Hofmann and I work in a terrible industry.It's that simple. I work in spirits. We started a distillery, and the spirits industry is full of lying and cheating and deception and a lot of things that aren't good for customer relationships. And that's not the style of business that we wanted to be in and it's not the way that we run our business.

So first a little bit about Westland, we're here in Seattle, and the core thing is making something authentic to the Pacific Northwest. Hence why I'm wearing the flannel today. I'll wear the flannel even when it's really hot outside to show how die-hard I am. And for us that means making single malt whiskey. Single malt whiskey is made out of barley.

For us, we want to make an authentic thing for our customers. We got a lot of really great awards, all those awards in the bio and everything were great, we got World Craft Producer of the Year, but the key thing here is what we're doing is new. We are selling a luxury product in a category that doesn't exist. Whiskey exists, but American single malt and single malt from Seattle is a new idea, and that's a really difficult thing.

We have customers who are coming into our brand and they are taking a risk. I can't stress this enough, how special our customers are to us because for them to come into our brand, there's a lot of great whiskey out there, from places all over the world including Scotland. When they come into our brand they are spending a lot of money to try something new, even with the awards. And we try to celebrate that all the time. One of the key ways that we do that is by thinking about them as clients, not customers. Now that might kind of seem obvious, or maybe it doesn't, or maybe it's just semantics, but the idea of a client relationship, you know in whiskey I could go and sell you a bottle and you could buy it and then we could be done. But if you were my clients, if you are my client, then we have a relationship and that means that I can't get away with pulling some stunt, like inventing some stupid backstory about my grandpappy's moonshine recipe or all these other things that happen in this business ad nauseam.

And it means being truthful. It means operating with integrity and honesty. The other thing is that we operate in something called the three-tier system, which means that we sell our products to a distributor and they sell their products or they sell our products again to retailers and bar  owners and then they take those products and sell them to the final customer. So how do you get all of those people to care? Especially when they're often financially incentivized to not care, and I really do mean that. I mean the amount of money that flows around in this business is crazy.

The core thing for us is delivering something worth caring about. I'm going to read something to you right now. If you're from the Pacific Northwest, I hope this strikes a chord. This is from a  guy named Adell Parker, 1894 U-Dub commencement ceremony speech. "That the West should unfalteringly follow the East in fashions and ideals would be as false and fatal as that America should obey the standards of Europe. Let the West, daring and unprejudiced, discover its own ideals and follow them. The American standard in literature and philosophy has long been fixed by the remote East. Something wild and free, something robust and full will come out of the West and be recognized in the final American type. Under the shadow of those great mountains a distinct personality shall arise, it shall adopt other fashions, create new ideals, and generations shall justify them."

That is the story of the West. The people going out and creating something new, which is why I'm not up here in a kilt. It's why I'm up here in my flannel and it's why our whiskey is emblematic of the Pacific Northwest and not trying to be Scottish whiskey. It's doing something that is worth people giving a shit about - and I apologize the language will start flying. That's a really really important thing here. We're in a luxury category. Nobody needs whiskey — you know, sort of — so how do you get those people to care?

And I think a lot of it... there's a lot of great things to talk about here as far as actions and responsibilities, but a big part of it is operating as a company with integrity even when people don't know to expect it. For example, we're using roasted malted barley. We could get away with a malted barley that has very little flavor and instead we use really flavorful barley like you have in dark beers — porters and stouts. Why? Well, because we want to deliver flavor to people even though there's no expectation for that yet.

The next slide that's coming up is different varieties of barley. They look beautiful. In Scotland, they will say that barley has no flavor. And so what we could have done if we wanted to keep that precedent going, was just use the same varietals of barley that are bred for yields, not for flavor, and we could deliver what the expectation is, but we're not trying to deliver what the expectation is to you, our customer, to our client. We're trying to deliver something that's going to really excite you.

The other thing you can look at is people. This is a farmer, his name is John Rusyn, we pay him triple the commodity price for barley because you don't make any money growing barley at commodity prices. We could get away with doing it at commodity prices getting it from another farmer. We pay him triple the commodity price because that's a fair living wage. Now all of these things matter, and it's really important that you back up all of these things with action.

The Garryana bottling is a really important thing to us too. This is whiskey that's been really successful for us. It was Whiskey Advocate's number two cult whiskeys after Pappy Van Winkle, if anybody's familiar with Pappy Van Winkle, very famous right now. It is matured in the local oak of the Pacific Northwest. Now that's gotten us a lot of acclaim. You can see here it is growing in the Pacific Northwest along the I-5 corridor. Problem is that it's only growing at 5% of its former habitat right now.

So we did the right thing. We only source oak that came from the Pacific Northwest that was naturally fallen, that all came down. We could have said, very good. We are sustainable. We're using a local product, creating a delicious product. But we saw this map and we were upset about it. We were upset about it because this is something that is true and important to us in the Pacific Northwest. So we need to do something about it.Not the minimum, don't do the minimum. Go above and beyond even when there is no expectation for that sort of thing. So we went out and we started planting. We work with an organization called Forterra to plant oaks.

We will have planted more than 2,000 by the end of next year in an oak conservation land. It's not our land, but it's going above and beyond. It's delivering value to people, value to your customers when they don't even know to expect it. To me, that's the big thing about trying to do something right, you know, doing right and doing good and making money are not mutually exclusive. I believe that at the core of my being. It's something that we strive very hard to do at Westland. [Applause] So — I wasn't quite finished but I do appreciate that — but it's true. To me that's all there is to it, is delivering value to people even when they're not looking for it, when they don't know that it's there. You know, treat them with respect and they'll treat you with respect.

So thank you very much everybody. Appreciate it.

About the author

Jenny Mayo

Jenny is AskNicely’s Marketing Coordinator. Her experience in both tech and hospitality give her a keen understanding and passion for customer experience. Outside the office walls, you can find Jenny hula hooping, crocheting unicorn hats for her friends, or walking her canine child, Stella (who may or may not have a tiny unicorn hat of her own).

Other posts by Jenny Mayo

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