Philip Duff: How to get your craft liquor brand off the ground

Philip Duff

26 October 2017

So, everything is ticking along. Someone will distil your liquid, fill your bottles, apply your labels and seal with your closures; some time later a truck will park and a ship will dock or (if you had unforeseen delays and have to fly the bloody stuff in at massive expense to hit your launch date) a plane will land.

The agents and distributors you work with will get it past customs and into a warehouse, and they’ll courier you samples to your home and ship some cases to your launch event.

You’ll have a great launch and everyone will tell you the brand is amazing and it tastes delicious you’re a genius and where can they get some? You will go to bed happy, drifting off to a contented sleep, smartphone in hand, after seeing all the check-ins and likes and hashtags that have been shared and retweeted.

And the next day you will wake up to a burning question: how do you really do this thing, on a day-to-day basis? Sell liquor? It’s just you, against everyone else.

You need a plan.

I suggest your plan be: cashflow, story, social media, influence account targets, media targets, volume accounts, trade media.


This is the highest daily priority of every small businessperson and with good reason; unless you own your own distillery, you have to pay for production as soon as it's shipped, but you don’t get paid for at least 90 days (the first 7-20 of which are tied up with transporting the goods). As we’ve mentioned before, this can lead to the paradox that the more bottles you sell, the less cash you have. Let me reduce your cashflow concerns to a few bullet points:

  1. Raise money (for cashflow, among others things) a year before you need it
  2. Obsess over sales numbers and re-order so you will have fresh product in the market well before the previous shipment runs out. Forecast demand. Don’t gamble – being out-of-stock is the kiss of death
  3. Factor your shipments. For a relatively small percentage of the invoice total, a trade financing company will pay you as soon as the distillery loads your bottles onto the transport. This can save you
  4. Beg, borrow or steal a copy of Every Bastard Says No by Justine Troy & Geoff Ross, co-founders of 42 Below Vodka; it is a salutary lesson in managing cashflow, as well as being the best book ever written about starting, growing and selling a liquor brand


If you are a small brand, you have what Dan Gasper of liquor start-up incubator Distill Ventures calls an 'unfair advantage'; you can tell the founders story because its YOUR story – and it's happening right now, today.

We all want to be told stories if the story is told well and if it touches us emotionally. Those mega-brands with thousands of sales reps and million-dollar A&P budgets? You should pity them, not envy them. Their founder-story was a century ago and no-one cares as much about it these days as they will about your story, right here, right now. (If you contact Dan and ask nicely, he may even let you have a copy of the superb pocket-sized book Distill created which walks you through the steps of writing your own founder’s story. It is perfect.)

Get your story straight. You need a short version (what is now termed an 'Instagram bio' version, and what you and I may recall used to be named the 'elevator pitch') and a medium-length version. If you want to safely confess to murder, adultery or buying Justin Bieber albums, put it in the long-form of the press release; no-one will ever read it. A short or medium-length press release will communicate and exemplify your mission and your values. It is an invaluable way to quickly and effectively share that vision and values, with business partners, with the trade and with consumers.

Social media

Spend time and money on this, and spend it especially on visuals and particularly on photographs. Visuals are all on social media. Have a great-looking website; it doesn’t need all the bells and whistles like Flash or e-commerce but it needs to display correctly on a mobile device (and not just an iPhone).

Seed your Twitter and Instagram with gorgeous photos of your brand, bars and people drinking cocktails. Don’t insist your bottle or logo be in every single shot, and don’t only message about bars that list your brand or cocktails that contain it – that gets wearying. Repost Instagrams from people with large followings, and they may return the favour; ditto retweeting.

Be a part of every conversation you can find in your liquor category; if you’re launching a gin, track (for example) #gin and see what people are saying on a daily basis. If you are friends with well-known bartenders or chefs, ask if they’d mind retweeting one of your tweets or reposting an Instagram, or creating a cocktail, or taking a picture with a bottle. Follow and interact with the staff of your influence account targets. Which brings us to…

Influence account targets

Generally, the on-trade (bars) sells far less than the off-trade (liquor stores), but the on-trade is disproportionately influential. Within the on-trade, there are bars that command a huge amount of media interest; at the moment, these are usually the bars taking great pains with their cocktail programme.

These are the bars to approach first. Try to get 10 minutes to have a tasting with the bar manager, head bartender or owner; the best times are probably between 2pm and 4pm, between Wednesday and Friday. Don’t roll into a busy bar on a Friday at 7pm and ask a bartender to whip you something up with the strange bottle you just pulled out of your laptop case.

Good cocktail bars are always on the look-out for interesting new ingredients and they actively want to help smaller producers; it helps the bars, in turn, tell a better story with their cocktail menu. Even in a city as large as London or New York, you may find 80% of the media attention goes to no more than 10 or 20 bars; seek them out.

