The Street Pumas might sound like a new line of sneakers, but it’s actually a line of well spirits named after a malapropism turned nickname derived from a misunderstood rap lyric. If that wasn’t far enough down the rabbit hole, note that a comic strip accompanies the product line.
If anyone but Nicolas Palazzi were behind it, Street Pumas would probably be dismissed as a gimmick. But if Palazzi and his small-scale import-distribution operation, PM Spirits, are known for anything, it’s that they blow up expectations about booze. The same buyers who purchase PM’s Navarre Vielles Reserve Cognac, which sells for a suggested retail price of $215 a bottle, are eagerly anticipating Street Pumas, an entry-level line of spirits that Palazzi and his team are creating. It features vodka, gin, rum, and whiskey that will retail for $30 to $35 per liter.
The relationship between the providers, sellers, and consumers of geeky spirits can be complex, but Palazzi and his team’s judgment is trusted, almost implicitly. Buyers seem ready to snap up Street Pumas practically sight unseen. “Nicolas has the best palate in the business,” says André Robert Guérin, the general manager at Ambassador Wines & Spirits, a small, highly selective boutique liquor store in New York City. “My friends and I in the industry can’t wait for Street Puma to land. I know they’re sourcing and making the line themselves, and if the juice is as good as I expect it to be and the price is right, we will definitely carry it.”
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Building a Reputation for Quality
Palazzi, in many ways, was born into the business; he just took a circuitous route to get where he is today. He was raised in Bordeaux, and he grew up making wine and Cognac with his parents and grandfathers. “I loved it, but it was just seen as a normal part of country life,” Palazzi says. “My parents encouraged me to go to engineering school, and I was good at it, so I listened. It took me a full six years after graduating to realize just how much I hated it.”
The last two of those years were spent in New York City, where Palazzi says he would “wake up every day, hating life.” So he quit his job. And decided to find a way to bring the beloved handmade spirits of his home country into his adopted country.
“I should have failed miserably,” he says. “I had no fucking clue what I was doing, and I didn’t have a plan. I just had this, in retrospect, crazy idea to bring in small-batch spirits made by actual human beings, made from products farmed responsibly and sustainably and then bottled without any additives.”
Palazzi has built his considerable reputation by “completely rejecting mediocrity and the corporate mentality,” he says. And in so doing, he has also managed to make Cognac and eau-de-vie seem not just cool but cutting edge. Initially, he worked to help buyers at restaurants and bars understand the manner in which terroir can and should be expressed in the classic spirits. Once they “got it,” he says, their young, urbane consumers naturally followed.
“People have become obsessed with what they eat,” Palazzi notes. “But then they’ll go to the bar and drink this trashy booze. That’s starting to change, and a certain type of customer is really starting to care about provenance.”
His first product hit the streets in 2009. Guillon Painturaud Hors d’Age, a Cognac that retails for around $200, came by means of a family connection; the producer was his grandfather’s friend. (The two lived a few towns away from each other, Palazzi explains, and shared an expensive harvesting machine.)
It was a hand-sell. Palazzi recalls hauling it around in bags, knocking on doors, introducing people “who didn’t give a shit” to Cognac and his philosophy. He’d explain that the spirits he was selling were made by hand, traditionally and sustainably. Slowly, a few bars and shops came on board, and PM Spirits eked by for a few years. But the timing was prescient: Soon, bartenders and shop owners who waxed nostalgic about a bygone era of sophisticated cocktail culture became entranced by Palazzi and PM.
Jim Meehan, the founder of New York City’s cult cocktail speakeasy PDT refers to Palazzi as his “most respected importer.” William Elliott, of the French-accented haute Brooklyn cocktail emporiums Maison Premiere and Sauvage, acclaims his “taste and integrity” over the “pervasive mediocrity and greed ever present in the world of ‘big liquor.’” Bobby Huegel, of Houston’s artisanal spirit meccas Pastry War, Anvil, and Better Luck Tomorrow, among others, says Palazzi “is the only person on the planet I trust entirely to buy spirits blindly from.”
At first Palazzi focused exclusively on Cognacs, then spirits from France (for example, the Calvados Domaine Du Tertre 1998), but as his network expanded and more introductions were made, he brought on Spanish brandies (like Navazos Palazzi Brandy de Jerez). Two and half years ago, he says, “the business took off.” Now he represents Indian whisky (Amrut Rye Whisky) and Mexican Mezcal (like Koch, Olla de Barra, Sola Vega Oaxaca) available to New York customers.
