In today's liquor world, is the concept of "independent" all about attitude?
Making spirits sounds like a glamorous job, but people find out pretty quickly it’s often a harder career to maintain than most regular desk gigs. Aside from actually creating the juice that goes into the bottle and running an operation with all kinds of daily challenges, one of the hardest parts of producing a whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy, rum, liqueur or agave distillate is finding a way to showcase it and build brand awareness. For the past 11 years, Dave Schmier has been providing independent brands a means of exhibiting their products at the Indie Spirits Expo, which takes place in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. As the founder of Orange V Vodka and Redemption Whiskey, Dave is intimately familiar with the inner workings of brand building.
2017 is an interesting point in the timeline of craft (indie, micro, boutique, artisanal, etc.) spirits. A little over a decade ago, it was somewhat of a novelty to market a whiskey, gin, etc. that wasn’t part of a large spirits portfolio, made in a small distillery and sold independently. Think of craft spirits like punk rock: Some brands had one or two hits and will always be remembered for their seminal outings. Some brands scandalously tried and failed to edge their way in with fake back stories and false claims about their source material. Others have tons of fans and are quite prolific but still have yet to make their big break. Some are still authentically and transparently doing what they always did, how they always did it and have a steady fan base. Some are taking an extended break as they regroup. Then there are the few who have been signed to a big label and now struggle to maintain a sense of authenticity. We live in a Post Craft Spirits era.
I interviewed Schmier about the state of indie spirits in 2017 and what to expect from this week’s show in New York City.
Amanda Schuster: The landscape of indie spirits (and all the various monikers they fall under) has changed a lot since the first showcases started 11 years ago. A brand can be owned by a large corporation, but still operate independently and be considered “small” in their philosophy. How does a brand with big funding and larger output/distribution expectations stay true to its roots?
Dave Schmier: The landscape has certainly changed, mostly for the better. Clearly we see many more micro-distilleries (craft distilleries, if you will) but also many more entrepreneurs who are able to to source spirits and create their own products.
What hasn’t changed is we still are in an environment where the big players have an outsize footprint on the business. Small brands from one person operations up to multimillion dollar operations have similar hurdles when competing with the big players and distributors. First, we never had any criteria for a brand to exhibit. Our philosophy has always been, “If you think of yourself as independent then we’ll take your word.”
Fun thing about Indie Spirits – they are all different, people products and funding. There have been many well funded indie brands, but the common face that the successful ones have is passion, integrity and innovation. Whether you are boot strapping or well funded those qualities need to come through. What is really new – with the success of craft/boutique brands – there is more public and industry scrutiny so brands big and small have to be prepared to interact with a more educated audience.
On another note, there have been quite a few deals where a big company has stepped in with financing, sales and distribution resources but left the founders in place to continue to grow the brands they started.
It’s been very cool to have some brands that have grown beyond what others consider “indie” to still participate in Indie Spirits Expos. Some brands that have been featured at Indie in the past include: Tuthilltown (Hudson whiskey), Tito’s, Redemption, St-Germain, High West and Smooth Ambler.
AS: Now that consumers have become more used to seeing and tasting craft spirits, how important is it for a brand to have a story to tell?
DS: The industry has always been about storytelling to some degree. Some brands have taken that too far and forgotten about authenticity. See above comments about more educated consumers – your story better be legit or you risk some blowback. That said, a story doesn’t need to be elaborate or even unique, but should make a connection to the consumer. It could be a family history, or as simple as our message when we built Redemption: “good whiskey at a reasonable price.”
AS: Any new brands participating this year we can look forward to tasting?
DS: At the risk of forgetting to include some worthy additions: US debuts of Gortinore Distillery and their Natterjack Irish Whiskey, as well as the Hooghoudt line of jenever from the Netherlands. Also the debut of Bravewood NY Bourbon by Jim Pickett and of course showing my own Bourbon and Rye.
AS: A couple of years ago I asked you if there were any spirits categories that you noticed had no or very little representation at the event. Has this changed? Has there been success in an indie spirits category you didn’t see coming?
DS: We’ve clearly seen more mezcal, I think genever will grow in the next year or two – more amari and fringe products like aquavit, and of course, more American malt whiskey. Brandy is also big this year and we’re excited to showcase brands like Copper & Kings.
If you’re in town on Wednesday, May 24th, you won’t want to miss Indie Spirits Expo at the Penn Club from 5 to 9 pm. Alcohol Professor readers get a $25 discount on tickets! To purchase, please click here and use code ALCPROF.
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