If you get listed, ensure you come in at least once a week, buy cocktails with your brand, tip well and be a polite, charming guest that bartenders and waiters look forward to seeing. Befriend all the staff, not just the senior ones; remember their names and connect on social media. Today’s rookie barback is next year’s junior bartender and 2021’s bar manager. And on that note, lets redefine 'influential' as well, using the Duff Intern Model.

Off the top of most people’s minds, 'influential' means places like London’s Dandelyan and Singapore’s Manhattan bar; like Bulletin Place in Sydney and BarChef in Toronto, as well as New York’s Dead Rabbit and Madrid’s 1862 Dry Bar, to name but a few of the biggest names.

Going to one of these bars is a Big Deal, and before you go you’ll free up space on your iPhone for the photos and Boomerang videos you want to take while you’re there. Every thirty-and forty-something urban dweller in your office throngs those kinds of bars each night. Every serious senior bartender in the world wants to have checked in to those places.

But where are the 22-year-old interns and facilities-service staff, and up-and-coming junior bartenders, drinking of an evening? Oh, they’ll never turn down a chance to drop by Bulletin or the Rabbit, but mostly they are drinking in places like Jupiter Disco in Bushwick (Bushwick is the Brooklyn of Brooklyn). Or they are in Bad Sports in London, or Ramblin’ Rascal in Sydney, or Chicago Williams in Berlin.

These are places where the really young and the really hip go to drink, where off-duty bartenders go to be tended on themselves, and being present with your brand – if you’re a small, bartender-oriented brand – is important, because it shows you understand that world.

Media targets

You have already assembled a list of the writers you want writing about your brand; now that your brand has a social media presence (which writers will research) and it's on the backbars of a few good bars, it's time to buy those writers a drink. Be transparent; say: 'I’d like to have 10 minutes of your time so you can taste Brand X and hear my story'. Most writers have a more 9-5 type schedule than bartenders, so plan to have lots of lunches and coffee dates in friendly accounts.

Set up your Dropbox or something similar so you can email the press release and hi-res photos immediately after the meeting; we live in an increasingly USB-less world, so a fancy branded flash drive is superfluous and a paper press kit about as useful as a varnished muddler. Have 2-3 possible 'hooks' for a story about your brand, but don’t be insistent; writers, rightly, like to come up with their own ideas if you give them the straight story of your brand.

Do be clear about what your brand isn’t, though, if the writer’s line of thought seems to be veering offside. The crucial element of interacting with writers is to be honest, be open, and be pleasant. If they can’t write about you now, but you’re nice, they’ll keep you in mind for something that may come up in the future.

Volume accounts

If your brand is out there, looking gorge on Insta, you’re listed in some hot bars and you have an article or two written about you (or in the works), it's time to go after some volume. Some influential bars will also sell high volumes of liquor, of course, but generally it’s the next-tier bars that do serious volumes.

These places will be highly influenced by what’s stocked in influential bars, but in many cases they won’t have (or want) the time or staff to create quite such intricately detailed high-priced cocktails. There will often be a bit less communication between bartender and guest in high-volume bars, and that’s why they are fantastic proving grounds for your brand.

Be realistic in your conversations: high-volume accounts are often handcuffed in terms of prices and margins and targets, so you may have to compromise on some numbers that should be made up in volume.

Most of all, don’t try to force a volume account to sell your brand the way the influential accounts do. Suggesting your brand go in a simple highball, or a beer-and-a-shot boilermaker combo (tres chic at the moment, by the way) is preferable to mandating it be featured in this great eight-ingredient cocktail using home-made components requiring three hours of prep time per week that was developed by Fancy Bar X. Respect the volume.

Trade media

Increasingly, more and more beverage directors and senior bartenders read these publications and follow their Twitter, as well as the traditional audience of brand owners, brand managers and distributors. You want distributors and industry people reading about you; even a single article may help you open a state, or an entire country.

If you have a trade-media-friendly 'hook' or two to your business model, it will play well in the trade media. For example, there is a large trend, socially as well as in the mixology world, of giving back, to the community, and to the world at large.

Mezcal brand Del Maguey donates significantly to long-term projects in Mexico helping the villages where their producers are based, ranging from building schools and investing in renewable energy to providing scholarships and helping producers buy land.

Old Duff Genever (ahem) isn‘t just the first 100% Dutch-made genever to be sold in the USA in decades; it also donates $1 per bottle to local charities directly benefiting bartenders. Rum behemoth Bacardi donates large sums to bat conservation, which makes a lot of sense if you look at a Bacardi label. Design these kind of aspects into your business plan at the early stages – they appear insincere and opportunistic if you bolt them on afterwards, as if you’re just trying to jump on a bandwagon.

If you can tick all the above boxes – and stay on top of the vital back-office admin and compliance which makes your business even possible – you’re in with a chance.

Missed one of the series? Catch up on them all.

Philip Duff: Why on earth do people start craft liquor brands?

Philip Duff: How to find a gap in the craft liquor market 

Philip Duff: Who can help you start your own craft liquor brand

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