Andrew “Andy” Nye, co-founder and Director of Business Development for West Australian Distilling Company, talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his company’s premium beverages and how he is winning customers over with taste tests.
The distilled spirits industry is a $400 billion market in North America alone. Based in Perth, the West Australian Distilling Company is striving to garner a share of this market by producing world-class premium beverages made from the purest ingredients found only in the “land down under.” “We have been working diligently with focus groups at all levels of brand research and our efforts have been very thoroughly planned and thought out,” says Andy Nye. “The double entendre of our Pure Australian Spirit motto refers to the quality ingredients that we have and also the Australian spirit to work hard and grow beyond their borders. We take our products seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. [Laughs] The United States is really the mecca for liquor. Brands must be built and established here and then translated into other markets.”
Opportunist: Tells us about yourself.
Nye: I have been involved in the alcoholic beverage market in North America and Europe for 16 years. For the past two and a half years, I have been establishing a distilling company with an old college friend of mine to produce and market world-class premium beverages such as rum, gin and vodka specifically for the Australian and U.S. markets. My business partner, Geoff, and I both grew up in Perth but we have operated in international markets. He was based out of China for a number of years, and my experience has taken me to London and the United States.
Opportunist: What is your company’s mission?
Nye: To exploit the vast array of natural and pure ingredients available to us in Western Australia and bring those to our premium spirit products in this market. Perth (Australia) is recognized as one of the most unpolluted places on the map. We are about as far away from Chernobyl as you can get.
We are all about building brands slowly but surely. We aren’t rushing. We are concentrating on doing what we do and doing it well.
Opportunist: What are your brands?
Nye: Our South Sea Rum is produced from Queensland sugar cane, which we hand-select and distill in two batches: one in a pot still first and the second a column still before blending the two together. These are then matured for two years in American barrels before being bottled and entering the market. The result is a complex sipping Rum with a dry finish that is also attracting a lot of traditional whiskey drinkers.
Each of our products carries our silver coin emblem imbedded within the glass. We feel this makes our family of products immediately identifiable and also symbolizes the quality of a pure Australian spirit.
Opportunist: What is the story behind your product names?
Nye: In naming our South Sea Rum, we were inspired by the seafaring nature of Australia and the fact that we transport products to the world across the sea. Our Opal Blue Gin is named for the rare opal gems that are unique to Australia.
Opportunist: We understand you have a vodka line in the works as well.
Nye: Yes, our vodka, which is under wraps for now, is going to be revealed in 2013. It is made from two wild grains and filtered rainwater and has a soft, velvety effect on the palate and a clean taste that can be enjoyed straight up or in cocktails.
Opportunist: Who are your competitors?
Nye: The major brand companies and distributors that are dominating space within the marketplace. There is a plethora of small boutique distilleries that are flourishing. Many of these people are making themselves known within their local marketplaces and this revival of boutique distilleries makes for a very crowded marketplace.
Opportunist: What do you believe is your competitive advantage?
Nye: Branding, quality of our products and their Australian heritage all give us a competitive advantage and unique selling points. We believe that our products and ingredients are superior and if we listen to the marketplace we can work with consumers to develop a strong market for ourselves.
Opportunist: What is your most memorable experience in developing this company?
Nye: My most rewarding experience has been one of massive pride in seeing people enjoying our product. I liken the experience to delivering a baby to the world. When people accept and embrace that baby it’s a wonderful experience. One of my best moments was walking down 6th Avenue in Manhattan and seeing someone carrying our bottle. Seeing our product in the market and knowing it was accepted has been a gift.
Opportunist: What was involved in taking your products from conception to production?
Nye: It has been a massive learning curve, especially in trying to understand the three-tiered bureaucracy [that oversees the distilled spirits industry], but I also believe it works.
Many long nights were involved in putting this company together. We spent a lot of time looking at flavor profiles and creating what we thought was a good product. We shared that with the market and the consumer to develop our product and that necessitated many episodes of having to tweak our products to get to where we are now.
We sat down with our importer, our distilling corporation and our brand director and took our products out to wholesalers and to quite a few consumers at upscale bars as well.
In doing this business, we are aware that we are up against the biggest players in the world. But we aren’t intimidated because we are working every day with the mixologist and the consumer. We are engaged in what is really a hand-to-hand selling process. I love being out on the road and getting feedback. Seeing people emotionally engaged in what we are doing is the greatest reward. It was well worth the journey to get here.
Opportunist: Are you doing any TV or print media?
Nye: Our promotional activities up to this point have mostly been tastings. We put a bottle in somebody’s hand, have them taste the product and engage them on that level. We don’t believe TV will help us build the brand; that will come down the track, I think, in about 24 months.
