This is part of SevenFifty Daily’s 2023 Drinks Innovators series. You can learn more about the rest of our award-winners here.
Alcohol marketers and brand managers have been trying to reach new audiences—particularly where whiskey is concerned—for quite a few years now, but few have managed to win a broad swath of new consumers in a way that actively engages them.
But Trey Wade—who arrived in the whiskey scene with culinary know-how, experiential marketing experience, and tenacious passion—has helped conceive a formula to get people not only engaged with whiskey, but excited and in proactive pursuit of it. How else can one explain how a program he helped implement was able to achieve the sale of one barrel of bourbon (190 bottles) online each day for 12 days in just five minutes? Cumulatively.
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Wade, the chief experience curator for Blue Run Spirits, which was acquired by Molson Coors in early August, worked with the company on its 12 Days of Bourbon program in 2021 before he was hired in 2023. He quickly demonstrated his moxie for marketing, knack for sales, and ability to tap into diverse consumer bases by bringing his passions for food and sports to the bourbon world, and shaking up an industry that has historically been the domain of older white men.
In February, Blue Run introduced Chosen, Wade’s barrel-selection program modeled on major league sports’ draft process. Wade’s inventive and earnest marketing tactics are a natural fit at Blue Run, a whiskey company launched in October 2020 by an ex-Facebook employee, a Nike designer, and a political strategist, among others. It counts bourbon royalty like Four Roses former master distiller Jim Rutledge as an advisor, who has helped develop Blue Run’s releases with whiskey director Shaylyn Gammon.
Wade’s fascination with whiskey evolved from his interest in food and music. As a music major in college, he quickly discovered how tough it is to make a living in the field, so he detoured to culinary school. There, he learned the basics of what informs his work today as he selects barrels for stores, restaurants, whiskey societies, and private clients, as well as other aspects of his job, like curating dinners and culinary events to give consumers different and, hopefully, novel ways to interact with whiskey.
“Culinary school taught me to be more deliberate about what and how you consume,” says Wade. “It made me understand that you don’t just taste food, you feel it, too. It helped me learn to focus on texture, balance, and why something tastes the way it tastes. Being able to apply that lens put me in a position to do deep sensory analyses.”
Everything came to a head during the pandemic when he joined the Black Bourbon Society and met founder and CEO Samara B. Davis. She was struck by his willingness to ask questions and engage in online tastings, especially as a member in his 20s. (The Society’s demographic is 45 to 60, she says.) He soon became the vice president of national partnerships.
That enthusiasm manifests in his work today. Coupled with what Blue Run’s cofounder and CEO Mike Montgomery calls an “ability to talk to anyone about anything at any time,” Wade easily demystifies whiskey and pulls the rug out from the enduring understanding of the spirit and its classic iconography. And as a Black person in American whiskey, he’s the embodiment of the sea change—highlighting diversity and promoting inclusivity.
“American whiskey has gotten stuck in this easy marketing route of nostalgia. It’s comfy for whiskey brands to stick to history, but it doesn’t necessarily translate with all consumers in 2023,” says Davis. “For Blue Run to make a position for someone of color really allows us to redefine how bourbon is received. The fact that they left so much responsibility to Trey speaks volumes to how we’re pushing the industry in a modern direction.”
All of the work and collaborations he did with brands culminated when he reached out to Montgomery, whose appreciation for and trust in Wade was so immediate, that he let Wade write his own job description—and share his bourbon love.
“My passion for sensory and single barrels can bring consumers closer to a brand than almost any other experience,” says Wade. “I can talk them through a variety of whiskies and allow them to pick and choose what makes sense for them. Being able to have creative control and the autonomy to build different aspects of the brand—Blue Run gave me that and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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Liza Weisstuch is an American contributing editor of Whisky Magazine and the senior editor at Budget Travel. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Whisky Advocate, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.