F. Paul Pacult

The Whiskey Authority—In More Ways Than One.

I first met Paul Pacult in the early 90s when I was running marketing for Seagram Americas. He and Gary Regan whiskey-authority1invited me on their radio show to discuss Single Malts and The Glenlivet. Over the years I’ve come to admire his passion for the spirits and wine industries.

I consider him to be among the top experts in the business. Consequently it’s not a surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to attend his first The Whiskey Authority (TWA) session in New York. Before I go into that, for those of you who don’t know him or of him, here’s a brief background.

Writer, educator, journalist, consultant, and more

In a 2006 article, Forbes described him as “America’s foremost spirits authority.”  His F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal (which I read avidly) is considered a top notch and independent source of reviews and ratings. He has also been a journalist writing for such publications as The New York Times and scores of magazines.

F-Paul-Pacult-256x300What I find most interesting is his consulting and educational training practice. In fact, when I was managing the introduction of a Mongolian vodka a few years ago, I turned to Paul for an evaluation of the brand’s taste profile and its strengths and weaknesses versus competition. What I learned was extremely helpful.

While there are many wine and spirits tasting competitions out there (I often think too many), Paul’s Ultimate Spirits Challenge and Ultimate Wine Challenge, are, in my view, the best and most meaningful. (Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about the spirits competition.)

A number of years ago, Paul launched The Rum Authority, described as “a series of seminars dedicated to demonstrating Rum’s universal appeal to both the novice and expert alike.” Which brings me to his newest endeavor, The Whiskey Authority (TWA).

The Whiskey Authority sessions

The inaugural session I attended was fascinating and well worthwhile. Here I am with none-of-your-business number of years in the industry, worked for the biggest and best (as an employee or consultant), and “been there

The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC
The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC

and done that” knowledge and understanding of booze. Well, I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I learned a great deal in the few hours I spent at the seminar.

First and foremost, Paul is an outstanding speaker/lecturer and very entertaining as he educates his audience about a serious and often confusing subject. The audience at the seminar is primarily bartenders (the critical consumer influencer these days) with a smattering of distributor sales reps and (ahem) one or two bloggers.

The session begins with a fun-filled and informative talk about whiskey including the critical elements and their role, all laced with amusing and engaging stories based on Paul’s 30+ years in the industry. Each of the products presented were first given the “nose test” then two blind taste tests. It was particularly fun to try and guess which brand was being tasted, before Paul revealed the brand.

Brand members support TWA and there were 12 brands to taste. Sue Woodley, Paul’s wife/partner, told me they had more than 15 wanting to participate but they felt that was too many for one session.

The session had whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. I asked Paul why he did that rather than concentrate on one particular country. His answer makes good sense to me:

“The guiding mission of TWA is to erase the conflicting and confusing information about whiskey categories, so Fiveit’s necessary to showcase whiskeys from around the world. In this case in 2016, we feature whiskeys from three nations in various subcategories to draw explicit differences. In the future we hope to have whiskeys from Canada, Japan, India, etc.”

I also asked Paul about the sponsors and why they participate. His answers were not surprising. TWA provides an opportunity for brand’s to have their story told to leading bartenders in important markets; to have their brand blind taste tested on “a level playing field” to highlight their virtues in a friendly environment; and, to be part of a program that’s purely educational.

I think it’s more than that. It’s all about Paul Pacult, an acknowledged and unbiased expert, who gives the presentation greater seriousness and credibility.

The brands that participated included Chivas, Michter’s, Highspire, Aberlour, Johnnie Walker, Redbreast (the one I fell in love with), among others.

* * *

In addition to the session in NYC, there was one in DC and one coming up on June 20th in San Francisco. Three more are in the planning stage for this year. But, they are by invitation only.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a showcase and opportunity that should not be missed by either large or small brands.

Hey Paul, where were you when I needed you? I would have had as many Seagram brands as you could accommodate at your sessions.

Yours Truly hard at work
Yours Truly hard at work
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Malfy Gin

Your views on gin are about to change

I’ve always found gin to be a fascinating category. While some will tell you that gin is really flavored vodka, don’t Malfy_Bottle_Fbelieve them. From my standpoint, flavored vodkas are based on added flavorings that, while not artificial, often taste that way to me. Gin is made with juniper berries, of course, and other botanicals as part of the distillation process. Some gins fall into the citrus camp but most use exotic spices and herbs.

What also make the category fascinating to me are the attitudes and opinions drinkers have about gin. Here are the five things I’ve heard most about gin.

1. Not everybody likes gin

Many of the consumers I’ve spoken with over the years seem to have a love or hate relationship with gin. The haters will tell you that they dislike the taste and blame it on the juniper and, as some have told me, those awful botanicals.

2. There are vodka drinkers and there are gin drinkers and neither the twain shall meet

3. The origin of gin is widely and strongly believed to have originated in the Netherlands with Great Britain playing the major role in its growth over the years.

