While some of us are chasing down barrel proofs and single barrels and other more traditional whiskey expressions, there’s a whole sector of the spirits market enjoying an entirely different path.
And while the Kentucky and Tennessee distillers – among others, of course – cater to the purists, Minnesota-based Phillips Distilling Company, which has been in business for 109 years, has been creating spirit experiences for vodka fans and what CEO Andy England calls “the rebel whiskey drinker.”
More than 20 years ago Phillips launched a line on Revel Stoke spiced whiskies (because it's Canadian, they prefer no “e”) that continues to be a big seller for the company. The 12 flavors recently got updated packaging.
Revel Stoke – a blended Canadian whisky – is available in flavors like pineapple, smoked vanilla, root beer, blackberry, peanut butter, peach and my favorite, pecan.
Recently, England – former chief marketing officer at MillerCoors – created a new vodka and a new look for another one that will surely garner some attention, in part using marketing angles that Phillips has brought to the spirits game from the beer world.
UV is the company’s flagship vodka – currently available in Wisconsin – which has also gotten a packaging makeover and in a unique way.
“We have a new bottle design that ... when exposed to UV sunlight, a photochromic wave design appears on the neck of the bottle and continues throughout the primary label,” says England.
“When the bottle is removed from the light, the new bold black UV logo remains while the color disappears. We think this is a fun, vibrant way for today’s vodka drinker to celebrate good times and occasions with friends and family.”
The new vodka, called Cubist, is meant for the freezer and has a package that changes color when it reaches the desired temperature, a technology that England worked with at Coors.
“No one has distilled vodka from start-to-finish that is fully intended to store in your freezer,” he says. “Being from Minnesota one of the coldest places in the world, and having ice cold water in the winter, along with using the finest ingredients, we invented the first ‘Freezer Vodka.’
“When the vodka is at its most perfect temperature – at or below 0 degrees Celsius – thermochromic technology activates the bottle to turn blue notifying the drinker it’s ready.”
Cubist launched in Minnesota and Arizona in August and will hit more markets next year.
Both vodkas are distilled from 100 percent Midwestern corn, according to England.
I recently asked England about Revel Stoke, UV and Cubist, and also to tell us more about Phillips Distilling Co.
OnMilwaukee: Is Phillips strictly a non-distiller producer that sources spirits or does it also operate a physical distillery?
Andy England: Phillips Distilling Company has consistently been a pioneer in the spirits industry. For over 109 years, we’ve been one of the most innovative and enduring producers of distilled spirits in America with our primary customer in America’s heartland. Going back to the 1930s, we created America’s first schnapps and in the 1950s, we were a leader in the flavored vodka movement. Fast forward to 1999, we had the first spiced whisky, Revel Stoke on the market long before today’s flavored whiskey movement. Most recently, we launched our Prairie Organic Spirits line which is currently the number one selling organic spirits brand in America.
We have just under a million square feet in a highly flexible plant in Princeton, Minnesota which is about 50 miles north of the Twin Cities. It’s primarily a blending and packaging operation but we distill our own organic products. It’s used to running lots of small batches and changeovers and is great at differentiating different flavor profiles.
Tell me a bit about the genesis of the ideas for UV and Cubist vodka brands.
UV is our flagship vodka brand. Our packaging and design hadn’t been changed in a long time and we felt it needed to be updated to appeal to today’s modern spirits drinker. We believed we needed to have a deeper connection to sunlight. The team did a great job and we just launched a new tagline “Bring the Light.”
We also have a new photochromic bottle design that’s lively and adds to the drinker’s overall experience. When exposed to UV sunlight, a photochromic wave design appears on the neck of the bottle and continues throughout the primary label. When the bottle is removed from the light, the new bold black UV logo remains while the color disappears. We think this is a fun, vibrant way for today’s vodka drinker to celebrate good times and occasions with friends and family.
