Behind the Bar My Take

Philip Duff on How to Start Your Own Brand

Most people in the industry know Philip Duff as a New York City bar consultant (Liquid Solutions) and education liaison extraordinaire (Tales of the Cocktail). Those who have been around awhile know him as a former brand ambassador for Bols, the Dutch producer of liqueurs, genever and vodka. Now, Duff is readying his own brand, Old Duff Genever, for a September 2017 launch, although he’s taking an unusual, even wildly counterintuitive approach to building what has the potential to become the next cult-classic bottle for the craft bartender set. Below, Duff breaks down how he came to build his own brand.

Genever then: “Every bartender had heard about it but couldn’t get it.”

“I adored bartending from a young age. I adored the glamour. I bartended all over the world, from my native Ireland to England to briefly New York and the Cayman Islands to London to Holland. After about eight or nine years there, I was a full-time consultant.

“Living in Holland, I got into genever. I got into because it was just so unusual—that was cool. One of my clients at the time was Bols. All the money that they made came from liqueurs. I traveled the world and began to take a bottle of genever with me. People freaked out. I remember going to Employees Only and introducing myself to Dushan [Zaric] and giving him a bottle. Every bartender had heard about it but couldn’t get it. It was in all these books they had started to read, but they could not obtain it.

“A few years later, I was a big part of creating the Bols genever brand. I was on the tasting panel, but I was also part of developing the brand itself—what the liquid should be, the wording on the label, the website, who we should market it to. That gave me a taste for going even further than Bols did, creating a product that’s even more targeted to the craft bartender of 2017.”

Genever now: “It’s better to mean everything to somebody than something to everyone.”

“What I wanted to do with Old Duff Genever is create a brand and see if you can turn all or some of the disadvantages of being a tiny brand into advantages. ‘Competitive judo’—I’ve heard it called. If you have a lot of money, you can try to launch nationally, internationally, get listed with a big distributor, do price discounts, go here, go there. But everyone does all those things.

“What I’m trying to do—it’s almost an experiment—is see: What if you were just in New York? What if you were just in Manhattan? What if, instead of being in 100 bars, you were in just eight bars? And what if those were influential well-known bars that adore it and are using it? That’s the idea. We want to launch on a city-by-city basis, build up our reputation and learn and see where that takes us.

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“I really believe that it’s better to mean everything to somebody than something to everyone. I think it’s better to really well-serve a small but passionate and influential group of people than to try to be another bottle on the back bar, in the liquor store, across a larger group of people.”

Competitive judo: “We only want bars to get us when we can truly support it.”

“The first production [run] is 1,000 cases—12,000 bottles, which are going to be either too much or not enough. We want to manage where it goes. So initially, for those who get us, I can go in and support them in Manhattan—that’s another reason to have this modest launch and then see where it goes. If we go from eight bars to 16 to 20, I can still manage that as well as I can. If more bars clamor for us, that will help us to find a distributor whose goals are more aligned with us. Most of the time, you have to go around begging to find a distributor.

Old Duff Genever logo.

“That’s part of our judo. We want to be talking about it, we want to make it aspirational, and we only want bars to get us when we can truly support it.

“It’s the strategy that Nolet used for Ketel One. They wouldn’t let people have it unless they were willing to do a tasting. I think it’s quite a good way to do it if you’re starting from a slow base.”

Advice: “Treat your brand like it’s one of your clients.”

“I would give advice to anybody, especially if you’re a freelance consultant, as I am, that you have to treat your brand like it’s one of your clients—probably your worst-paying client—or you’ll never make time for it. I spent about a year talking about this but didn’t move the project forward. You have to give it priority and have to make sure you spend time on it every single day. You have to pick up the phone to the distillery, the designer, the TTB, whatever. Nobody will drive that train except you.”