Chivas Gin?

No, there’s no such thing. But the idea almost got me fired.

I read in Drink Spirits that they selected a Scottish gin among the best new spirits introduced at Tales of the Cocktail. Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin joins Hendricks as Scottish made. The brand is made from the traditional botanical mix plus distinctly Scottish botanicals.

So here’s the Chivas gin story.

When I ran new products at Seagram, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the tequila postings, filling gaps in the portfolio was a top item on the agenda. Oh sure, we had the top seller in domestic gin but with the exception of Boodles, we did not have an imported brand to compete with Beefeater’s, Tanqueray, Bombay and others.

Our research revealed that a strong overlap in preferences existed among scotch and gin drinkers. A scotch drinker was most likely to drink gin as a second choice and vice versa.

Based on this insight and lots of concept development work, my friend Sam Ellias recommended a Chivas Gin. Before I could say a word, he quickly added that it would not be Chivas Regal Gin, but rather, a gin from Chivas Brothers. The brand would use the Chivas heritage of distilling expertise and skill and apply it to a “white goods” product. Further, his research showed that attitudes toward Chivas Regal Scotch itself improved as a result of the more contemporary gin brand idea. Trust me, at that time, Chivas Regal could use all the help it could get.

I was convinced.

At the next new products review meeting we put the idea on the table for discussion and approval to proceed to the next development stage. There was strong support but something wasn’t right. Those in the room with doctorate degrees in “Owner Anger Detection” (OAD) became uneasy. I couldn’t understand it but knew enough to drop the subject based on instinct.

But not Sam Ellias.

A number of years later when I was running marketing and he was in charge of new products, he brought up the subject of a gin by Chivas Brothers once again. Not only was the research even more compelling but he also found a name that made the product clearly by Chivas. All he wanted was a real world test market with an action standard that if this gin product failed to improve Chivas’ sales, the idea would be dropped. Reasonable.

While I still didn’t have a PHD in OAD, I had a Master’s and strong survival instincts. I approached the subject gingerly and discussed it with a family confidante/consultant to gauge the reaction. Instead of debating the merits or concerns, he must have gone to the head owner complaining about the idea.

The next thing I know, I get a poison pen email from the owner, the content of which I will never forget:

If I ever hear the words Chivas and gin used again in the same sentence, heads will roll, starting with yours.

This missive came from the same office that had pushed such brilliant new product ideas as Von Konig Silberwasser (I think it was supposed to be a vodka), Bourbon Street Bourbon (billed as a New Orleans style bourbon, whatever that is), and my personal favorite, Chivas Danu, whose relationship to scotch continues to elude me.

Despite the amused reaction from my management, who assured me not to be concerned, the dispatch rankled me and I avoided new products and Sam for some time afterward.

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More Tequila Tales

The caller was annoyed and had a threatening tone in his voice. He got right to the point and informed me that he was a business manager for Jimmy Buffett. He quickly added that we had infringed on trademark and other intellectual property rights – I can’t recall the full extent of our alleged/supposed violations but I was intrigued.

When I politely asked, “What the hell are you talking about?” he explained that Parrot Bay Rum by Captain Morgan, which had recently been introduced, infringed on their established use of the term Parrott Head, the commonly used nickname for fans of Jimmy Buffett. (I remember thinking, “Is he nuts?” How do you trademark the term parrot?)

I knew who Buffett was and associated him with the song Margaritaville, but I was far from a fan, much less an aficionado. I knew he had a strong and loyal following but that was about it.

Instinct told me this gentleman had more on his mind than a lawsuit so I pushed back.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I countered. “Two floors below there are offices chocked full of lawyers who spend their time dealing with real and frivolous issues, so I suggest you take your best shot and do what you need to do.” There was silence but I could hear him blink. “Now, do you want to tell me why you’re really calling?”

He went on to explain that they’d like to have private label tequila for their restaurants and, since we didn’t have a viable brand (that hurt), would we be interested in producing one for them.

“Listen… private label tequila is not a good idea … you’ll make a nickel and we’ll make a dime. It won’t be anything more than a well brand… Tell you what … let’s talk about licensing Jimmy Buffett’s name for a tequila.”

The glee in his voice told me that I had just been played but, no matter, we needed a tequila brand and this might just be the ticket.

He informed me that they would prefer to use the name Margaritaville but the look and feel would be totally Buffett.

