September 11-15, 2017

From Cocktails to Convicts

’Tis the season, apparently, for record-setting trade show attendance. The latest organization to report bar-raising growth at its expo this spring was the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, whose 70th annual convention in late April drew nearly 2,300 wholesalers, brand marketers and service providers to the Grande Lakes Orlando resort in the town The Mouse built. There was no shortage of innovation on display at the expo component of the event, with everything from foodie-centric spirits, to a tipple inspired by the under-the-radar cell block shenanigans of prison inmates. Here are five observations from the Orlando event.

1. There’s a place for spirits inside pouches (and they don’t have to be frozen).
The pouch increasingly has become a packaging option for adult beverages, especially cocktails, but those tend to be malt or wine based and very frequently best served frozen. However, Good Time Beverages decided they wanted to put actual spirits inside pouches of its Bob & Stacy’s line (named after the husband-and-wife founders/management team). “All-in-all it’s a spirit-based line, it’s not a freezy drink like all those other things you see in pouches,” says founder Bob Whyte. “It’s like I say, you can’t make a real margarita with wine or malt. You need real tequila and triple sec.” In addition to a margarita, Bob & Stacy’s also offers a cosmopolitan mixed with real vodka. For those who prefer their spirits straight or want to mix their own, the company also markets Bob & Stacy’s Vodka and Big Barrel Brandy in pouches.

“Our product,” says CFO Stacy Sehee Hong, “is what a smartphone is to the computer world, where everything is at the palm of your hand. All of the information you need is in a smart phone—that’s exactly what we do with our products.”

2. Spirits are good food
Rave Review! from Miami-based Restoration Spirits is a product line that the company describes as “crafted for cooking.”

“It means we really thought about the food first and we thought about what a cook and a chef really need from alcoholic products,” explains Trinity Laurino, director of operations at Restoration. The company offers Culinary Blended Bourbon, Culinary Brandy, Culinary Hops (a hop-infused grain-neutral spirit) and Culinary Rum. “One of the things we found when working with that panel of chefs is that 30 percent alcohol by volume is actually ideal for cooking versus [40 percent and above]. We lowered the amount of alcohol and as a result the amount of sugar and sweetness in the product got lowered as well. It works really great when you’re cooking because you can always add sugar, the same way you can bake with unsalted butter.”

Every ingredient is heat stable, as well.

And of course, if consumers aren’t in a cooking mood, they always could just drink it on its own. “You wouldn’t want to cook with something,” says Laurino, “that you don’t want to drink.”

3. To differentiate your product on the shelf, sometimes you have to scare people a little.
Pumpkin Face Rum is pretty much what it sounds like: rum packaged in a bottle shaped like a jack-o-lantern.

“You look in the rum aisle and it’s really bland—it’s not like it’s the tequila aisle or the vodka aisle where there’s a lot of innovation with the packaging, it’s really in a traditional 750 ml bottled,” explains Mark Itzkovitz of Itsko Imports. “We seized the opportunity to bring [innovation] into it to try to get consumers to try really high quality rum.”But if it’s a high-quality rum, is it at risk of being overshadowed by its packaging?

“There are a lot of consumers writing to us saying, ‘Why would you put such high-quality rum in a pumpkin bottle?’” Itskovitz reveals. “And our response is you would never taste it if it wasn’t in a pumpkin bottle.

The company offers a white rum, a spiced reserve and a 23-year-old rum. It soon will launch a rum-based cream liqueur in a white pumpkin face bottle.

4. Product innovation comes from the most unlikely of places—like prison.
Who knew prison could be such a hotbed of innovation? It was the recreational fermentation practices of inmates that inspired Pruno, marketed by (not kidding) Convict Brands. “Pruno has been around since prisons were created,” explains Convict Brands president Brian Pearson. “Basically people had a lot of time on their hands with nothing to do...It’s said to be illegal, but it’s pretty mass-produced in prison. They would take anything from the chow hall, put it in a plastic bag, put water in it and they’d use bread as the yeast activator and they’d ferment it over time and consume it...We’ve decided to commercialize it.”

The packaging? A black-and-white striped bottle theme, of course.

5. Sake is more approachable than most think.
To many U.S. consumers, sake is still quite the liquid mystery. But Hiro Sake is out to change that. “We’ve identified a lack of branding in the sake category, says Marco DeStefanis, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Hiro Sake. “There are 2.5 million cases of sake sold in the U.S. and 60 million cases of vodka. How many vodkas do you know? A million. And every year there are more coming out. How many sakes do you know? Very’s very hard to love somebody when you can’t even read the name.” That’s why the company came up with the name Hiro—a typical Japanese name that’s short, masculine, easy to remember and simple to read. But Hiro’s not just selling a name. The bottle holds superpremium and ultrapremium sake made by a Japanese brewery that’s nearly 400 years old.

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