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Our Craft Boom Echoes all the way to France and Sweden

our

padI have been hearing about Our Vodka for quite some time but have not had much chance to scope it out. Now that I found time, I thought there would be a lot more there there. I only see US approvals for two in this series so far, to cover Detroit, and Seattle, as above.

I start this post with a skeptical but open mind, willing to be persuaded that it’s a good idea. My skepticism flows from how local can it be, with a company in France and another in Sweden, running the show? It also flows from, if this is really supposed to have some local pizzazz, could there be a worse way to capture its spirit, than from something boiled to and past the point of neutrality — as a matter of law, fact, and science?

The first article I happened upon seems to have readily concluded that it’s a bad idea. The Stranger doth proclaim:

Pernod Ricard is the corporation that owns Absolut, as well as Chivas Regal, Jameson, Glenlivet, Malibu, Kahlua, Beefeater, and on and on and on. Its Our/[Insert City Here] local-lookalike marketing scheme was first rolled out in Berlin last year; it’s now been installed in, or is imminent in, 11 cities around the world. … Holly Robinson, one of the co-founders of actually local Captive Spirits Distilling in Ballard, says:  “I do believe they will ABSOLUTLY be eaten alive by the community. Seeing they are opening a few blocks away, we are hoping to use some of their dollars to lure more customers to the neighborhood to see our awesome Ballard breweries, distilleries, & such… this is their way to get their foot in the door to a [local] scene that they’ve [otherwise] dominated for decades.”

There’s already an Our/Detroit Vodka. Over at Deadline Detroit, Jeff Wattrick has done a fine job of documenting Pernod Ricard’s especially disingenuous, icky marketing in Detroit, which manipulates that city’s situation in especially disingenuous, icky ways…

Wattrick says:

Craft spirits are a welcome trend. As with craft beer and local wineries, there is something fun about being able to get a well-made drink and then talking with the people who made it about why it’s so good. … Unfortunately, as with all things interesting and local, craft spirits have been co-opted. Consider “Our/Detroit” vodka. It’s locally produced! It cares about the community! It’s a project of the French distillery giant Pernod Ricard Group…wait what? Pernod Ricard, whose brands include Absolut, Jameson, and Seagram and whose annual revenues top $7 billion, is behind this faux-local vodka.

By this point, I am struggling to support this enterprise, or find somebody other than Our that has something nice to say. Let’s see, I do give the companies credit for trying do something hard, new, different. It looks like Our has dialed things down a bit, because the first Detroit approval, in June 2014, had a big reference to “Local Vodka” on the front label. But by the time October and Seattle rolled around, this had morphed to “Our Vodka.” At least Drink Spirits is sympathetic, saying:

There’s no ignoring that Pernod Ricard has a problem on their hands with their major vodka product: Absolut Vodka went from being THE import vodka in the 1980s to being only one of a dizzying number of contenders in the vodka space in the 2000s. The result has been a single digit decline in sales for the past couple of years for a brand that once seemed unstoppable (and given the volume that Absolut has, just a couple of percentage points is a massive shift).

The Absolut Company is set to work with local distilleries around the world, using the same vodka formula, to create vodka using locally sourced ingredients. The theory is that even though the fundamental core of Our/Vodka is the same throughout, the flavor and character of each city’s release will be unique because of the variance in flavor and character of local grain (or “locally purchased alcohol of regional descent”) and water.

We have no illusions that Our Vodka will move the needle dramatically in either direction for Absolut and Pernod Ricard, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal of it. Our/Vodka is the kind of cool and innovative thing you simply wouldn’t expect to come out of a giant corporation, and it shows that even the giants understand just how important craft spirits have become. …[W]e expect there to be quite an uproar in the craft space from distillers and their faithful denouncing Our/Vodka as “anti-craft” which completely misses the point. If their aim was to simply have a hand in craft, they could just snap up the often rumored for sale Titos Vodka, which is as good a craft image as money can buy. Instead, they are working with small distilleries, local entrepreneurs (in Detroit, it’s three women entrepreneurs. …

The vodka seems to raise some good and important business issues, and I am sure it makes a fine cocktail.

