Getting into the spirits of a thirsty nation
Local Craft Spirits is a collective dedicated to promoting the virtues of locally made brands, writes Steve Colquhoun.
One gin, one vodka and one tequila - it could be the beginning of a big night but it's also the potent concoction of three Australian spirits makers who have teamed up for a triple shot of marketing clout and brand recognition.
Boutique Australian-based distillers The West Winds Gin, Tequila Tromba and 666 Vodka have kicked off a triumvirate known collectively as Local Craft Spirits that has them working together to co-promote each other's brands alongside their own.
The deal was born after The West Winds Gin's self-proclaimed "rear admiral", Jeremy Spencer, Tequila Tromba co-founder James Sherry and 666 Vodka CEO Dean Lucas met in a bar - of course - and over possibly more than one drink, realised their fledgling companies were facing the same challenges to break into a crowded market.
While Tequila Tromba imports its product from Mexico - where all genuine tequila must be made - the other two brands make their product in Australia, and all
three are proudly locally owned. Lucas believes this affords
them a marketing edge over their international competitors.
"There's a movement at the moment for local, premium, Australian-brand spirits," he says.
As happens in all of the best marriages, the partners finish each other's sentences. "People want to know where their produce comes from; it's the paddock-to-plate mentality. I think certainly spirits are next cab off the rank," Spencer continues.
Sherry completes the thought. "We've seen it in wine, we've seen it in beer and now we're starting to see it in spirits."
The three fledgling distillers - all are less than three years old - are intent on "seeding" their brands via intelligent placement in independent bars, rather than trying to break into major hotels' supply chains or sell in bulk via liquor stores.
Lucas says their collective aim is to enlist bartenders as their brand ambassadors. "We're getting all the local bartenders to try the product, they then become our ambassadors to introduce the products to the consumers. We don't have the budgets for big marketing campaigns," he explains.
"Our priority is to seed the brand properly, we're not out to shift pallets and boxes."
Sherry adds: "In terms of competition, I think we're doing something that's pretty different. It's not about being in direct competition with international companies, because what we're providing are locally produced and locally owned spirits.
"What we're keen to do is mobilise our own group of independently owned bars; they respond to us and our group because we've got a similar small business mentality."
The three brands' cohesiveness lends them the strength to pitch to supply their products to festivals and events, while 666 Vodka has had a major victory with airline Virgin Australia serving the spirit to its international business-class customers.
"I'm pretty sure we're the only Australian vodka served at 35,000 feet, and probably the only Australian spirit, with the exception of a certain Queensland-based rum," Lucas says.
White spirits are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, Spencer says, although genuine Australian-made competitors for The West Winds Gin and 666 Vodka remain thin on the ground.
"We set out to make the best Australian vodka and the best Australian gin. A lot of the other variants on the market, I think, are the afterthoughts of whisky producers," he says.
Lucas says the spirits market's greatest growth area is men making the switch to white spirits. "They'll have a few beers at the beginning of the night then they'll switch to white spirits because it's low in fat. When they reach age 30 they're starting to worry about those sorts of things," he says.
Adds Spencer: "People are rediscovering the promise of spirits. They're suddenly realising you don't have to shoot tequila, there are some good vodkas out there, and gin is finally cool again."
Sherry says the entire market is reinventing itself with a stronger focus on locally made products.
"We're still very much a beer and wine-drinking community, but we've seen a shift in beer and wine. Australian wines and craft beers are a good indicator of it," he says.
"People have been scared of tequila and white spirits in general, and the shift that has occurred since we've been going, it's quite noticeable."
While Local Craft Spirits currently represents only its three founding brands, its members haven't closed the door on welcoming new members, although beer and wine appear to be off the agenda - for now.
"At the moment we're not considering beer or wine,
we're sticking to what we know," Lucas says.
Spencer says that while profitability is important, it's not the only consideration in charting the conglomerate's course.
"I'm a philanthropist and if we can help people out, great. If the dollars make sense, great. We might not make money out of something but it would improve the perception of our portfolio.
"Doing the right thing, it's a very Australian mentality, and little guys gotta stick together."