FEW Spirits: Contradictions Result in Excellence

A craft distillery seems to be getting it right despite the odds

FEWSpirits_logo_bwFew Spirits, run by Paul Hletko in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, is based on a number of inconsistencies. He built a distillery in a town where prohibition ended in 1972 (40 years late) and where there is not a single bar, to this day. Further, Evanston was the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the driving forces behind the “noble experiment.”

Oddly enough, the co-founder and longtime leader of the WCTU was Frances Elizabeth Willard, whose initial are – F.E.W.

I asked Paul if he named the distillery and brands after her. His response was no. He named it Few as in selective, as in small, as in a few products. Whatever the reason, he makes outstanding spirits.

An interesting entrepreneur

Paul Hletko of Few Spirits
Paul Hletko of Few Spirits

“All my life, I’ve tried to be a creative person.”

Before I tell you about the products, let’s spend a minute on Paul Hletko, who is not your typical startup distiller.

He has an engineering degree from Michigan and is also an attorney. Prior to founding Few, Paul had a career in music with a rock and roll band, a record label and a company focused on designing and building custom guitar effects pedals. None of it worked out.

That led his creative efforts to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather who owned a brewery in Europe before World War II. But, instead of beer, he decided to become a distiller who produces true farm-to-bottle products.

While many so-called craft distillers source their alcohol from industrial distilleries, Few is all about local ingredients – all grain used in his products (corn, wheat, rye and barley) comes from within a 100 miles (often closer) from his distillery.

The products

FEW Rye Whiskey
FEW Rye Whiskey

In whiskies, Few produces a bourbon, a rye (outstanding) and a single malt whisky. All are exceptional products.

Recipe: Few Barrel Gin, Vermouth, Bitters
The Ginhattan recipe: Few Barrel Gin, Vermouth, Bitters

 

But, get this … Few makes three different style gins including Few American Gin, essentially an American genever with 11 botanicals; Few Barrel Gin, a gin aged in new and used bourbon and rye barrels; and, Few Standard Issue Gin, a gin that harkens back to traditional British navy gin at 114-proof. (See the recipe for a Ginhattan.)

I’ve sampled them all and, folks, this is what craft distillation is all about.

The Challenges

Aside from production issues, independent craft distillers face three tough hurdles – marketing, distribution and financial resources. Few Spirits seems to be handling them well.

Take marketing for example. In my experience, spirits startup entrepreneurs tend to be so in love with the chemistry, alchemy, their skills and recipes that they often neglect to focus on marketing and sales. I’ve written about some exceptions (Jackie Summers and Sorel Liqueur, Alison Patel and Brenne Whisky), so add Paul Hletko to the group. From concept to packaging to promotion, PR, social media, etc. – Paul knows what he’s doing. In fact, Paul travels all over the country promoting his products at tastings and at meet and greets. I met him in NYC last week at Whiskey Park.

Distribution is another obstacle. The large mainstream wholesalers will either not want to talk to you, try to become your partner, expect you

Paul Hletko and Ian Goddard of Blueprint Spirits at Whiskey Park
Paul Hletko and Ian Goddard of Blueprint Spirits at Whiskey Park

to buy your way in or, worst of all, take you in and let your brand gather dust. So, Paul has put together a “hodge-podge” distribution network that includes Blueprint Brands, a division of Great Brewers, craft beer distributors. From what I can tell, his potpourri of wholesalers seems to be working out.

As for financial resources, well, that’s none of my business. But from the look and feel of Few Spirits and it’s approach to brand building, I’d say they’re here for the long run.

Maybe he’ll change the name from Few to Many.

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Big Data and Booze — BeverageGrades® Website

Move over wine experts – a new approach to wine information

If you’re the average wine buyer you probably find yourself staring at the shelf to make a selection. Maybe you look at the ratings from Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. Perhaps you select by the attractiveness of the label. Or, you rely on the wine mavens and their recommendations.

Concerning the latter, a number of experiments with wine aficionados and their ratings suggest that they are more subjective than objective. (Check out Chapter One of Think Like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner, their latest book on practical economics.)

I recently came across an article entitled, “Wine tasting is BS. Here’s Why.” The author cites a number of reasons for this judgment including – Wine experts contradict themselves; we taste with our eyes, not our mouths; and, based on a 2008 survey, that concluded with “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”

Introducing BeverageGrades® Website

 

beveragegrades-1

This is a new venture developed and owned by Kevin Hicks (a former distributor) and Kevin Byrnes (an internet expert). Their website describes them as “the only resource for ‘objective’ wine, beer and spirits ratings and health & nutrition information.” You can find it here.