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Keep Spirits Nutty

I have not spent a lot of time in Austin, Texas, but I like the slogan:  Keep Austin Weird. I am thinking about this today because, quite often, it occurs to me that the alcohol beverage industry, similarly, seems to draw more than its fair share of eccentrics. In my view, that’s a good thing and helps make it a fun place to spend a career.

I am thinking about the distiller who lit his finger on fire in the office, to make sure we understand that his product is the real deal.  I am thinking about the client who owns a small island in the Caribbean, and once ditched his Rolls-Royce by the side of the road to sail around the world with a monkey. I am thinking about the Tequila importer who said 20 minutes was more than enough time to get across town, to our front section seats at Madison Square Garden, for Elton John’s 60th birthday concert.  (Little did I know that he’d park his big Mercedes at the adjacent curb and scurry up a back-alley entrance, midway through President Clinton’s introduction.)  I am also thinking about the beer executive who wore a green leisure suit, all day, on St. Patrick’s Day a while back.

It would not be better, if everything were plain like a Safeway-brand Vodka. In this spirit, I look forward to raising up a glass of Dumante Pistachio Liqueur — a nutty spirit indeed. A Louisville publication explains that David Dafoe, a “beverage architect” is one of the forces behind this unconventional product, along with lawyer-and-pistachio-devotee Howard Sturm. The Louisville article further explains:

Dafoe apparently is creating Epicenter, a center/distillery/entertainment complex where you can watch booze being made and bottled, then buy the first products made in downtown Louisville since Prohibition started 93 years ago. … For more than 20 years, Flavorman has been proud to be the beverage development partner for premier companies across the United States,” said Dafoe. … The Epicenter is part of a growing national trend toward artisan distilleries. While there were 143 distilled spirits plant licensees in the United States in 2006, there are now over 700.

We look forward to meeting the next fun and eccentric clients, and working with them to keep beer, wine and spirits off-centered — or nutty — or anything but boring.

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Make Your Own Spirits

It’s clearly okay to go home, add some tomato juice to your vodka, and call it a bloody mary. And it’s almost certainly a bad idea to go home and fire up your small pot still, to make just a little spirits.

Somewhere in the middle, we now have “High Proof Micro-Batch Distilled Neutral Spirit Designed for Infusing.” It comes in a 375 ml. bottle, at 160 proof. It is made by The Northern Maine Distilling Company, of Houlton, Maine. The first related approval seems to go back about one year. It mentions that the vodka is designed for “infusions, extractions, mixology, and culinary applications.” The information-packed website explains:

160 Proof?  Yikes!  Don’t freak over the proof!  The high concentration of alcohol makes Twenty 2 HPS perfect for infusing fruits, vegetables, meats, or dairy into vibrant liqueurs or flavored vodkas.  Think of the 160 Proof like a very sharp knife in your kitchen.  If you handle the knife with respect, it can perform amazing tasks.  Same with the High Proof Spirit.  It’s “sharp blade” creates infusions in hours, not weeks.

We think Northern’s COLA is interesting because we don’t know of too many other products designed for this manner of use. Also, the label underscores that TTB has no problem with strength claims on certain spirits products. This one has “High Proof” in big letters. Plenty of other labels have “Overproof.”

The site has many copyrighted recipes, such as “The Dude’s Caucasian,” inspired by Jeff Bridges and The Big Lebowski. Other eye-opening recipes include:

  • Smoked Gouda Infused Vodka
  • Caramelized Red Onion Infused Vodka
  • Failed Recipes such as Bacon Infused Vodka (“One of the simple rules of this game, like distilling, is ‘junk in = junk out.'” “These are not soy based Bacos, but actual real bacon pieces packed with preservatives so that they don’t need to be refrigerated.  Yum?  Maybe on a salad, but not in an infusion.” “The flavor was of bacon, but not pleasant.  It just wasn’t good.”)

