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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Bulleit Bourbon: The Birth of a Brand

The True Story of How the Brand Got its Start

I’ve known Tom Bulleit since the 1990s and it was under my watch at Seagram that Bulleit Bourbon was developed and launched. Tom is a terrific guy, a real gentleman, and a smart businessman.

I saw some Impact Databank sales information the other day and among the top 10 super-premium bourbon brands, Bulleit is second only to Maker’s Mark in case sales at 1.2 million 9-liter cases (Maker’s is at 1.5 million), but Bulleit’s growth from 2016 to 2017 was 12.7% compared to maker’s 4.7%.

What’s even more impressive is that in 2000 Bulleit sold 180,000 cases while Maker’s Mark sold 1.4 million. At this rate of growth, it is likely that Bulleit Bourbon will surpass Maker’s as the leading selling brand.

So, the brand’s remarkable achievement has been the result of Diageo’s and Tom Bulleit’s efforts. Its launch and positioning in the bourbon market was due to the folks at Seagram.

Its start has always been an enigma to me and I set out recently to get the full story and to refresh my memory.

Let’s go Down Seagram Memory Lane

If you’ve read my book (forgive the shameless self-promotion), you know that Seagram was a whisk(e)y company in a world of vodka, tequila and other non-whiskey products. Starting in the early to mid 90s, the company acquired the distribution rights to Absolut, and at the same time, Captain Morgan and Crown Royal were growing by double digits each month. By the mid to late 1990s Seagram had consolidated its whisk(e)y portfolio to Canadian Whiskies (Crown Royal, VO and its line extension), Seagram 7 Crown, and Scotch brands (Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, and other single malt whiskies).

All other whiskey brands were sold or let out to pasture. This Included such terrific brands as Weller, Benchmark and my current favorite, Eagle Rare. The sole exception that comes to mind is Four Roses, which was doing very well as a bourbon brand in Japan but languished as a blended American whiskey in the US.

The puzzle to me as I look back on it is, with the portfolio changing and growing and many whiskies being sold, why did Seagram want a fledgling bourbon with a pretty awful package (at the time)?

The old Bulleit bottle

There’s another piece of the equation that may partially shed some light on this.

In 1995, Seagram bought 80 percent of the shares in entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. for $8 billion. The company was now in a new business and Edgar Bronfman Jr. focused his attention there. As a result, the owner “overwatch” returned to Edgar M. Bronfman (the Chairman) assisted by John Bernbach, a long time Edgar Jr. friend, an advertising and media executive, and a Bronfman/Seagram advisor.

How Bulleit Came to Seagram

John played a crucial role. At dinner one night with an attorney friend from a prominent NYC law firm, John was told about Tom and the brand. He naturally assumed that since Seagram did not have a bourbon, Bulleit would make a strong addition to the overall portfolio. He brought the idea to both Edgar Jr. and the Chairman.

Both Bronfmans were said to have some reservations. The younger Bronfman was not happy with the packaging (see photo) while the Chairman had some reservations about the taste. But, both liked the idea of a bourbon in the House of Seagram.

But why? Bourbons had been removed from the fold, Crown Royal was on fire, Glenlivet and other single malts were doing nicely, and the company’s focus was on Absolut and the commitments to the Swedish owners.

There are lots of conjectures as to the answer. Perhaps Edgar Jr. was prescient and saw bourbon’s return as an opportunity. Maybe he wanted to show investors and the company that, despite the entertainment industry involvement, the spirits business was still top of mind. Conceivably the Chairman, now returned to the forefront of the booze business, was excited by the idea of a bourbon product that was outstanding.

My guess is that when John brought in his team (copywriter and art director), he showed the Bronfmans what the brand could become. Edgar Jr. in particular loved the work of these two gents.

Bulleit 10 year old bourbon

Chuck Cowdery—writer, blogger, historian, marketer, and arguably the most knowledgeable bourbon maven on the planet—has written more than anyone about Bulleit. So, I’ll let him provide a brief history as reported on his blog:

Bulleit bourbon was launched in 1995, the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who, through his legal work, learned a lot about the growing international market for American whiskey. He contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, to make it. A few years later, he moved his operation over to Seagram. They created the current bottle and reformulated the product, moving its production to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Tom Bulleit

From the moment Tom walked through the door, and up to the closing of the Seagram door, Tom was a key player in the development of the brand. He worked with the production folks on the recipe, with the agency on the brand’s positioning, and with marketing/packaging on the look and message of Bulleit.

To me, this was a bit unusual. While Seagram often welcomed brand acquisitions, with the exception of Absolut, the attitude was often (to paraphrase) “thanks, we love your brand, here’s your check, we’ll take it from here, and here’s the door…” But, all of us from the Bronfman’s on down, welcomed Tom’s involvement.

