Black Fig Vodka: A Star is Born

The World’s Only Fig-Infused Premium Spirit

Black Fig is a vodka infused with figs, but far from a flavored vodka. Actually, it’s a Distilled Spirit Specialty whereby actual California figs (roughly a pound per bottle) are naturally infused in a neutral grain spirit (NGS) without added sugar or additives.

From what I can tell, this is a home run and has everything going for it right out of the gate—a great tasting product, a unique concept, an incredible cocktail addition, and a passionate owner who knows what he’s doing.

Consider this:

Michael Davidson, the owner and CEO of Black Infusions, walks into a top restaurant and approaches the F&B manager, who promptly tells him he has no time to speak to him. Michael’s combined chutzpah and Boston charm convinces the manager to give him 10 seconds and “just taste this.” He does and the next thing you know they’re talking for half an hour about cocktails, using Black Fig in food recipes, and a large order for the product is placed.

He gets into one of the Total Wine & More stores and conducts a tasting and quickly sells out the three cases he brought—18 bottles in 45 minutes.

At ABC Kitchen in NYC, a distributor sales rep (MS Walker) pitches the brand, does a tasting, and the Food & Beverage Manager falls in love with it. The next thing Michael knows, Black Fig Martini is on the cocktail menu. They sell 25 to 30 (6-pack) cases a month.

I can go on but I think you get the picture. One sip of this product and you’re hooked. So, let’s take a closer look. (By the way, the brand won Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco Spirits Competition.)

About the owner

Michael Davidson is a born and bred Bostonian who left his successful family business to follow his dream to launch a spirit brand he came across. He was at a Mediterranean restaurant owned by a friend who served a homemade drink consisting of dried figs soaked in vodka. “That’s vodka? This tastes like liquid fig,” said Michael.

A light bulb went on and, after more than two years in development, the product was ready for market. Over the course of that time, a formula/recipe was developed, a contract bottler was engaged, legal issues were addressed, distributors were found, drink recipes created—and, a brand was born.

Michael is a unique kind of guy. I’ve met scores of startup entrepreneurs but he has most of them beat with his thirst for knowledge and information about the booze business; his willingness to make a difficult decision and still change gears when necessary; and, his understanding that without marketing and sales, a product cannot succeed. Above all, I’m very impressed with his passion for the brand and the business.

I’ve met with Michael a number of times in restaurants and he’s fun to watch as he gently but effectively pitches Black Fig. He listens, a trait many wannabe spirit entrepreneurs need to learn.

He’s gotten the brand into 12 markets with a number of distributors, most notably M.S. Walker, and some top on-premise accounts (ABC Kitchen, Bobby Van’s, Mistral, and more) and off-premise accounts, (Wegman’s, Total Wine & More, Whole Foods to name a few). The brand is currently available in the northeast, mainly New England and parts of the mid-Atlantic.

The product

In a word—amazing. As soon as you open the bottle, the aroma of the figs comes pleasantly through. It’s great straight and on the rocks, and you won’t believe what it does to a cocktail. But let’s start with the basics.

Black Fig is an artisanal product distilled with neutral grain spirit and naturally infused with California figs (about a pound per bottle) in small batches. It is 60 proof (30 AbV) and made without artificial sugars, flavors or colors. And, since the NGS (vodka) is made from corn, it is gluten-free and Kosher if that interests you. The product sells for around $30 per 750ml, depending on where you live.

Ah, but the real joy of this product is it’s mixability and versatility—it plays nicely with other ingredients and enhances your favorite cocktail like a Black Fig Martini, a Fig Mojito, Mediterranean Mule, or a Black Fig Old Fashioned. Michael also has quite a number of drinks that he invented like the Fig Flower, the Black Dragon and many more that you’ll find on his recipe page.

Black Fig martini

The Future and Challenges

Michael “gets it,” and knows that as a small startup he has to work night and day to increase traction and break through the clutter. One of his favorite expressions is, “Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and trying to get heard.”