“PM Spirits distributes the best alcohol, dollar for dollar, in the business,” Guérin says. “At Ambassador, we don’t carry big brands like Jack Daniel’s or Patrón or Hennessy, but with PM’s Villa Lobos and Gin de Mahon, we can sell amazing, approachable small-batch artisanal spirits for $55 and $43 apiece.”
Growing from 20 to 1,000 Customers in Five Years
Leonardo Comercio came on board in 2013 (he and Palazzi met when he was working in sales at the spirits shop Winfield Flynn in Manhattan). Says Palazzi of that time, “I tried to improve my English by listening to rock music and stand-up comedians, and at one point I heard this rap song talking about the ‘grand pooh-bah.’ In my mind, I heard ‘puma,’ so when people asked what I did, I said I was the ‘grand puma’ of spirits. Leo would make fun of me because I was always at my computer doing work, so he started calling himself the ‘street puma.’”
Comercio earned his nickname. When he joined PM, the company represented five products and had 20 customers. Today, PM Spirits has about 1,000 customers, and Comercio has evolved from street puma, hitting the streets with bags of eclectic spirits, to his current position, managing a team of six salespeople.
By 2015, PM Spirits represented eight spirits (their first acquisition was a line of Armagnac, Domaine d’Esperance). Now the portfolio has grown to 50 spirits, which PM imports and self-distributes exclusively in New York; there’s also a nationally distributed portfolio available in 16 states, represented by BC Merchants in Illinois, Prestige Ledroit in Washington, D.C., and Victory in Texas, among others. (The national portfolio primarily comprises PM’s French and Spanish spirits.)
While business growth has been strong, Palazzi and Comercio know it could be better. “We have one of the most expensive portfolios in the business,” Comercio acknowledges. “We saw what some of the big industrial houses were doing—creating new, inexpensive lines of spirits and selling them with made-up stories about the makers behind them.”
Palazzi and Comercio saw “big liquor” going after the territory they’d staked their reputation on—sustainability, transparency, quality—and saw an opportunity to capitalize on their reputation and compete with industrial producers.
“I had a connection who wanted to sell us the raw product to make a line of well spirits,” Palazzi says. While considering the offer, he stumbled upon a unique angle that appealed to him personally and, he believed, would interest his buyers. “One of our friends in the comic world,” says Comercio, “has been trying to create a comic strip starring Nicolas and his team for years.” In addition to being fine-spirits aficionados and rap connoisseurs, PM’s team loves comics, and saw the opportunity to combine their interests by placing comic-strip labels on Street Pumas bottles. Comercio was immediately all in on the well spirits, saying that PM is ready “to cross over into different demographics. We want the average Joe to be able to afford to drink quality spirits.”
The new line is being sourced from field to bottle, with raw ingredients provided by an Equipo Navazos connection in Spain (Equipo and PM produce single-cask Spanish brandies together). It is produced by the undisclosed Spanish source—the identity of whom PM wants to protect for competitive reasons—and bottled in Spain, then shipped to New York.
Sourcing a Sustainable Well Spirits Line
The materials for the vodka come from Poland, the ingredients for the London Dry Style gin are sourced in Spain, the elements for the rum come from Panama, and everything for the Blended Scotch Whisky comes from Scotland. According to Palazzi, the ingredients he uses for the Street Pumas line meet the same rigorous requirements fulfilled by the producers he imports and distributes, ensuring that the products are sustainably and responsibly produced without the use of additives or enhancers. “For the vodka, the proof is just lowered, while the gin gets redistilled and the rum and whiskey get aged and blended,” Comercio explains. “That all happens in Spain per our instructions, without any added colors, sugars, or flavoring—except the gin, where that’s part of the traditional process.”
On the bottles, comic strips created by writer Frank Barbiere and editor Steve Orlando (who is also the upstate New York sales manager for PM) tell the story of PM Spirits. The launch shipment, has arrived in PM’s warehouse and is making its way to retail stores any day (restaurants can now place orders via PM) will flood the New York market with 13,200 bottles each of the four Street Pumas products. The team hopes that, in addition to appealing to a new demographic, the Street Pumas line will also help boost sales of some of PM’s other, more expensive products. Suddenly, buying a bottle of a limited series bourbon (like PM’s first custom domestic release, Mic.Drop, an eight-year-old high-rye bourbon issued in September that retails for around $99) or one of PM’s many $200-$350 bottles won’t seem as unreasonable. It can just be added to the vodka cases already on order.
How large is the overlap between comics fans and buyers seeking affordable and sustainable spirits? Palazzi is betting it’s big.
Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.