There’s probably a couple of reasons for that, mainly due to Tom’s personality and approach—he’s smart, has the brand in his DNA, a team player, and overall terrific person to work with. Neil Gallo, who ran the day-to-day development of the brand, told to me recently that Tom would often say to Seagram folks something like, “here’s my suggestion, use it or not as you see fit.” His ideas were almost always accepted.

From my standpoint, I loved Tom’s “outsider” views and the way he interacted with our people.

Tom Bulleit

The Bulleit Product

Whether there was a Bulleit Bourbon product on the market or otherwise available to be bought in the 19th Century, was irrelevant to us. Tom’s proposition was 1) the brand traced its origin to Augustus Bulleit (great-great-grandfather of Tom) and 2) with strong brand credentials, the brand could be a winner. We totally agreed.

The production folks were energized by the fact that they would be working on a new whiskey (a bourbon no less) and would be able to use the outstanding bourbon stocks they had. According to Art Peterson, who was VP of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, the team presented samples from mingling bond stocks from inventory. These went to Tom and the master distiller for approval. Ultimately, as was the case with all Seagram products, the final approval of the liquid came from the Chairman.

Tom, for his part, had his ancestors recipe in mind—a high rye content bourbon. What was produced was two-thirds corn and one-third rye. (The bourbon corn requirement is 51%). Today the brand’s recipe is very similar—68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley.

Here’s how the Bulleit website describes the product:

Inspired by his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860…

The Concept and the Packaging

John’s Bernbach’s team (with Tom and Neil’s involvement), came up with a simple yet powerful message. This isn’t just a bourbon, this is a Frontier Whiskey. A powerful slogan followed— “When men were men and whiskey was bourbon.” I loved it, approved it immediately then brought it to Edgar Jr. for his final okay.

The slogan is gone but the Frontier Whiskey is still prominent in the current Bulleit packaging.

To me, the Bulleit packaging that was developed by Sandstrom Partners in Portland Oregon captured the concept perfectly. All the elements were there—a flask shaped, apothecary-like bottle, embossed branding, cork closure and, a minimal wraparound label that is slightly askew as though it was hand applied.

About that label… It was put on deliberately misaligned because it fit the imagery and positioning of the brand. It is part of the brand’s personality. However, in almost all operating committee meetings someone from production would invariably say something like this: “Great news Arthur, we fixed the label. It’s now perfectly straight.” This “great news” was always met with a groan and a request to leave it alone.

The Reactions

Not everyone in the organization loved or cared about Bulleit. Most of those in sales welcomed the brand since it had the backing of the owners or because they saw an opportunity in the bourbon business. At the same time, there were many who felt that Bulleit detracted focus and attention from the phenomenal growth of Crown Royal—a known winner vs. an upstart. Besides, there were other brands in need of focus such as Absolut and Captain Morgan, both recognized winners.

The brand limped along from the mid-1990s until the end of the decade. Then the lights went out as Seagram was sold to Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. The brands were split up and Diageo acquired Bulleit Bourbon.

The situation for the brand changed appreciably. According to data I’ve seen, the returning growth of bourbon began in the mid-2000s. Unlike Seagram, Diageo, while strong in scotch, did not have much going for it in American whiskies, particularly bourbon. Dickel and Rebel Yell hardly fit the bill to compete with the rapidly growing brands. As a result, Diageo had nothing to lose and much to gain by pushing Bulleit and its unique package and positioning. I’m told that Diageo’s sales folks loved the brand and strongly focused on it.

Today

In 2017, to meet the demand of Bulleit, Diageo built a distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky which will produce 1.8 million proof gallons annually, with the opportunity to expand further over time. It’s on a 300-acre campus with barrel houses at a cost $115 million.

At the current rate of growth of the brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the expansion were to happen very soon.

*          *          *

Lessons Learned

1. The role of focus

Seagram had strong and rapidly growing brands requiring concerted and sustained effort. Bulleit would have had to push itself to the forefront of the portfolio at the company. Even if Seagram had survived, I have my doubts as to whether Bulleit would be where it is today.

2. Managing a portfolio of brands

Diageo, seeing the emergence of a return to bourbon, had the good sense to back Bulleit at the expense of George Dickel (a Tennessee whiskey) and Rebel Yell (which was ultimately sold to Luxco in 1999). In short, Seagram’s roster of brands had no real room for Bulleit while Diageo did.

3. Hey marketing folks—don’t overthink it

I think there is a temptation among marketers to show relevance and authenticity by claiming a brand’s recipe dates back to 1830. It was smart to go a different route—just being inspired by Augustus Bulleit is sufficient. As a consumer, I care less about a brand’s history and background and more about what it is today.

*          *          *

I’d like to thank the following people who helped refresh my memory or otherwise corrected my recollection in writing this article. These included Neil Gallo, Rob Warren, John Bernbach, Greg Leonard, Sam Ellias, Art Peterson, and, of course, Tom Bulleit.