We have also been doing promotions with the water sports community, primarily in Newport, Rhode Island. We recently attended the Newport International Boat Show with the community there and we will follow them down the East Coast into Florida and Fort Lauderdale.
We are also doing some co-branding with Helly Hansen and other water sport equipment providers. For our Opal Blue Gin, we are doing some cross promotions with Australia’s largest opal providers, and we are also engaging with the local Australian talent to assist in our social media engagement. There is a lot going on. We have begun working with a PR agency in New York, who will be releasing information into the marketplace when it becomes available.
Opportunist: It sounds like your taste tests are creating quite a stir.
Nye: People are pleasantly surprised. They will say, “I didn’t realize you had spirits from Australia.” Our products work because we have strong branding and a succinct message so that, at the end of the day when people taste them, it’s what brings them back. It’s all about reorders.
We have what is known as an agricole style of rum that is produced solely from sugar cane juice. There is a hint of vanilla nut that produces a good spread across the palate with a dry finish. It is ideal sipping rum. We are engaging and winning the hearts of traditional whiskey drinkers and those who enjoy a sipping rum. The quality has to stand out; you cannot mask that.
People are also loving our Opal Blue Gin and say they would drink it straight up. Our floral notes, featuring native Australian botanicals, make our gin the only one like it in the market. It has enough flavor complexity and smoothness to be drunk alone.
Again, it’s that discovery and ownership the consumer has when they have found a new product they can take onboard. They become ambassadors for us in the marketplace. Happy customers going out and evangelizing your product is the greatest reward.
Opportunist: Where did you conduct your initial taste-tests in the United States?
Nye: We hit a cross section of industry influencers and potential consumers in Chicago, New York, Connecticut and California. We were very much listening to the market rather than talking to the market. The consumer wants to feel they are at the forefront of that. The consumer is smart and educated and knows what they are looking for. Again, you cannot pull the wool over their eyes. We discovered that they are very receptive to an Australian product. People are engaging with us because they feel they are discovering something new that they can own.
Opportunist: Has social media proved worthwhile?
Nye: Yes, we run a Facebook campaign and a Twitter campaign. Both of those are great, cost-effective tools that helped us reach a very large audience in a hurry and become known. Again, when engaging an audience, you have to give them something they want without pushing your product down their throat.
We are also launching, in two weeks’ time, a curated website that will become a hub or portal for the water sports community involved in rum. With that we are reaching out to our audience and asking them to create videos for our YouTube channel where they can post the latest fish they caught and so forth. Each month we will reward the most exciting video.
Opportunist: How many people do you have on staff?
Nye: We have eight people on staff at present, across the United States and Australia, who are directly engaged with the company. Through our distribution partners, we have a network of 340 salespeople on the ground, acting as evangelists for our product. I have been very blessed in having a great team around me. Nothing has given me greater pleasure than seeing them rewarded.
Opportunist: Are any joint ventures in the works?
Nye: Not at the moment. We are very much focused on nurturing this company and building it slowly before we go into joint ventures. We do not want to have too many balls in the air just yet.
Opportunist: Are you currently seeking distributors?
Nye: We have several national accounts that we will be announcing in the near future. Distribution partnership is the key—the goose that lays the golden egg—but it only works if it’s a two-way, mutually rewarding arrangement. We need to support, understand and educate our partners so that we can achieve those mutual goals. We have a new distribution partner in Florida that we will be announcing within the next month. We are anticipating that Florida will cover our distribution program for the next 12 months—before we look to expand toward the West Coast.
We are not looking to take on any international distributors in the next 24 months, although we have been approached by several parties. We had a distributor in China that wanted us to develop a product, but in researching that product we realized, again, that brands need to be established in the United States first.
Opportunist: What is a typical day in the life of Andy Nye?
Nye: Communicating with the masses via social media, doing follow-up, supporting distributors by going into the market and pouring our products on premises and articulating our background and our product.
I have worn out a lot of shoes running around the streets of Sydney and New York and Rhode Island. That’s what it’s all about—getting out there on the streets and pounding the pavement and meeting people.
I am lucky because I get to talk with everyone from the sugar cane growers in Australia to the consumers at Grand Central Station on the other side of the world and see the results of them enjoying our product.
Opportunist: What are your objectives for the company in 2013 and beyond?
Nye: The year 2013 is all about securing a good foundation under the distribution we have established within the short three months we have been “in market.” That means working with our wholesale distributors building our accounts and securing more depths in those markets. Then, 2014 will see growth into West Coast markets and markets outside the United States and Australia in 2015. All markets require support, and cash flow is critical. At the appropriate time we will also extend the rum product line, where we will release premium aged rum, and I see us being well integrated and thought of in the marketplace within five years.
Follow West Australian Distilling on Twitter – @southsearum
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.