But by far, his greatest challenge is being a one-man show. To succeed and grow, he will need to get some sales help, focus his time and energy on things that have the greatest return on the investment of his time, and probably both.

He literally does everything but has some marketing help (conventional and digital) from a very sharp woman named Kalen Junda. Kalen is an entrepreneur in her own right and runs a small marketing company called the Tobe Agency. In my view she is also a rising star.

Among the things I admire about Michael is that he’s not falling into the “startup trap” of expanding markets before he’s ready and thereby spreading his financial and other resources very thin. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about the future.

Down the road, he would like to move into southern and western markets. Hey, come on, a Black Fig product made with California figs? He’s got to be in the Golden State.

He is also thinking about what comes next and has decided on a line extension that he’s not yet ready to reveal publicly. He’s told me about it, sworn me to secrecy, and I know it will also be a home run. I guess I’ll just have to keep following and writing about him and see where this journey takes him.

I’ll just sum it up by quoting another favorite expression from Michael, which he got from VinoTapa restaurant’s drink menu— “Go fig or go home.”

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Craft Spirits Exchange

A new venture that blends commerce and content

Join. Taste. Share. Explore. That’s the motto of an online startup looking to help craft startups.

CSX Promo (Large Banner)

If you find yourself, as I do, leaning more and more toward high quality craft and small batch spirits products, availability and purchase are often a problem. All levels of the business – craft producers, retailers and consumers – face hurdles.

The craft producer has limited budgets, a cluttered marketplace and is generally ignored by the mainstream distributors. Consequently, it is difficult for these producers to build awareness and to gain significant national distribution.

Retailers have low margins, need to depend on large brand deals and face limited shelf space for new craft products. In fact, the first question from a retailer when you walk in to pitch a new craft brand is very likely to be, “Which of the products that are selling do you want me to take off the shelf for your new start up brand?”

For consumers, lack of availability is a problem. If you live in a large metro area you may find a nearby store that might carry what you’re looking for and maybe they’ll deliver it. But, what about in the suburbs or smaller cities?

You can use companies like Drizzly, Thirstie, Flaviar, DrinkupNY, Binny’s and Caskers but for the most part you need to know what you want and you don’t always have the opportunity to get a range of reviews and/or ratings.

The Craft Spirits Exchange (CSX) approach

CSX describes itself as “the first and only online community and marketplace exclusively focused on artisanal craft spirits

 

from around the world.” They provide consumers with discovery of craft products, detailed information and access to hard to find or unavailable products.CSX_logorelease-02

They see themselves as a platform that, well, is like TripAdvisor and Amazon rolled into one. The CSX community provides loads of information about brands, events, recipes, and interactive tasting notes and reviews. There are more than 1,100 spirits profiled on their site.

At the same time, CSX works with spirits retailers nationally to provide a single online resource for a wide range of quality spirits. You name the brand and chances are they can provide it.

As to producers, CSX does not, at this stage in their development, charge a fee for being listed. Instead, they have a brand partnership program that provides links to websites, social media, product offerings and more. In the program so far are distillers such as Tuthilltown Spirits, New York Distilling, Mezan Rum and Finger Lakes Distilling.

The people

This new venture officially launched on October 1st and is founded by Luis Troccoli, a man passionate about being an entrepreneur and a craft spirit advocate. I asked him what makes CSX different from other sites. “We’re both about content and exchange of information as well as an ecommerce site. I don’t know any who do both.”

The CSX team -- Kelly Magyarics, Luis Troccoli, Steve Gilberg
The CSX team — Kelly Magyarics, Luis Troccoli, Steve Gilberg

He also seems to appreciate that craft spirits are more than just about the process. “More than just batch size, type of still or yearly production, these spirits have a unique story or heritage, often produced through artful or otherwise creative methods.”

The Chief Marketing Officer is Steve Gilberg, a real pro in digital marketing and communications with a string of successful ventures under his belt. Rounding out the team is Kelly Magyarics, an experienced published wine and spirits writer and educator. Kelly’s postings are fun to read.

