Move over craft beer, Kiwi spirits look set to become NZ's next top bottle

Last week, Stolen Spirits raised a toast after selling a controlling interest in the company to US-based venture capital funds Liquid Asset Brands and Spirits Investment Partners for NZ$21 million.

Before this premium vodka 42Below became a global brand when it was sold to Bacardi. And a number of other Kiwi craft spirits appear to be following close behind.

There's been plenty of attention focused on New Zealand's growing wine and craft beer industries, with Wellington's Garage Project recently named the country's fastest growing company at the Deloitte Fast 50. And there's plenty of potential in the hard stuff too. According to market researcher Euromonitor International, a key trend impacting spirits in 2014 was the emergence of craft spirits offering consumers and spirits connoisseurs products which differ from the mainstream offering which dominate the market.

With this in mind I spoke to some local craft spirit producers to see how business is going and how they are taking on the international market.

Fiordland Blue Duck Rare Vodka and Chatham Islands Black Robin Rare Gin launched two years ago with a plan of international growth from the get go. Within 10 months it was selling in Australia before spreading to China in February of this year. Now the premium spirits brands is working on tapping into the UK, US, Japan and Singapore, to name a few.

Getting the product out there is the first strategy for the business, says co-founder Peter Darroch, “because if people can’t get distribution then there’s no point in marketing and telling people about the brand”.

However, the brands don’t generally use traditional advertising. Darroch says it’s all about trial. He says this is more important than raising awareness, because awareness will come naturally if people like it.

“If people trial it they love it, then they’ll spread the word and go and buy it."

A big part of Stolen's strategy was based around getting the product into the hands of influential bar staff, and the awareness would then flow into retail distribution. Darroch says it also has a few "hero bars" that stock its wares to help spread the word. 

An important strategy for awareness is duty-free retail. Currently, the vodka and gin are in five duty-free stores within New Zealand and Australia, an important territory according to Darroch. He says people are more likely to trial a new brand when purchasing duty free than when purchasing from a normal liquor store.

However, the data might not back that view up. An article in The Economist says that while travellers spend $9 billion a year on duty-free spirits, they show a lack of ambition for trying anything new. This VinePair map shows scotch to be the most popular duty-free spirit in Oceania, accounting for 23% of spirits sales. Vodka and liqueurs rank second and third.

But there is no one way of marketing locally-produced craft spirits, as Rogue Society Gin shows. The premium gin brand, which launched in February last year, is in discussion with 13 international markets after finding success in the local market.

“From the start we have focused on growing organically, for us it’s a long race and it’s not about being everywhere for everyone, it’s about doing things smart and growing the brand,” says co-founder Mark Neal.

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Their strategies include brand partners, events and social media.

Rogue Society Gin collaborated with Electric Wire Hustle to create the first “musically infused” gin. The limited edition bottle comes with a download of Electric Wire Hustle’s ‘Aeons EP’.

A fashion themed ‘frocktail’ was also created in partnership with fashion house Zambesi for New Zealand Fashion Week and the gin was also served at urban street artist Sparrow’s launch.

“For us it’s all about growing within those sub categories of culture of art, music and fashion. So we spend a lot of time working with those guys.”

Rogue Society knows how important it is to get people trialling the product. Neal says one of the biggest barriers is getting the products into the hands of potential customers and events provide the ideal medium for people to trial it.

“We put a lot of focus and attention on events and these are events that are very much well on brand so we won’t do anything that’s not true to the core gaze of the brand.”

For a wider audience Rogue Society uses social media. Neal says the Facebook page is updated regularly with content that reflects the brand's nature.

“We put a lot of attention on our social media channels and making sure our messages are consistent and they are premium and they sell the true tone of the brand.”

Mathew Thomson, founder of Thomson Whisky, compliments Rogue Society Gin for marketing that “put[s] a good name around New Zealand spirits”. This is aided he says by New Zealand’s image of being clean, green with good water.

“New Zealand is a country that would look like it would make good whisky [and he's not alone with that view: Cardrona Distillery is set to open near Wanaka in December].”

It’s not surprising then that Thomson’s gets lots interest from international distributors. Right now Thomson Whisky is in Japan and Australia, but Thomson says every two to three weeks he has another international distributor knocking on his door. While the long term plan sees Thomson Whisky going global, right now it’s all about producing enough to feed demand.

“The thing with whisky is you’ve got to build up a stock level, you can’t just make it and sell it.”

Thomson is happy to have such interest in the product, particularly as marketing is a major problem for a small brand, it can be expensive and time consuming. Instead “small brand integrity” and “word of mouth” are important tools.

“Whisky, unlike other spirits, travels better by word of mouth because if anyone started talking about whisky you would mention one you thought was good and then people would go out and buy them”, a phenomenon he says is not as common with spirits like vodka.

Jamie Duff, co-founder of Stolen Spirits, says interest is particularly peaking in brown spirits, with sales going well in the States.

“People are becoming more educated. Vodka was big in the 90s because it was a utility in drinking, you just put it in something and it's alcohol but you can't taste it. Now with spirits, people want to taste it. I'm pretty sure the latest stats are that brown spirits have overtaken white spirits for the first time in America since prohibition."

Closer to home, Neal says the growing craft spirit movement is exciting.

“It’s definitely early doors within the craft spirit space but I think there’s a lot of good stuff to come out of that and I think it’s awesome that New Zealand can drive that wave”.

The article originally appeared on Stoppress.