4. Gin is to be either consumed in a cocktail or with tonic, and never on the rocks.

5. Gin as a category is not growing.

So, with these beliefs and opinions in mind, let’s take a close look at Malfy Gin.

An Unusual Gin from Italy

14770953_lIf you’ve ever been to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, you know about the beautiful scenery, the great food and those amazing lemons. Those lemons are at the core of Malfy Gin.

The Vergnano family distills Malfy Gin in a family run distillery in Moncalieri, Italy.  Although the spirit is infused with Italian juniper and five other botanicals it is the infusion of the famous Italian Coastal lemons, that give Malfy Gin it’s unusually fresh and zesty aroma. It clearly is not a traditional, juniper-heavy gin.

The gin is imported by Biggar & Leith (more about them in a moment) and is the “first luxury Italian gin” in the 12477426_lUSA. In fact the product carries the GQDI™ designation, which stands for Gin di Qualità Distillato in Italia.

Not only is the gin from Italy, but according to Biggar & Leith, “We were researching the history of gin – and there it was, staring us in the face; gin was invented in Italy – long before the British or Dutch.” I have found other references to Italy as the birthplace of gin, including here and here.

In addition, I emailed Gary (gaz) Regan (The Bartender’s Gin Compendium, The Joy of Mixology, The Negroni and more) and asked him about the origin of gin and Italy. He tends to agree and points out that the distillation of beverage alcohol began at the University of Salerno, Italy, circa 1050 – 1150, and juniper grows in abundance in that area. Since monks/students were seeking the “water of life,” it makes sense that they would add herbs to their distillates, so a juniper infused spirit would also makes sense.

The Product

Malfy Enjoying the ViewI found Malfy Gin Con Limone to be delicious, versatile and appealing to both gin drinkers and those who are not regular consumers in that category. I’m partial to Negronis and they refer to the Malfy version as the real Negroni—Italian gin, Italian vermouth and, of course, Campari. The Gin & Tonic was extraordinary with the prominent lemon taste and especially when enhanced by a slice of lemon (Italian, Meyer or California).

I also think that Malfy on the rocks was the most enjoyable way to appreciate the taste. Who says gin is only for cocktails?

Oh, and vodka fans I asked to try Malfy, enjoyed it very much. A crossover product, whereby vodka lovers enjoy gin? What is this world coming to?

About Biggar & Leith

Elwyn picThe company was founded by Elwyn Gladstone, a well-known spirits industry executive, most recently head of marketing at Proximo Spirits, and prior to that head of new brands at William Grant and Sons. Elwyn has been instrumental in the development and launch of such brands as Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, Kraken Rum, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and a host of others.

Here’s how he describes the company he founded and their first imported brand:

“Biggar & Leith owns a small portfolio of fine spirits from established, family-owned distilleries who are dedicated to innovation and quality. We search the globe for brands whose bottles transmit the personality and stories of the people who make them.”

The name Biggar & Leith comes from his great-great-great-great Grandfather, Thomas Gladstone. He left his home in Biggar, Scotland in 1746 for the port of Leith, near Edinburgh where he apprenticed and then started his own wine and spirits business. (It might also interest you to know that another ancestor of Elwyn’s is William Gladstone, the four time Prime Minister of Great Britain.)

If I know Elwyn, he’s already found the distillery and product that likely will come next.

The Score Card

I said at the outset that Malfy Gin would change your opinions and views about gin, so let’s tally the score.

1. While not everyone likes the taste of gin, I’ve found that gin rejecters, like Malfy. More than they thought they would.

2. The brand appeals to both vodka and gin drinkers.

3. The Dutch and the British may have made gin and genever famous, but I believe its origin was in Italy.

4. You can drink your gin any way you like, but I’ll have it on the rocks with a slice of citrus (usually grapefruit).

5. The gin category has two major components—domestic and imported. The former is declining. Across the board, small batch, crafted gins, both US made and imported are the growth engines for the category.

* * *

Malfy Gin sells for roughly $30 for a 750ML. It has only recently gone on sale so you might not be able to find it right away. But, trust me, you’re gonna love it.

I think my friend Elwyn Gladstone has a winner on his hands.

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How an Olive Launched a Brand

The Ketel One Story

Nolet, the distillery behind the vodka, recently celebrated its 325th anniversary and is run by the 11th generation of the Nolet family. While they rightfully take pride and recognition for this accomplishment, the real credit for the success of Ketel One (partially owned by Diageo) belongs elsewhere.

The distillery has been around since 1691 but they’ve only been producing Ketel One vodka since 1983. And, that’s where our story begins.

David van de Velde

I first met Dave back in 2010 when I started writing this blog. Here is that story. But, there is much more to the launch of Ketel One than I realized at the time I wrote that article.

David van de Velde
David van de Velde

In recognition of the sustained growth of the brand—reportedly selling at 2.1 million cases and the fifth largest import—and given the 325th anniversary, I contacted Dave to get more of the back story. Specifically, what were the most important elements in successfully launching the brand?

Before I get into that, here’s a brief historical context.

