The Declaration of Independents

For small brands, their size and limited runs are their biggest selling points.

By Elyse Glickman

The revolution will not
be televised. In fact, it is finding its way into bars
with increasingly selective clienteles around the country. And selective doesn’t mean snooty. From neighborhood pubs and dive bars to craft cocktail-focused lounges and hotel bars, many of today’s customers are looking for something that is not a household name.

Independent craft distilleries and brewers have responded to that call to make great finds that also have interesting stories behind them. In some cases, they anticipated that call years before corporate brands realized they were being given a run for their money that not even the most clever on-premise promotions and merchandise could slow down.

“Millennials want to expand their buying power and their tastes and are moving towards learning more about what they are buying,” observes Jesse Cortez, Brand Director and Mixologist at Durham, North Carolina-based Bedlam Vodka. “They want brands delivering products better than what their parents drank and that are more relatable and authentic.”

Tim Timbs, Senior Vice President of B.S. (“Brewery Stuff”), at Unlawful Assembly Brewing Company (UABC), agrees, noting beer drinkers at large are looking for more innovation and taste. “We see our role as a craft brewery as inspiring and creating conversation,” he says. “When you try our beer, we want you to be impressed with its quality from the very first taste. We also want to challenge consumers to broaden their horizons.” 

The Little Brands That Did

Although UABC is based in Texas, where bigger often means better, Timbs says that its status as a small brewer with a small distribution footprint is one of the biggest things going for it. In their case, it is all about organic growth and not flooding the market as well as supporting businesses and causes in their community.   

Jim Mills, Head Brewer at Caldera Brewing Company in Ashland, Oregon, agrees as a founder of the first microbrewer on the West Coast to can its own beers in 2005. It was a time when global branded beers were prominent, and everybody thought he was crazy.

“The public wants to support the independents, especially in the Pacific Northwest,” says Mills. “Furthermore, with so many craft breweries that have been bought by big industrial breweries, it can be difficult for the layperson to differentiate a truly independent brewery from a craft brewery. However, independents like us now have a Brewers Association Independent logo on the labels to help the public make the distinction.”

Cortez, meanwhile, points out that just like his craft beer producer brethren, independent spirits producers have made the commitment to helping consumers, bartenders, and bars offer better beverage programs and beverages. It also presents the opportunity for bartenders to convince drinkers to try something new and unexpected. “We offer an artisanal spirit at an affordable price, which is great for the bar owner, bartender, and consumer,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a market that operates on the notion that one gets what he pays for. The whiskies and gins produced by Chicago’s KOVAL distillery fall on that side. Founders Sonat and Robert Birnecker Hart were inducted into the Disciples d’Escoffier, received a Small Business Award from the US Government, and countless medals and accolades in spirits competitions around the globe. They represent another kind of success story selective spirits aficionados love—giving up successful careers to risk it all to pursue their passion.

“I was a tenured professor before starting KOVAL and Robert was the Deputy Press Secretary of the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” recalls Sonat Birnecker Hart, the company President. “Our decision to make whisky came just after we had saved enough money for a down payment on a modest house. At this time, questions arose as to whether we should continue with our careers, or if we should use the money for something completely different. I wanted to be able to be with my children while working, and a family business was the logical conclusion. Instead of buying a house, we bought a still, moved into one room in my parent’s home with our baby, and started the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s.”

The couple was so determined, in fact, that in order to take the business to new levels, they focused on changing Illinois’ liquor laws. Sonat drove down to Springfield numerous times until she managed to get the Craft Distillers Bill passed, which allowed them to do tours, have retail on site, and a tasting room.

“This really helped us grow and educate consumers about our brand in a very direct, grassroots manner,” she continues. “It also made way for a proliferation of distilleries and distillery bars in Illinois, and the numbers keep growing.”

Having an interesting origin story like KOVAL’s is all a part of branding. Intrepid Spirits is not a producer of spirits but a cooperative of sorts, and its focus is on working with individual producers to develop, re-imagine, and brand artisanal spirits. Mad March Hare whiskey, Cocalero Clasico liquor from Bolivia, and Egan’s Irish Whiskey, therefore, offer accounts a world of new ways to keep their clientele engaged with origin stories as compelling as the individual products themselves.