It didn’t take long to consider, particularly since a friend and wholesaler, one of the best and smartest in the business, recommended him to us. The deal was done, so far as I was concerned. Getting approval from management (not the owners this time) was another matter. It took a while.

Buffett’s man lived up to his end of the deal – wouldn’t you if you got a hefty royalty off the top? As for me, I became whatever the word is that goes beyond an admirer of Buffett, his music (made my kids so crazy by playing it constantly that they refused to ride in the car with me), his business and, of course, going to his concerts.

The biggest issue in the development was to capture the essence of the Jimmy Buffett brand. The next thing I know, the man himself appears at the office and lets us know that he is there to help with the back label copy. In twenty minutes, he produced the most incredible story that was totally Buffett. He is an amazing guy, top of the game performer, highly recognized and accomplished author and a decent, down to earth person.

In the few years that Seagram had it before the lights went out, the brand went from 5,000 to 50,000 cases. Afterward, it continued to grow but was bounced from company to company without, in my opinion, any significant focus or direction.

There is a happy ending however. Margaritaville is now part of the Sazarac Company and in good hands. In addition to the original tequila brands, they have rum and prepared cocktails including a skinny margarita mix.

Reminds me of his song, Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitudenothing remains quite the same.

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It Ain’t Always Carnaval

When the music stopped during the never-ending corporate version of musical chairs, he found himself with the glorious (or was it to be inglorious?) title of Executive Vice President Marketing and Strategy, Americas. A mouthful. Sounds better than it was.

From Canada to Chile, as he liked to say, he learned about the international side of the business, cultural differences, people and working style differences. In fact, Canada was a dream. Despite the business and profitability constraints, the Canadian operation was top of the game.

South America was another matter.

The Americas was run by a South American ex-pat who was smart and hard working but a micro manager with an occasional reluctance to pull the trigger. In other words, tough to work for.

But, all in all, the experience was terrific. Where else but in Latin America are the following expressions a life principle?

It’s better to apologize than ask permission.

A red traffic light is merely a suggestion.

All things are possible (said while rubbing the thumb, index and middle fingers).

But then, and even more so now, security while traveling was an important issue. On one of the first trips, for example, he was met by a driver/security person just outside of immigration who chastised him for putting his passport into the breast pocket of his jacket. He was informed that he wouldn’t get out of the building without having his pocket picked.

Big deal he thought. A friend had his wallet picked on the streets of Paris.

He heard about a French colleague mugged during daylight in Sao Paulo. Another had his computer ripped out of his hands in Mexico City. Most of his South American associates lived in gated communities but, unlike the US, the gatekeepers had machine guns.

So what, he thought, I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC and the world is a tough place. “Don’t rain on my ‘salad days,’”[1] was his motto.

Then one fine day he got a wake up call.

The Swedish partners decided to concentrate on expanding the business in Latin America and wanted to have a conference to discuss brand development issues in the continent.  The marketing folks wanted the meeting to be held in Bogota, Columbia. He wasn’t pleased but, whatever… never been there, how bad could it be?

To go there he needed a visa and had to go through Corporate to get things arranged. That’s where the story begins…

He comes into his office one day and Mary, his assistant, says, “You can’t go to Bogota because Leo won’t let you go.”

The scene shifts to Leo McGillicudy – the nicest and most decent person he had ever met at the company. Head of security and a former former FBI agent, Leo was a friend and someone he respected and admired.

“What the hell?” he said to Mary. “I’ll call him,” knowing full well if Leo said no, it was no.

He: “’Hi Leo. How’s the family?” (Pause) “Great…listen Leo, what’s this about my not being able to go to Bogota?”

Leo: “Are you nuts? Do you read the papers? It isn’t safe and I can’t let you go.”

He: “ Come on, it’s my job, how bad can it be?”

Leo: “Are you listening? The last thing I need at this point in my life is to go to Bogota and save your sorry ass.”

He: “What am I am suppose to tell my boss…”

Leo: “Whatever you want. You aren’t going.”

He: “But he’s from Latin America and I’m new on his staff…what’s he going to think when I tell him I’m not going?”

Leo: “I don’t give a s**t. Tell him I said he can’t go either.”

The meeting was held in Aruba.

[1] Refers to a person’s heyday when somebody was at the peak of his/her abilities

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