When some people meet a certain wine or spirit, they can have an experience that’s very much akin to love at first sight. The encounter with a new product can make such an impact that it even compels a person to veer off an established career path and construct a new one to share that cherished substance with the world. Keeping the true love burning, however, takes a serious commitment. While it may sound attractive to helm a craft spirits brand, the schedule can be grueling—and the monetary and personal investment can initially come at a considerable cost.
Becoming a craft spirits entrepreneur requires intimate knowledge of both the particular product category you’re entering and the quirks of each target market, tireless efforts in self-promotion, willingness to compromise, and boundless energy. How do wine and spirits brand entrepreneurs navigate this landscape and keep afloat in a sea of competing products? SevenFifty Daily spoke with beverage industry experts who have launched their own brands to find out what they think entrepreneurs should know before taking the leap and starting their own craft spirits brands.
1. The positioning of the product is key.
“Don’t do it!” exclaims Allison Evanow, the founder of Square One Organic Spirits in Ivy, Virginia, with a laugh. She launched her 100 percent organic rye-based flavored vodka product line in 2006. Evanow says the secret to getting a new product in front of the average consumer starts with developing “a very specific business model with a very specific plan.” Additionally, she says, it’s important to scan the marketplace for similar products, since overlooked categories and flavor profiles have a better chance at capturing the attention of distributors, retailers, and consumers. She recommends starting with a product that’s unique, speaks for itself, and “doesn’t require a hand-sell drop by drop.”
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Jean-François Bonneté previously worked in upper management at Cognac Ferrand in Cognac, France, and Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits in Stamford, Connecticut. He was also the chief operating officer of Pisco Portón shortly after the Ica, Peru-based brand—now known as Caravedo—debuted in the U.S. in 2010. Those experiences led Bonneté to launch his own wine and spirits import company, Bonneté Inc. (BCI), which has offices in the U.S. and France, in 2015. He believes the right product will inspire an emotional attachment that will ultimately drive loyalty. Spirits brands that have the potential to inspire such a connection, in his view, are family-owned brands, brands from unique locations, or brands that use interesting technology or production styles.
2. Adjacent categories offer opportunities.
When introducing a product that falls within a niche category, timing is key. Bonneté recommends launching an offbeat spirit when consumers are most receptive to branching out and trying new things. If they’ve become familiar with a category, taking the leap to something similar, but different, will make more sense. For instance, Bonneté was able to capitalize on the popularity of rum, a familiar category among consumers, and find success with Trois Rivières rhum agricole, a brand based in Sainte-Luce, Martinique.
3. On-site education pays dividends.
Some new products may not have the allure of the unique but can still be considered valuable additions to their category. Eric Brass, the founder of Tequila Tromba, based in Jalisco, Mexico, says he’s achieved success marketing in a popular category by not trying to be “all things to all people.” Instead, he emphasizes selective on-site education. “Pick the right venues that fit with your brand,” says Brass, “and educate the staff to better introduce the product to guests.” On-premise education is a better investment than offering deep volume discounts, he adds, which can appear to cheapen the value of the product.
4. Sales should be strategic.
According to Brass, a price point and profile that “match up with the needs of the on-premise [buyer] and the specific venues you’re in” are also key to sales success. A casual venue will be looking for value-driven products, while a high-end venue can typically afford higher price points. Is the venue a shots-driven, high-volume bar or one that caters to discerning customers? Brass advises researching venues first to decide which ones would be the best placements for your brand.
5. Teaming up offers advantages.
Networking and strategic partnerships can help grow your brand. Collaborating with other, complementary brands, for example, can diversify product offerings. Brass says that as a tequila purveyor partnering with high-profile mixer companies such as Q Mixers and Topo Chico helps him build connections with on- and off-premise trade members. If you’re representing a larger portfolio, Bonneté suggests diversifying the product offerings within your brand. In working with a varied portfolio of French spirits and wines, he says he’s able to fit the needs of many markets by promoting a range of small producers and highlighting niche categories. If some of the products don’t resonate in one market, others in the portfolio have the potential to make that connection.
6. Personal time is essential.
Working long hours and spending time on the road can put a strain on personal relationships, cause career burnout, and lead to physical and mental stresses. While it can be difficult for brand principals to create boundaries between their work and their personal lives, it is essential to do so. Evanow, a lifelong tennis player, found it helpful to join a tennis league. “I get exercise, competition, and socialization,” she says, “all at the same time.”
Be sure to notice the signs of work burnout, too. “You should love working, which should drive the ethic,” says Brass. “I think once you feel it to be a burden, something is lost.” He advises taking some time off to recalibrate if burnout becomes an issue but notes that the long hours are often worthwhile. “I probably put in three times as many hours as I used to in my day job,” he says, ”but I still wouldn’t even think of trading it.”
7. The endeavor is a commitment.
“These days, there’s no faking it till you make it,” says Evanow. Consumers are wiser about authenticity and have so many spirits choices. Bonneté recognizes that the reason people enter this business is to follow their dreams, but he wants entrepreneurs to understand the reality too. “Just know that it’s going to be tough,” he says. There are many other players on the field, and the job requires almost constant attention. “There are a lot of other successful entrepreneurs who have taken the same journey,” he says, “and taken on the tremendous amount of work with a tremendous amount of passion and resilience. Most of all, they’ve understood the risk involved.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to Jean-François Bonneté as a cofounder of Pisco Portón. The article has been amended to reflect that Bonneté was not a cofounder but the chief operating officer for the brand soon after it debuted in the U.S.
Last updated: April 25, 2019
Amanda Schuster is a drinks writer, food enthusiast and theater, music, and movie buff based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief of the online publication alcoholprofessor.com and the author of New York Cocktails from Cider Mill Press. Follow her @winenshine and @thealcoholprof.