When Ian Burrell, the co-founder of Equiano Rum, hosted the Miami Rum Congress in February 2020, he had no way of knowing it would be one of the last large-scale in-person spirits tasting events to be held that year. Following an October 2019 launch in Europe, the next step for the new rum was expected to be a U.S. rollout in April 2020. The Miami festival was meant to be just a sneak peek, as Burrell poured preview tastings of the blend of Mauritius and Barbados rums. But by March, the arrival of COVID-19 had sent much of America into lockdown mode. No festivals, no bars. No launch?
“We decided a year ago to launch Equiano at the beginning of 2020, before the whole notion of what a pandemic was,” says Burrell. “It came as a surprise when everything got locked down three months into our launch.”
While many spirits producers quickly scuttled plans to launch new bottles this spring, a handful soldiered on, including some launching spirits brands for the first time. We asked them: What’s it like to launch a new product during a pandemic?
1. It’s Scary, Especially When Most of Your Key Customers Are Closed
Since Burrell is an industry veteran with deep ties in the bar and restaurant industry, the plan was to target on-premise venues in just a couple of U.S. states. Once the pandemic came in, “We honestly thought it wouldn’t launch in the U.S., and if it did, maybe in the fall,” he says.
Unexpectedly, momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement pushed the launch forward to June 2020. The focus shifted away from Burrell’s bar-world contacts and toward online direct-to-consumer sales.
“It felt like the right time because of the climate, the way the world is being looked at,” says Burrell. Talking about the project via online forums and social media, he found a strong positive response to a Black-owned rum brand that spotlighted the story of its namesake, Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian-born writer, entrepreneur and abolitionist.
Yet even with that headwind, it was “scary” to launch a new spirits brand when 95% of bars and restaurants were closed, says Burrell. Looking back, “That was a massive, massive hindrance for us,” he says. By necessity, the brand’s sales strategy pivoted to online sales. A partnership with importer Park Street enabled distribution to around 40 states, well beyond the early plans for a targeted launch in a handful of states.
“The increase in online sales and the fact that people were coming to our website to purchase gave us confidence to move forward with other markets,” says Burrell. Sales have catapulted past initial pre-COVID projections to sell 6,000 bottles for the first year. Looking ahead, the goal now is to continue that momentum, with a lighter-style expression planned to launch in 2021, a rum he likens to Cuba’s Havana Club three-year-old. This time, the rum is targeted for mixing all those Daiquiris and Mojitos on-premise he didn’t get to do the first time around.
Burrell’s advice for others thinking of launching a spirit right now: “First of all, don’t do it!” he says laughing. “But if you have to, be realistic. Look at your target audience and who you’ll be promoting the market to.”
Burrell also recommends finding a good partner that will deliver to as many states as possible, which is key for facilitating online tastings, an increasingly important activity. “Engage with consumers,” he says. “They’re thinking about you if they’re home drinking your product. Show you’re thinking about them too.”
With on-premise business stagnant, “All the things that may have been of secondary importance are now primary,” says Burrell. “We need to work with the playing field that we have in front of us at the moment: off-premise and online.”
2. It Requires Adaptation—Lots and Lots of Adaptation
For Tristan Willey, the co-founder of Good Vodka, a sustainable brand distilled from the byproduct of spent coffee cherries, launching the brand was the culmination of seven years’ work.
“We were getting ready to launch, and then the pandemic started,” says Willey. Plans for a March or April debut were set aside. Willey, a career bartender who has worked at Long Island Bar and Momofuku’s now-closed Booker & Dax, and Mark Byrne, a writer and former distiller at Kings County Distillery, grappled with figuring out when and how to move forward. It didn’t seem right to launch when the hospitality industry was struggling, and they didn’t want to “drag attention away” from social justice movements.
By the end of the summer, the time seemed right to roll out a sustainability-minded vodka, especially if it might help some of the bars still struggling to regain their footing. “We were just sitting here watching things melt,” says Willey. “We were sitting on pallets of something that could do good for the world. We decided to get it out to our friends’ bars and out into the world.”
In September, Good Vodka soft-launched in a quiet rollout to Willey and Byrne’s existing contacts in the bar world. Without investors or massive funding in place, it’s just the two cofounders dropping off bottles and drumming up orders, at least for now.
“I would have loved to have launched it in some more clear air,” Willey says wistfully. “We would have liked to have had more pomp and circumstance and have Martinis with all the people we’ve talked with about this for so long.”
However, it felt urgent not to delay the vodka’s debut any longer. “We needed to bring life to this,” says Willey. “We couldn’t wait any longer. We thought if we are sitting on something that could do good in the world—reduces carbon emissions, helps the farmers, helps the planet and our supply chain as we sell things—I feel we need to introduce positives into the world. Everything feels so bad right now. If we can do something positive along the way, we should.”
Willey’s advice for others thinking of launching a spirit right now: “I think it’s doable,” he says. “We were unsure whether we’d be able to launch in the world. It hasn’t been as bad as I would have thought.” The co-founders had to reassess their timing and strategy and ended up moving forward cautiously and quietly instead of a big, splashy send-off.
However, Willey warns, it’s not like the pre-pandemic days. “If you’re thinking of launching, I’d say do it,” he says. “But it will take some adaptation to figure out the best way to get it done.”
3. It Encourages Community During Tough Times
Andrew Thomas, the distiller and owner of Halftone Spirits, a craft distillery that opened in Brooklyn in May, launched not just one spirit but four, with at least two more planned to launch before the end of the year. A joint partnership with Finback Brewery in Queens, Halftone focuses on gin and the broad spectrum of botanicals used to flavor the spirit.
In addition to a signature Western-style gin (flavored with hawthorn berry, cardamom and “zero citrus”), a London dry and a hopped gin, the debut lineup includes a “magenta” pink gin, the first offering in an array of color-coded gins (blue, saffron yellow and black gins are planned) and internationally inspired bottlings, such as a Japanese gin flavored with yuzu, shiso and peppercorns.
Why open now? The project has been in the works for five years, according to Thomas, with a 15-year lease signed on the space. “Financially, we certainly couldn’t wait,” he says.
Although the original plan was to launch around March, COVID-related delays meant the stills weren’t fired up until May, and the public opening was pushed back to the Fourth of July weekend, with Gin & Tonics served on the outdoor patio.
While the pause was disappointing, “We’ve used this time to help develop and refine our products a bit better,” says Thomas. “The last couple of months gave us a chance to double-down and hone in on what we wanted to make.”
The facility includes a distillery, taproom and cocktail lounge, although those aren’t open to the public just yet. Classified as a New York State farm distillery, Halftone can distribute product on its own to consumers and retailers.
While sales for the fledgling business are “about 20% to 25% of what our projections were initially, we’re sustaining and certainly growing,” says Thomas. So far, releases have been limited to 375-milliliter bottles, “just due to stock on hand,” he says, with full-size 750-milliliter bottles expected soon. Cocktail sales have been a mainstay of the business, with a bartender making drinks on weekends and indoor spaces anticipated to open for 25% capacity in October. A recurring theme: It has been a matter of adapting to the situation week by week if not day by day. “Every day, we’re just adjusting to whatever the new normal is,” says Thomas. “I feel like every day we’re adjusting accordingly.”
Thomas’ advice for others thinking of launching a spirit right now: “I would say, don’t wait! It’s going to get better,” he says. “People are coming back. The enthusiasm is there. People still will be drinking, they still love new experiences. There’ s no reason to hesitate due to the pandemic climate. There’s money out there. People want to spend money, buy local, support local, try new things. If there’s no reason to hesitate, don’t. Just keep pushing through.”