The Birth of a Brand

Look out Rumchata, here comes a serious competitor

Bom Bom CocoMochanut Sales Sheet-1A while ago, a friend in the spirits business introduced me to some very interesting people developing a new product. I thought it would be worthwhile to follow their journey. One company is driving the liquid and the go-to-market efforts, while the other has developed the concept, branding and product strategy.

The latter, is a unique agency called Cops and Robbers and is run by Patricia Verdolino and Richie Beretta. They describe themselves as follows: Part Ideation House; Part Creative Studio; Not a Traditional Agency; But Agents Provocateurs.

I found them to be such a breath of fresh air as an agency that I intend to write about them in depth in my next posting. For now let’s turn to the product and its development.

The Parent

Meet Kevin Mowers who owns the brand and has been instrumental in its birth as a product and liquid.

Kevin’s background is in science and engineering and he began his work life in product development in the food industry working with such companies as Con Agra, Heinz and Campbell. Along the way he got his MBA in Business Development and Marketing and decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Remember Jello shots? He developed a product called Gel Shooterz, which took quite a bit of effort to manufacture. Nevertheless, the brand overcame production hurdles and was on its way when suddenly the co-packer decided to sell and the new owners had no interest. The business did not jell.

Next came a stint at Diageo in the innovation area where he worked on whiskies, gins, flavors, distillates and other lab based efforts and innovations. Then one day he decided that his skills as an innovator and marketer might be put to better use. His company, Liquid Innovations was born in 2011.

The company consults and advises clients in a wide range of businesses and also looks into new opportunities to feed its entrepreneurial efforts.

The baby

Kevin’s new product, to be launched in early 2016, is Called Bom Bom and the first-born is named Coco Mochanut (mocha-nut). Here’s how he describes it:

Bom Bom Mochanut is an award-winning premium Caribbean rum made with cream, chocolate, coconut, and coffee flavor.

coco-mochanutIt’s a cream product that tastes, well, absolutely delicious. It’s slightly higher in alcohol than Rumchata – 18% AbV versus 13.75%. The product received a Gold award from a recent Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) tasting. Suggested retail price is $19.99 for a 750 ML.

Many consumers describe the taste of Rumchata as as the milk leftover after a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal infused with rum. Bom Bom’s Coco Mochanut tastes like a liquid Mounds or Almond Joy with rum. The target audience is millennial women aged 22 to 35.

Coco Mochanut is the first of a line of products with a similar approach but different flavors such as, Chocolate Bomsicle (think Fudgsicle) and Nutty Cup (think Reese’s Peanut Butter cups).

The Package

For some, the package might appear as kiddy. But it’s based on adult fashion trends.

As Kevin puts it, the product is “built on the chocolate loving kid in all of us that’s looking for some grownup fun.”

Patricia and Richie have this to say about the packaging, “It’s a contemporary fashion look inspired by Jeremy Scott, Pharrell Williams (BBC Ice Cream) and Moschino. It’s designed with the target audience in mind.”

And, by the way, the TTB approved both the liquid and the packaging.

The inspiration -- designers such as Jeremy Scott and Moschino
The inspiration

The challenge

Bom Bom is close to launch and Kevin is moving ahead full throttle in preparation for an early 2016 kick off. As is true for all entrepreneurial new spirits product launches, the key is distribution. But, the mainstream distributors, thanks to the dwindling number and big supplier pressures, are a very hard sell. In fairness, they already have a lot on their plate so it’s understandable that they will react cautiously, if at all. Recognizing this, he is smart enough to know that he needs to start slowly, demonstrate consumer acceptance and have patience.

cocktail_03-shakeMy advice to him is to spend whatever he can afford on product tastings where feasible and allowable. I also think the on-premise market will be very attracted to Coco Mochanut with such suggested drink ideas as the Fire Bom (with Fireball Whiskey) or Café Bom (with Patron XO Café) to name just a few.

Based on the tasting I had with my wife and friends his baby is indeed beautiful and will grow stronger each day in the market. One taste and you want to buy a bottle.

To my distributor friends and readers – want to meet the baby?

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Koval Distillery: Black Sheep of Booze

Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s

 

KOVAL-5

The word Koval means “blacksmith” in many Eastern European languages. In Yiddish, the word also refers to a “black sheep” or someone “who forges ahead”…or, someone who does things that are out of the ordinary.

I can’t think of a better description of the company founded in 2008 by the husband and wife team of Robert and Sonat Birnecker. Both came to Chicago from Washington DC and gave up successful careers to start a family owned business that paid homage to their grandfathers. One was considered a black sheep of his family for leaving Austria to become a Chicago businessman and the other was a distiller whose last name was Schmidt which is German for Smith, as in blacksmith.

That grandfather, by the way, was the person who taught Robert the art of distillation.