Vodka’s growth spurt began in the mid 1980s. The market was dominated by domestic brands (Smirnoff, Skyy was beginning its ascent, and others). Based on a number of factors, Absolut led the charge of the imports and became the poster child for vodka. Suddenly, two other market imports entered the fray with price points much higher than Absolut. One, Grey Goose, had a range of things going for it (name, packaging, country of origin, and the Sidney Frank team). The other had Carl Nolet Sr. and his belief in the ingenuity and business skills of David van de Velde.

The Challenge

The relationship with Carl Nolet, Sr. started with a handshake, a 20-foot container of Ketel One (litres and no 750ml bottles) worth around $20,000. Dave put up around $250,000 and no salary for two years. The US operation started in Dave’s garage in Sebastopol, CA under Luctor International, his licensed import company.

The obstacles were clear and considerable: Limited resources and going up against some powerful competition.

I was head of US marketing for Seagram at the time, and as mentioned in the earlier blog post, all I kept hearing about was this upstart brand and it’s appeal to bartenders and retailers. We paid some limited attention, but often Goliath doesn’t take action until David has made it too late.

How the brand was launched

Three elements became the focus of the launch of Ketel One:

1. An emphasis on the bartender and enlisting them as brand ambassadors.

2. Convincing the trade (sales reps and bartenders) of the taste superiority of the brand.

3. A very unique promotion and value added piece at point of sale in off premise stores.

The Bartender

Dave and Ketel One were not the first to recognize the power of the person behind the bar in influencing brand IMG_0490choice. But he did it in a most unusual way and with the help of technology. The most common approach to sway the views of bar and restaurant people—then and now—is face to face with brand ambassadors, sales reps, other bartenders, special tasting, events, and so on. But what do you do if you can’t afford this approach?

In Dave’s case, he told the Ketel One story on VHS video (this is before DVD) and mailed copies to the top bars, stores, restaurants, hotels, etc. He reports that, in his estimation, the videos were viewed by around 20% of those who received it, and that it created ambassadors on its own.

All I can tell you is that wherever I asked about Ketel One, a bartender or food and beverage manager would wave a copy of the video or tell me about it. While we take such actions for granted today, it was ahead of its time.

The Smell and Taste Test

At the heart of the Ketel One story was it’s clean, smooth taste, based on its unique (at the time) distillation process. How do you get this message across?

For Grey Goose, it was the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI) taste test showing Grey Goose on top of its competitors with a score of 96.

For Ketel One, here’s how Dave describes their program:

“We trained the distributor sales reps to do a “Smell and Taste Test” with the trade. That consisted of asking the storeowner or bartender to smell and taste a sample of his or her own favorite vodka. But, of course, when the alcohol touches the taste buds there is a numbing effect. So the next sample—which was Ketel One—with the nose and mouth taste buds numbed, tasted a lot smoother.”

The “trick” as he puts it, worked very well.

{For another clever/tricky sales taste test see the posting called Salesman in Winter.}

About That Olive…

Actually it wasn’t an olive, it just looks like one. It’s called a TomOlive and is a small green pickled tomato. “For a TomOlives_Aasmall company in the startup mode, it was extremely difficult to get Point-of-Sale (POS) materials into a store…so we decided to do something very unique,” Dave recalled.

It happened this way. Dave received a phone call at home from a stranger, who he assumed was a stockbroker, but turned out to be someone in the movie business. The man told him, “Find TomOlives, make a Ketel One martini with it, and you’ll have discovered the ultimate martini.” Dave tried it and it was indeed sensational.

(Having bought some recently on Amazon and tried them with vodka, I can attest to the fact that they taste great. In fact, we sometimes, add TomOlives to a salad to add a bit of a kick. But I digress.)

photoA week later, Dave was on his way to Alma, Arkansas to meet with the producer of the TomOlive. The next thing you know, he buys the annual production and co-packs it with Ketel One. Some of the Nolet people were “aghast” and said, “we’re not in the fruit business!” But he did it anyway and came up with a terrific marketing program that had bars, stores and consumers clamoring for Ketel One and TomOlives. It became the darling of the sales force.

I know this for a fact, because after telling me about the video, people would add, “and why don’t you have those olives?”

The punch line to the story is twofold. David van de Velde never found out the identity of the mysterious caller with the idea for TomOlives. Second, Diageo no longer uses the exclusive Ketel One TomOlive program. Sounds like an opportunity for another brand, if you ask me.

Oh, by the way, according to Dave, Diageo had the opportunity to own a chunk—if not all—of Ketel One in the early days but let it go by. When they finally got around to a significant investment, it had gone from millions to billions.

He’s Still At It

Power Assist Golf - StrikerOne

Finally, Dave continues to be motivated by the notion, “Find a Hole and Fill it.” He and some colleagues have invented The Striker-One™ Smart Golf Club. It is designed for golfers who can’t play anymore because of injury, disability, age or any number of reasons. You can learn more at info@PowerAssistGolf.com. Or contact me and I’ll put you in touch with David van de Velde.

A remarkable man with a thirst for ingenuity and creativity.

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