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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 7, 2019 3 years ago

Saddle up: Local bourbon brand has a story to tell

A St. Pete distillery got some Napa Valley help in its effort win market share.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Organization: Foley Family Wines. Founded by Bill Foley, who also owns the Las Vegas Golden Knights NHL team, Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Foley Family Wines represents dozens of wine and liquor brands worldwide. It also makes its own wines and spirits.

Client: American Freedom Distillery. One of the latest additions to St. Petersburg’s craft brewing and distilling scene, AFD was founded by a group of former U.S. Army Green Berets whose inspiring true story was told in “12 Strong,” a 2018 film starring Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon. “We are the brand,” says President John Koko, 60, part of the team of elite soldiers that infiltrated Afghanistan, on horseback, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to gather intelligence on the Taliban. “But there’s an old saying, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ We needed to figure out how to build a bigger team to go farther.”

American Freedom Distillery leaders participated in celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. They parachuted onto the beach at Normandy, France. Courtesy photo.

Task: AFD wanted a high-profile rollout for its latest artisanal spirit, Horse Soldier bourbon. The bottles it comes in are produced by a mold made from a large piece of steel salvaged from Ground Zero at the World Trade Center. “This is a continuation of who we were as soldiers … there’s nothing more American than bourbon,” Koko says.

The soldiers-turned-distillers are big on spectacle — on June 6 in France, they took part in celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day by parachuting onto the beach at Normandy — but they needed help with some of the finer points of marketing and distributing liquor in the complex U.S. three-tiered system.

“The brand is so authentic,” says Gerard Thoukis, chief marketing officer at Foley Family Wines. “Koko and his team are out participating in events, jumping out of airplanes, promoting the brand, but that leaves little time for the nuts and bolts of the alcoholic beverage business. That’s where we come in and provide assistance.”

Foley Family Wines helped Horse Soldier bourbon make the cut at the PGA's Valspar Championship golf tournament. Courtesy photo.

Foley was charged with expanding distribution of the bourbon and getting it — and the AFD team — in front of potential customers at events in the seven states where the product is currently available: Florida, New York, Indiana, California, Texas, Nevada and Virginia. The strategy, Koko says, was to “go deep, not wide,” in a bid to grab market share.

Thoukis says the Horse Soldier campaign is unique in that the story behind the brand required zero refinement. “There’s nothing we could do to recreate that story. It doesn’t need re-creating," he says. "It’s American history.”

Koko declined to disclose the campaign budget, only to say AFD has entered a long-term agreement with Foley worth millions of dollars.

Challenges: Leveraging one’s military service to sell alcohol is a risky endeavor when it comes to marketing, but “you can’t change who you are,” Koko says. “We sell who we are, but if you look at how we promote ourselves, we talk about being award-winning and all-American. At the end, we say, ‘authentic.’ We put the story of who we are, today, in front of who we were. We’re successful citizen-soldiers; we’re not living under a bridge. We went and did what we did. We’re home now and we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Another challenge: Because premium bourbon like Horse Soldier, which sells for $44 to $79 per bottle, takes years to produce, being unable to meet demand for the product could be a disaster. Foley’s “deep not wide” approach to the rollout is meant to keep the brand from being overexposed, which could pose big sustainability problems for a small business like AFD, founded with $5 million in seed capital the founders scraped together from their personal finances. 

Campaign highlights: Foley organized a Horse Soldier bourbon launch event in New York City and a sponsorship package at the Valspar PGA Championship in Palm Harbor. The golf tournament featured a Horse Soldier branded lounge, near the 10th hole green, that served two cocktails made with AFD’s new signature bourbon. Horse Soldier was also the official bourbon sponsor of the event.

Smaller efforts add up, too. AFD has gotten Horse Soldier exposure at hundreds of events nationwide, from wine festivals and tailgate parties at sporting events to tasting nights at spots like Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa.

Outcome: Koko says AFD, which is profitable, is well on its way to meeting its goal of selling 100,000 cases per year of Horse Soldier bourbon. He expects to sell around 15,000 cases by the end of 2019.


Read all of the Business Observer's 2019 marketing issue articles: 

Marketing executives helped build brand behind innovative health care tech company

St. Pete firm rebrands iconic beer company's new line

Zoo roars into new era with name, logo change

Cooking up sweet local success for national doughnut brand

Promoting iconic restaurant opening is all fun and games

New kind of senior residence blows into town

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