Startup Woes

Unlike many new ventures, they have the product and marketing under control. In fact, here’s an interesting article from New York Business Journal about their launch event, which was top-notch. And, their website has a great look and feel and is easy to navigate.

Like many new ventures, funding is an issue but CSX is handling it better than most. For one thing they raised a quarter of a million dollars pre-launch and have increased their seed round to $750,000.

Here’s a link to their current fundraising effort. Their demo video is here.

Worth looking into, folks.

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Sorel Liqueur Moves Up a Notch

Sorel Artisanal Liqueur has a new partner

The Buffalo Trace Newsletter (Industry News Update) and Wine and Spirits Daily have announced that the Mahalo SpiritsScreen Shot 2015-03-31 at 2.03.09 PM Group and Sorel Liqueur have joined forces. Here’s the story behind the story.

Mahalo cofounded Angel’s Envy (recently acquired by Bacardi) and also Papa’s Pilar Rum.

Sorel Liqueur is owned by Jack From Brooklyn Inc whose CEO is Jackie Summers. If you have been a reader of this blog then you’ve met Jackie, starting in 2012 with this post. In fact, I’ve written about him and Sorel at least four times since then.

From the first time I met him, I knew that he and his unique product were here for the duration; that he was destined to move forward and beat the startup odds.

Briefly put, Jackie and Sorel have, what I like to think of as, the 4P’s of growth.

Product

Sorel is a modern twist on an exotic classic. An artisanal hibiscus liqueur, handcrafted in Brooklyn, Sorel is based on a traditional Caribbean recipe. Its ingredients read like a World Almanac – Brazilian clove, Nigerian ginger, Indonesian cassia, Moroccan hibiscus, Indonesian nutmeg, blended with organic New York neutral grain alcohol. Its unique taste, aroma and distinctive flavor have caught the attention of consumers and mixologists alike.

What I especially like is it’s a terrific product over ice, neat or with a mixer. But, it’s also an awesome addition to other products like whiskey, rum, vodka, and sparkling wine. That’s why mixologists and consumers love it. In some respects it reminds me of St. Germain, but more universal in its use.

So, check the box marked, “it’s what’s in the bottle that counts.”

Perseverance

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 2.01.33 PM
Jackie Summers

And… persistence and patience. Three years ago, all Jackie had was an idea and a dream. Four years ago, he had a life-altering event (golf ball sized tumor on his spine) and was given a 5% chance of survival. He survived and decided to change his life “by doing something serious.” Jackie founded the company and Sorel was launched.

As if startup growing pains and headaches weren’t enough, along came Hurricane Sandy. Together with most of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and other fledgling distilleries, Jackie’s facility was literally under water. Five feet of seawater, to be exact.

Jackie didn’t give up. Just worked harder. When I blogged about him and Sandy (Oct 31, 2012), I said that he reminded me of one of my favorite expressions: What doesn’t defeat me makes me stronger.

People

Here is this newcomer to the booze business and right off the bat he does a few things – simple things – that most startup entrepreneurs don’t do. He listens and learns and surrounds himself with people who can offer advice.

In the three years I’ve known Jackie we have had dozens if not scores of conversations about the business. Truth be told, I’ve learned as much from him as he did from me.

And, by way of full disclosure, I am now on his board. Also on the board are Stephen Lewin of Lewin Brand Group and Diana Sonis, a successful entrepreneur and startup founder. Rounding out the team is Summer Lee, VP Sales at Jack From Brooklyn and among the smartest salespeople I know.

So add people skills to the mix.

Partnership

As I’ve written many times, the booze business is about people and relationships. All it took for the Mahalo people was to listen to Jackie talk about Sorel and share his vision for the future. They haven’t really worked on other people’s brands so Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 2.00.43 PMSorel is a departure for them.

They get to partner with a brand that’s poised for future growth and Sorel gets a world-class sales and distribution network run by Bill McGough, an accomplished industry marketing and sales executive with an incredible track record.

This is a ‘marriage’ made in heaven.

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