The Bulleit portfolio of brands
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Move over, Tequila and Mezcal

100% Agave Spirits Made in India

Back in 2014, I wrote a number of articles about Desmond Nazareth and his Agave India products, as well as how agave made its way to India. (See articles here and here.) Recently, I learned that Desmond has joined forces with Martin Grassl, the founder of Porfidio tequila.

Here is how their joint venture is described on Old Town Liquor’s website.

The joint venture was created out of the mutual respect of two entrepreneurs of disparate backgrounds but with similar creative minds. They shared a profound admiration for a botanical wonder, the “tree of marvels” as the Spanish Conquistadors called the agave when they encountered it in Mexico.

The product is called SINGLE AGAVE® 100% AGAVE AMERICANA EDITION (Code Name: S3xA). It’s not made in Mexico but in southern India— the Deccan Plateau, a geographical area where the agaves grow. As the story goes… the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains. The Agave Americana is the producer’s way of celebrating that 100-year-old event by distilling the wild plants.

I spoke with Desmond Nazareth or DesmondJi, as his brand is called, and here are excerpts from the interview.

BB: How did your relationship with Martin Grassl and Porfidio come about? How did you and he meet?

DN: The relationship was born out of respect for each other’s achievements and each other’s product quality. Martin noticed articles about Indian agave spirits appearing around 2012 in the Mexican press and contacted me.

It was both Martin’s and my opinion that agave spirits— be it tequila, mezcal or other— are unique precisely because of the botanical uniqueness of the agave plant (“the inulin factor”), the true and only star of the equation, not because they are Mexican-made.

The idea, of course, is not new, as it simply mimics what Baron Rothschild did for the world of wines 50 years ago by creating the first non-French wines in Chile and Napa.  It was revolutionary idea at the time.

Both Martin and I strongly feel that Indian agave spirits, made in our craft distillery (India’s first), should be viewed in the same league as Mexican agave spirits like mezcal, by nature of being made from naturally grown and foraged agave plants, as opposed to plantation-grown agave plants. The fact that my products are made from 100% Agave Americana, rather than 100% Blue Agave, takes our premium products intentionally beyond tequila, along the lines of Mexico’s finest mezcals.

BB: This is a special edition product, how is it different from your other Agave brands?

DN: It differs in terms of product formulation from our other agave spirits products. Certain adjustments were made to the hydrolysis, fermentation and distillation process to create a product which is more attuned towards international taste profile preferences, rather than India’s domestic preferences. For this first special edition, a traditional process of heat hydrolysis has been used, the oven cooking method.

BB: Can you discuss the nature of the business relationship between the two companies?

DN: Single-Agave 100% Agave Americana is a joint venture product between DesmondJi and Porfidio. It forms part of Martin Grassl’s brainchild “world series” of non-Mexican made agave spirits, such as agave spirits made from Agave Cocuy (Venezuela), Agave Australis (Australia) and Agave Karoo (Africa). Agave spirits can be made wherever agave is grown, same as high quality wine can be made wherever appropriate grapes are grown. France certainly never liked the idea of the coming into existence of wines from Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Mendoza, I guess it could not be helped, as it is the natural progression of things.

Agave India is essentially the ‘field-to-bottle’ producer of Indian craft spirits and Porfidio is a premium global co-branding and marketing partner We jointly decide what is an appropriate craft offering for the global market.

BB: Where do you see this joint venture going in the future?

The idea is to expand quickly into super-premium barrel aged expressions Indian Agave spirits, similar to Mexican Reposados and Añejos.  Ours is a step-by-step approach, with the Blanco-style expression simply a starting point.

BB: Tell us more about the story behind the idea— “the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains.”

DN: There are two happenstances which brought about the existence of Indian agave spirits. For one, the general nature of the so-called Colombian Exchange, by which the agave, among many other plants and animals, “went international.” In addition, the Agave Americana arrived in India as a cost-effective means of fencing off the British rails to protect its trains from killing or maiming animals.

While the British probably single-mindedly aimed at protecting their financial assets— their trains—the concept of this fencing idea was equally a culturally-sensitive decision by the British Crown in protecting India’s free-roaming Holy Cows, one of our spiritual and cultural assets.

So, the “agave solution” was embraced by the colonizers and the colonized, as benefiting both. Neither “them” nor “us” grasped the true dimension of this pivotal fencing decision as the Mesoamerica-sourced Agave Americana proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on Southern India’s fertile soils, the Deccan Plateau Highlands. Why the Empire chose the Agave Americana towards such purpose—used in Mexico to produce some of the finest Mezcal—rather than any other variety, is a mystery still to be fully uncovered by botanical historians. Whatever the reason for the choice, it unquestionably benefited us.

BB: Other than in the US are there other countries where you’re working together?

DN: The US is the world’s biggest market for agave spirits. So, we thought it a good idea to do the initial special edition product launch in the US. Our next target market is Japan and China, based on Porfidio’s existing distribution platforms in these countries.

Thank you, Desmond.

Indian Agave Americana
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