On Cubist, we discovered through consumer research that vodka drinkers prefer vodka ice cold and many store it in their freezer to serve at a more desirable temperature. But until now, no one has distilled vodka from start-to-finish that is fully intended to store in your freezer. Being from Minnesota one of the coldest places in the world, and having ice cold water in the winter, along with using the finest ingredients, we invented the first “Freezer Vodka.”
When the vodka is at its most perfect temperature – at or below zero degrees Celsius – thermochromic technology activates the bottle to turn blue notifying the drinker it’s ready. Currently, we’re testing this in Minnesota and Arizona and it’s selling really well. We plan on expanding into more markets in 2022 but haven’t announced specifics yet.
Has the vodka sector become so crowded that it’s no longer enough to have a great quality vodka? Does a product need to have more in terms of a story?
No matter what the category, we fundamentally believe you need two things to be a successful spirits brand. One is a quality product. Second is romancing your target audience with a storyline that relates to them and provides an experience they can’t get elsewhere. We primarily sell to the American heartland consumer that is based in the upper Midwest and we’ve successfully carved out a niche in the mid-tier spirits market.
Like we have for 109 years, look for us to continue coming out with new flavors, and use storytelling, technology and innovation to relate more to today’s modern spirits drinker.
Cubist's packaging is based on an idea from the beer world, right? Can you talk about that?
Cubist comes from a different insight, as we discussed, however, it uses the same type of thermochromic inks that we introduced at MillerCoors in 2007 with the Coors Light Cold Activated Bottle.
With that product, the Rocky Mountains on the label turn from white to blue when Coors Light is at the optimal temperature for cold refreshment. It has been a huge hit for Molson Coors (formerly MillerCoors) and has sold a lot of beer so we thought we could do something similar with Cubist and have success.
Revel Stoke is more than 20 years old; did the company expect back then that flavored whiskey would be so popular and so enduring?
Revel Stoke debuted in 1999 as the first Spiced Whiskey on the market. It quickly gained a cult following being almost a decade ahead of the mainstream flavored whiskey launches of the late 2000’s. Today we have 12 flavors available and look for a few more next year.
But like UV Vodka, we felt the brand lost touch with today’s independent whiskey drinker. Our new ad campaign “Stoke Your Wild,” is all about appealing to the “Zillennial” guy between the ages of 21-34 years old who likes to live life on his own terms.
New irreverent flavor names such as “Nutcrusher Peanut Butter,” “Hotbox Cinnamon,” “SonofaPeach” and “Lei’d Roasted Pinnapple will stoke the revelry with “Zillennials” and be a big hit in the on and off-premise. Early feedback from our distributors and retailers has been incredibly positive so we’re excited to see how it sells this fall and winter.
Can you say who supplies the distillate? Do you flavor it yourself or does it arrive flavored?
I prefer not to get into suppliers but we use midwestern corn for UV Vodka, Cubist and Prairie Organic Vodka. As for flavors, our world class R&D team formulates everything in house and we have an expert blending team to customize for production.
Lastly, I’d love to hear a little more about the more traditional whisk(e)ys that Phillips works with, too: Tomatin, Douglas & Todd, Hell-Cat Maggie.
Tomatin is a single malt scotch that has been around since the late 1890s and comes from the Scottish Highlands. We are the North American distributor under a licensing agreement from the Scottish Distillery.
Douglas & Todd is a small batch craft bourbon aged for a minimum of four years in handmade oak barrels. The namesake comes from two Minnesota counties where ingredients are locally sourced and the brand is distilled and aged.
Hell-Cat Maggie is a little like the new Revel Stoke in that it’s aimed at the rebel whiskey drinker. It’s made with grain Irish whiskey from corn and malt Irish whiskey made from malt barley. The Hell-Cat Maggie name comes from the notorious Dead Rabbit Irish street gangs that roamed lower Manhattan in the 1840s.
Both Douglas & Todd and Hell-Cat Maggie are both Phillips owned and produced. While these are smaller brands than the other ones we have been discussing, they still are important to our brand portfolio and we believe storytelling adds a little color and fun to the drinker experience.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.