I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out why Twenty 2 as a brand name. I assumed it had something to do with the consumer’s age, such that, e.g., 7 Teen would not be a good choice. The answer was not evident on the company’s website but may be here:

originally, the name for the vodka was Jewell Vodka. But a company out West already had a copyright [trademark?] on that name, so it was back to the drawing board. The couple decided to get a bit more abstract. … “We talked about doing Aroostook Vodka or Katahdin Vodka, but those are so obvious. We figured, let’s pick a word that can be freely associated with anything,” said Galbiati. “Twenty 2 could be anything. It could be your address, your birthday, a sports jersey. It can mean anything to anyone. It sticks in your mind. Plus, the alliteration is nice. A Twenty 2 and tonic sounds good.”

The same Bangor Daily News article also explains, about the owners and startup:

Starting in early 2006, Galbiati and Jewell quit their jobs and began the process of starting up their business. While getting a license for a winery or brewery is, relatively speaking, not uncommon, getting the license for a distillery is a much more involved process. According to federal law, a person can brew up to 100 gallons of beer on their own, or 200 gallons if two adults are present in a household. A person also can make up to 5 gallons of wine. Any more than those amounts, and a license is needed. … A person cannot under any circumstances distill any amount of spirits without a license. It took Galbiati and Jewell about three years to get the OK to start making Twenty 2.

When I first saw the 2011 approval, I was concerned about blowing Twenty 2’s cover, before they were ready, in that the COLA is only a few days old. But they are clearly ready. Of course they have the 2010 COLA, along the same lines, and the 2011 COLA is a public record — but also, Northern has a big website with a lot of information about this idea (plus Twitter and Facebook). On this topic, I will take this opportunity to reconfirm that we have no real interest in publicizing anyone’s news, before they are ready. We make no claim to be journalists. We will be especially careful not to publicize any client news, before the client is good and ready. In the case of non-clients, we may ask, or be guided by generally available information (or the absence thereof). If, as here, the company website has a lot of the same information, it becomes difficult to ascertain what could be sensitive about the COLA.

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Cougars on Facebook

Clos Lachance has two fairly new wines. CougarJuice and MommyJuice.

In the matter of lusty cougars, Peyton Imports was fairly early, with the Urban Cougar. Perhaps she is real, what with this site exhorting over a million members to:  “Join CougarLife.com and meet great young guys before they’re snatched up.” Foreshadowing that this theme may be over-ripe, or ripe for a trademark lawsuit, Cougar Juice Vodka slinked into the bar a few months ago.

The MommyJuice label also happens to mention Facebook on the back label, prompting TTB to assert that “Information on Facebook and/or Twitter must be in compliance with all labeling and advertising regulations.”

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The Dessertification of Beverages (aka The ChocoVine Sensation)

Congratulations to Clever Imports for propelling ChocoVine into one of the biggest trends across wine and spirits in recent years. The brand seems to be growing at well over 100% per year, and at about 1 million cases per year, may just be getting going, in view of the recent deal with The Wine Group. ChocoVine is wine with chocolate and cream; it is produced in Holland by DeKuyper.

At first, many people spoke snidely of ChocoVine, suggesting that grape wine is not the best match with chocolate flavors. But, to a large extent, this condescension has been overshadowed by admiration, purchasing, and emulators. Chocolais is one example of a chocolate flavored wine that has hastened down the path cleared by Steve Katz at Clever. But there are well more than a handful of other, substantially similar examples, such as this one. TTB approved the first ChocoVine label in 2007. Three years later, TTB approved the first Chocolais label and the first Choco Noir label, both in November of 2010.

A bit further afield from ChocoVine, hundreds of other examples continue to accrue, further showing tremendous momentum behind a trend toward the dessertification of beverages. Here we have Pineapple Upside Down Cake Liqueur, various alcohol infused whipped creams, and cupcake flavored vodka. Let us know of other examples and what you think.

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