Kothe Still
Kothe Still

Koval Distillery is more than just a craft distiller. Much more.

What makes them special?

Let’s start with Robert Birnecker’s background. He’s a 4th generation distiller whose family still runs a distillery and winery in Austria. So, you can safely say that he combines traditional techniques with contemporary equipment.

This is a true craft distillery making grain to bottle products. The grain is certified organic and sourced from the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. The water is from Lake Michigan using a natural charcoal purification method. All the enzymes and yeast are also organic. To top it off, all their products are certified Kosher by the oldest and most trusted certification body.

But wait, there’s more.

Unlike some distillers who purchase or bottle premade spirits, Koval makes its organic spirits from scratch and using only the “heart” cut of the distillate for a cleaner whiskey taste. All of the whiskies are single barrel and aged in 30 gallon charred barrels. In fact, each of the bottles identifies the barrel number from which it came. They control every step of the production process.

The Products

Koval Whiskey products
Koval Whiskey products

So far I’ve tasted three of their whiskies – Bourbon, Four Grain and Rye. Sensational. The mashbill of the Four Grain is oat, malted barley, rye and wheat and it’s smooth as silk. The Bourbon is aged under four years and tasted smoother than products I’ve had that are twice as old. Most of all, I loved the Rye whiskey.

When I interviewed Sonat Birnecker, I told her how much I liked the rye and how different it tasted from most ryes I’ve had. She called my attention to the back label, which indicated that the product contained 100% rye. Many ryes on the market are 51% (which is the minimum amount necessary to be called rye whiskey) plus other ingredients (usually corn or malted barley).

In fact, what you see and read on their ‘transparent’ label is what you get. No coloring, no added ingredients, no neutral grain spirits, no nothing but what you are paying for.

By the way, their Rye Whiskey was awarded 1st place at “Best International Whisky” at Europe’s 2013 InterWhisky Competition. Who said I didn’t have good taste?

The Master Distiller

I have not as yet met Robert Birnecker but from what I’ve heard or read, he is a distiller’s distiller.

I found this about him on the Chicago Sun Times website:

The Birneckers are the stateside and English-speaking representatives of Kothe, the German still-maker responsible for the copper behemoth eating up their warehouse space. With that job, the couple’s workshops and their craft-distilling consulting business, Sonat estimates that the pair have advised one-third of the craft distillers that have opened in the U.S. and Canada in the past five years.

Yes, that’s right, in addition to running Koval, Robert and Sonat consult and teach distillation. Robert is also a key lecturer at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Among the distilleries he has helped set up stills are Journeyman Distillery in Michigan and Few Spirits in Illinois (see my earlier blog post on Few). These are top of the game craft distillers, I might add.

Other products

KOVAL_2014-Millet Web
Millet Whiskey

In addition to the three whiskies I mentioned earlier, Koval also makes Oat and White Rye products. Interestingly, they

Koval Gin
Koval Gin

produce a whiskey I’ve never heard of before – Millet Whiskey, described on their website as, Millet is a prized grain in Asia and Africa and popular base for spirits in Nepal, though this is the first whiskey to be made out of millet.”  Definitely on my ‘must try’ list.

There is also Koval Dry Gin, which my friends in Chicago think is the best on the planet. Here’s how Koval describes it…  Made with a unique variety of woodland spices… Juniper and wildflowers envelop the nose, while the taste is dry, yet vibrant – clean and nuanced by emerald grasses, golden citrus, and white pepper with a round, floral body.

Finally, there is a line of seven liqueurs ranging from the expected (coffee, ginger) to the exotic (orange blossom, rose hip, chrysanthemum and honey, caraway, jasmine).

Marketing

At the risk of offending my craft distiller friends and readers – most craft distillers are outstanding at production but very few seem to realize that there is a consumer at the other end of the bottle. Koval gets it.

Their labeling, or should I say award winning package design, speaks to the product and it’s craft/artisanal composition. As I mentioned, the label tells you which barrel it came from and what it’s distilled from.

The website is top notch, easy to navigate and easily lets you know where you can buy it locally or online.

They understand consumers and how to break out of the clutter with excellent PR and very highly praised distillery tours. They even have a barrel program in which you select the barrels and it’s customized to a store, bar, restaurant or even an individual. (Unfortunately, you have to buy the 25 to 30 cases that comprise the barrel. I’m saving up for it. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign?)

They are also available internationally in Europe and Japan.

*           *           *

Koval Distillery is a company in the finest tradition of the spirits industry. A company where they care about what they produce and how they produce it… where tradition and heritage are embraced and built upon… where state-of-the-art is not marketing hype. Above all, this is a company that’s here for the long run and building for the future.

There aren’t many like them these days.

Koval Liqueurs
Koval Liqueurs
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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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