I’m not sure what the spirits industry had a greater impact on: me or my growth. What I do know is, I owe the industry a debt of gratitude. It made me the person I am today. And while I always knew that I wanted to live an extraordinary life, I never would have thought that I’d attribute it to Jim Beam Brands. Here’s my story.
The year was 1991. DeKuyper Hot Damn! was on fire. Texas was pulling the risqué cinnamon schnapps liqueur off the shelves for putting a “cuss” word on the label saying we were bringing the devil into the retail store. And there I was, ready to conquer the world through the Cactus Juice Playboy Desert Volleyball Tournament. An impressive first for my launch into corporate. At the time, I was the DeKuyper Marketing Manager and knew it was the reason why American brands continued to make their numbers year after year.
Twelve beaches, three months, a camel, and a ton of bad decisions later, I learned that the world really didn’t want a 30 proof cocktail. They wanted an 80 proof one. And thus, with that knowledge, looked for the next step in my career.
It was 1993. We had just launched a straight-from-the-barrel, uncut and unfiltered bourbon called Booker’s and they needed a brand manager. It was kismet. I met bourbon legend and great grandson of Jim Beam, Booker Noe, a larger than life figure. Master distiller, 6’3” with hands as big as my head and a powerful stare that could knock the sense into you from across the room. This was the complete opposite of the schnapps business. That brand was about fun. Booker’s brands were about building a legacy. And, somehow, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on his brands.
As someone who’s always been fascinated with history, I was drawn to the legacy of the Beam Family. From the beginning, I admired the family values that permeated the culture of Jim Beam Brands, despite having been sold to a large corporation. Booker was also very active in the distillery, despite being “retired.” He was very clear about his Small Batch Bourbons — they were his legacy to his son, just as Jim Beam Bourbon was Jim Beam’s legacy to his son, Jere.
As the brand manager for the Small Batch Bourbon Collection, Booker demanded that I learn the craft of whiskey making. How else could I market his brands if I didn’t know what made them special? From the Grade-A grain, to the sophistication of the distillers (everything done by hand, no computers), to the art of yeast making, and the craft of aging, Booker’s message was not subtle: If you want to do a job well, don’t stop at the surface — go deep.
This was interesting to me because the group product director up in Chicago didn’t believe it was necessary for me to learn the craft of distilling bourbon in Kentucky. He said, and I quote, “You don’t have to know how to make bourbon to market it.”
Booker’s reply? “Horsefeathers!” (only not that word). I went to Kentucky. I learned the craft of making whiskey. And, along the way, I realized what he wanted me to understand from the beginning: The trip was not about learning how to make whiskey. It was about understanding the weight and importance of legacy. The personal commitment to going above what is required and, ultimately, values that drove Booker handed down through the five generations of distillers before him.
Booker’s “pop-quizzes” ensured that I understood the efforts each and every distiller took to create the brands. Something we tend to dismiss today. The distiller, the warehouseman, the yeast makers, the bottling line supervisors — their knowledge is not pedestrian, it is truly an art. I would not have understood that had I not lived it. This understanding of history, legacy and craftsmanship is an intrinsic part of these brands. It simply can’t be taught. It must be experienced.
And here’s an insider tip for anyone in the Beam Suntory brand space (or any brand space, for that matter): first-hand knowledge is a gift. It is the richness that makes your experience with a brand multi-dimensional. And, frankly, it makes you a better marketer. Remember when you were taught in school that it’s the conflict and the tension that makes a story engaging? It’s the same with a brand. When you get deeper than the surface, when you see more than the tangible aspects of its quality, you see the values, the people, the history, the process — these can be leveraged to create a meaningful, engaging story that is sharable.
Experiences aren’t handed to you. You must seek them out for yourself. Only when you understand the roots and the values of a brand, can you truly understand how to create a story that will be authentic, defendable and timeless.
Sometimes experiences initially suck, but the learning from those experiences elevates you to the next level. Case in point: The day Booker died, February 24, 2004, I was told I was moving off his brands and into a new role. I was devastated. Small batch bourbons were all I had known. It was the part of the business I believed in — building a legacy for the future. But change is inevitable. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to embrace the change. Embrace the new opportunities. Because each subsequent role added a new “color” to the career and legacy that was in front of me.
Over three years, my role changed four more times. I learned more about myself in the tougher experiences than I did in the positive roles. I realized my talent was that of a chameleon. I had learned to pivot and adapt to each role I’d been given. I made it my mission to seek out information and deliver added value in a way that always stumped folks. I had roles in promotion, brand management, sales, sales and marketing integration, and education.
Education. That’s the role that I really sunk my teeth into. Now I had the opportunity to see the legacy of each of our brands through their history, their values and their impact on their communities.
I visited the distilleries in Scotland and dug up thousand year old peat. I stayed in the Courvoisier chateau and learned about the people of the Jarnac community that built that brand and the group of farmers that have served the Courvoisier brand for over three generations. I had the opportunity to visit Spain to visit our Sherry distilleries and learn about the Domecq family’s impact on the distilling industry both in Spain and around the world. And closer to home I held coded telegrams from prohibition times in the speakeasy below Canadian Club across the river from Detroit. Whether meeting third generation master distillers of El Tesoro Tequila or hearing the stories of the Maker’s Mark Samuels family, my world was forever richer because of the impact the passionate brand families and their communities had on carrying the oral traditions of the history of their brands.
Each person who I spoke to left indelible marks on the fabric of the brand and communities where they originated. I realized I was just one more person who could, like them, carry on the legacy of brands that shaped not just the birth of our nation (bourbon), but of the towns and people they touched (Jim Beam, Clermont/Bardstown, KY; Courvoisier, Jarnac, France; Sauza, Tequila MX; Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey, Kilbeggan, Ireland; Canadian Club, Windsor, Canada).
They say, when you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. And, this was the job I loved the most. But, change is inevitable and soon I was asked to take this knowledge and share it with a new area for company growth — the on-premise. And, within on-premise, the high end of the business, building our luxury capabilities and delivering exactly what I had spent the last six years preparing for: teaching a new team of Beam Suntory salespeople to not “sell” a brand to on-premise accounts, but to become storytellers — share the values and legacies of our brands.
We elevated the role of sales person to that of a business consultant. When they’d call on an account, they’d
— those who understood our brands, and served as connectors to accounts. provide stories that had nothing to do with the spirit itself, but something to do with shared values. Whether it was surviving WWII in Schiedam by hiding in vats designed to hold cordials, or the stories of the nineteenth century “cow parks” behind the Kilbeggan distillery in Ireland. By sharing these stories, our brands become more than an age, a proof point, a distillation method — they become as unique as the individual who is serving them. And, they create value beyond their tangible benefit as a spirit. Information becomes social currency, and unknown stories showcase our field teams as “in the know.”
I spent four years teaching our on-premise sales teams the five tenets of luxury and the stories that differentiate our brands. It was a wonderful experience that taught me the importance of collective ideation and built connections with a new generation of brand builders.
Today, I run a premium seed brand business, working on yet another new brand, Sipsmith Gin. I have come back full circle into marketing with a new appreciation for the legacies of the business, the relationships with sales teams on the front line, and the need to empower others to help build a brand. Because the truth is, a brand director does not build a brand through investment in advertising and point of sale. Brands are built through humans. The collective excitement, love, and appreciation of the art of the spirit is best delivered in a story that paints a picture of a brand with a rich past and a bright future.
I look forward to sharing more of these stories with you. Until then, cheers.