“We wanted to have control over the distribution process so that we could truly bring that authenticity to the consumer,” says CEO John Ralph. “To this end, we have set up our import and brand management operations in key markets like the USA, Australia, and Ireland to carefully manage and support our brands right through to the consumer experience. This is quite unique for a company of our size, but we like to feel that it represents our passion for quality and long term success.”

Having it Made

When it comes to what’s in and on the bottle, independent producers have the edge in drawing in consumers.

“A brand of our size [a small company of less than 10 people] tends to be more hands on,” notes Bedlam’s Cortez. “We do everything ourselves. We are not just crafting our spirits by hand but building our entire distillery by hand. This is something that’s very relatable and appealing to today’s customers.”

Part of the Bedlam recipe for success was creating a very specific flavor profile for the vodka. Although the vodka’s recipe is rooted in an old family recipe, Cortez points out that the vodka going to market needed to be relevant and contextually connected to what’s happening in the industry. While it was moonshine in Ireland, the new expression was a fresh approach to vodka distilling resulting in a tasty and smooth spirit lacking the burn most commercial vodkas have. He also contends that bartenders at their accounts seek it for their back bar because it has a body and a flavor and it can stand up in a cocktail.

“Rice has a subtle sweetness, body, and complexity most vodkas don’t have, and we can truly say we are grain to glass, which is something not many distillers can lay claim to,” says Cortez. “We are involved with every step of the process, from mashing the grains to the distilling. Also, unlike many other vodkas, it is only distilled twice. When you think about it, a vodka that keeps the unique characteristics in is why Bedlam is so appealing and different from many things out there.”

Back in the brewery world, Timbs says Unlawful Assembly is more nimble than other brewers in terms of being more creative, innovative, and focused on ingredients. The Rebel Faction Farmhouse Ale, for example, uses local sorghum syrup.

“We take our time throughout the production process, and we’ll never cut corners or compromise on the ingredients we use,” says Timbs. “If that means going through five or ten test batches to get it exactly right, that’s what we’ll do. It’s all about attention to detail, and as packaging is part of our story, it deserves considerable care and attention.”

According to Mills, Caldera Brewing uses whole flower hops and imported specialty malts. “This makes our beers a huge asset for the bars that want to attract that type of customer,” he says. “It always goes back to quality and the diversity of our portfolio of unique ales and lagers. This ensures a continued track record for being a solid, reliable, and quality product, along with the [fact that the] labels on our packaged products are very colorful and eye-catching.”

Birnecker Hart counts several factors that help differentiate KOVAL from other brands, including having one of the most widely distributed artisan organic and kosher independent liquor brands. At the root of KOVAL’s reputation, however, is how it ushered in a new style of American whiskey, focusing on the pure heart cut of the distillate. This is in contrast to the common industry practice of adding “tails” (propanol, butanol, amyl, and fusel oils) to the heart cut in a barrel.    

Intrepid Spirits’ Ralph stresses that all of its brands were created in tandem with their partner producers expressly with today’s trade and consumer in mind.

“Egan’s Irish Whiskey is a joint venture with the Egan family, who take a front row seat on the development of the brand and work in the market on multiple sales and marketing initiatives,” says Ralph. “We developed Mad March Hare as a brand to bring Poitín—one of the oldest distilled spirits dating back to 6th century Ireland—back to the world of premium spirits. Cocalero is very much an ingredients and high-quality production story, rooted in LaPaz, Bolivia where small batch Cocalero de Altura is distilled. This commitment is followed through to Cocalero Clasico, our mainstream expression.”

 

Photo: Egan’s Irish Whiskey.

The “Local” Vs. The “Express” Train of Thought

“The local factor definitely plays a big role,” says Timbs, emphasizing that UABC distributes exclusively in North Texas. “People like supporting entrepreneurs in their backyard and like going to a bar and saying, ‘That beer’s from my hometown!’ It builds a sense of community. With more small producers entering the picture, it creates more competition, which we think is great. Competition breeds excellence, and we welcome anyone committed to making great beer! As our goal has always been to expand very organically, we do not want to have our products outpace our ability to service the businesses that carry our products.”