They claim to have the world’s largest database of wines, spirits and beer. (Although, the information they provide currently is only for wine; the other categories are in development.) I gotta tell you – it’s very cool.

First, they have conducted lab tests for all relevant flavor and aroma compounds as well as – are you ready – nutritional information including calories, sugar, pesticides, preservatives, heavy metals and antioxidants.

What happens is, you enter the criteria, wine type, region, varietal, price range, brands and you get an analysis of the wines that fit the information you entered. The brands that come up detail flavors, aromas, a Beverage Grade rating, and the average price, among other information.

gabe
The BeverageGrade system

But wait, that ain’t all

They have a feature they call Copy Cat® which, “Using science and technology, our data helps you find very similar (and often identical) tasting wines for a fraction of the price.” Nice. In the example I tried, a 2008 Jordan Cabernet at $46.98 was a 97% match with a Simi Cabernet at $18.75. They describe the match as “tiny differences detected.” They even provide what their analysis suggests is the “true” price for all wines in the database.

The site should become even more interesting when they turn their attention to beer and spirits. In effect, they have preempted the government and nutritional ratings for alcohol products.

Oh and by the way, their ratings are based on objective criteria.

But wait a minute… Does relying on the information from BeverageGrade mean I won’t be reading such interesting reviews as this?

A nose of melted plastic, burnt toast and deck shoes worn without socks, this one is a true gift. Every sip brings reminisces of sun tanning after a morning of mosquito bites and family conflict. Great for tonight as an accompaniment for anxiety and an uncertain future plus goes remarkably well with the movie Scarface. What are you waiting for? Say hello to your little friend.

Just as well.

Try it and let me know what you think.

Do you have any idea?
Do you have any idea?

 

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Book Review: Making Your Marque

100 tips to build your personal brand and succeed in business

book coverWhat does this have to do with the Booze Business?

Glad you asked.

James Espey, a good friend and business associate, wrote the book. James has been at the forefront of innovation in the spirits industry with such creations as Malibu, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Johnnie Walker Blue, among others. He was President of United Distillers North America and Chivas and Martell at Seagram.

If that’s not enough, he is the founder of The Last Drop Distillers LTD (producing rare scotch and cognac from literally the last available stocks) and was recently awarded the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth.

Here’s how the book is described:

Harnessing decades of experience in managing and developing top international brands, James Espey has refined his wisdom into 100 bite-sized tips in his new book MAKING YOUR MARQUE. His clear, down-to-earth advice has been carefully structured to benefit readers at all stages of their career…  At its heart is the importance of creating and nurturing your own brand – making your marque – in order to achieve business success and career fulfillment.

So, I asked James some questions about the book.

BB: What prompted you to write it?

James: I worry about the lack of mentoring and guidance in today’s world.  Everything is frenetic and instant. I have given a couple of talks at different graduate schools and this convinced me more than ever that people wanted a book addressing fundamentals but in a succinct and easy to read format.

BB: So the book is aimed at young people?

James: Not at all. There are three audiences – the young graduate starting out in life and thus the beginning of the book is crucial; the upwardly mobile 30-55 year old, the main target audience; then for people looking towards the end of their career, what to do next.

BB: Why is personal branding so important these days?

James: Everything is a brand and it’s as important to build your own personal brand, as it is to build consumer brands. Besides, it’s a very competitive business world these days and branding is vital.

BB: Tell us about your favorite sections of the book.

James: Here are some of the chapter headings.

“Your Own Vision:  Who do you want to be?”

“Who should you seek to work for?”

“Plan Your Exit from the company when they are trying to employ you because that is when you are strongest in negotiation.”

“Friends in the office – true or false”

“Be nice to people on the way up, with luck they may remember you on the way down”.

BB: Thank you James.

Making Your Marque is an entertaining and fun book but also a life guide. I plan to give as a graduation gift as well as to those changing jobs and retiring. It’s an engaging and informative guide to building a career.

The only complaint I have about the book (like most people who have read it) is that I could have used it when I was starting out. Or, when Seagram closed. Or, when I started this blog. Oh well, it’s never too late.

By the way, Making Your Marque is available on Amazon.com in hard copy as well as e-book.

James Espey
James Espey

 

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