Along those same lines, Cortez notes that when the team is selling to bars within North Carolina, the local appeal is huge. However, when they sell to their accounts in Oklahoma and can’t play the local card, clients still appreciate that they are the little guy fighting the good fight. Caldera, meanwhile, sets out to buy as many products from the Northwest as possible. Its restaurant customers, meanwhile, are touring local breweries and stop in to try new releases and favorite beers.

“They usually end up drinking pints and ordering food,” Mills observes. “Some have actually booked a room in the adjacent hotel so they try as many beers as possible out of the 45 Caldera beers we have on tap. It also seems as though the majority of the customers, especially in the Northwest, want the ‘newest and latest’ style.”

Birnecker Hart agrees regional aspects of the products are also a plus, as it brings more diversity to the marketplace as well as a more regional identity. However, she acknowledges she has to be mindful of buyers from bars and restaurants making executive decisions between stocking products from the little guy over a more established brand, particularly as the large brands and their distributors are aggressively competitive—even with some crackdowns on monopolistic practices in some areas.

She also points out that while today’s climate in the spirits marketplace affords a level of openness towards artisan brands, there is also more overall competition in the industry and opportunities that can be found through adversity.

“This year has seen the consolidation of the four largest American distributors into two and the road to market is rough for a number of reasons,” she explains. “Since manufacturers are not able to sell direct, it is difficult to get to interested consumers in other states unless one has an active distributor getting the brand on the shelf. I think that social media has afforded somewhat of an opportunity for promotion where before brands tended to engage in more traditional advertising campaigns that were more the domain of the big guys. Yet, there is also greater opportunity on the local market for brands to reach out directly through tastings rooms and individual retail components to distilleries that did not really exist before.”

 

Every Bottle, Can,
and Glass Tells A Story

This is where creativity with on-premise marketing comes in. As Caldera turned 21 in August (“of legal drinking age”), it is appealing to bartenders and owners to ask their distributors to bring in Caldera beers, and recommending the use of tasters and taster trays so customers can order a pint or flight with confidence.

With the Intrepid Spirits portfolio, Ralph says the best way to introduce a completely unfamiliar spirit is to add it to the drink menu. While poitín may take a little more explanation than gin or whiskey, the bartender at the account can tell the story behind it while showing them how they can drink it through the spirits’ integration into various recipes.

“It’s important to train your staff,” says Ralph. “Hold regular staff training sessions and tastings. Encourage them to experiment with the new products. Introducing unique craft spirits such as Cocalero, which is the number-one selling imported liqueur in Japan, into a bar program demonstrates the staff has knowledge of global drink trends and keeps your bar relevant. I also suggest taking it one step further, offering seasonal or rotating cocktail specials featuring these brands, adding a short line or two about the spirit on the menu, and bringing the product’s back story to light.”

As Cortez sees it, the packaging and story behind Bedlam provides an educational opportunity for their accounts’ bartenders, especially when they discuss why different spirits categories that are trending right now, like gin and whiskey, taste the way they do.

“Most vodka bottles are tall and sleek while Bedlam is what could be described as a whiskey bottle as it is made from darker glass that is irregularly shaped with bumps and curves,” he says. “Bedlam’s label almost feels tattooed on with the way it’s printed, and the design really tells an abbreviated version of our origin story about how we came to be. It is busy, intriguing, and gets customers talking to bartenders and prompts questions.”

“Artisan brands do a number of unique things,” says Birnecker Hart. “We engage in a bunch of collaborations each year. We just distilled some of [Chicago-based brewer] Goose Island’s beer. We also engage in other fun projects such as our ‘Susan for President’ line of fruit brandies. Our main line products have fun and exciting mash bills. All of these things are points of differentiation and offer a lot of material for bars and restaurants to share with their customers to show that they are seeking out a special experience for their customers.”

Timbs points out that UABC has a great marketing and storytelling asset in its “beer monger,” Ellie Geller, who is a master in knowing what sells with patrons at various accounts. While customers will always have their “go-tos,” the more curious among them know that they could be missing something if they don’t explore and try new things. And buyers and owners should be the place where they will find those new favorites.

“We believe in trial, discovery, and experimentation,” says Timbs. “After all, isn’t that part of the American spirit?”