WhistlePig has become one of the leading brand names in ultra-premium rye whiskey, building a brand that pushes the conventions of an extremely traditional category. CEO Jeff Kozak took some time to talk to Park Street University about the brand’s growth over the past decade and how the brand went from sourcing whiskey to becoming a true grain to glass distiller.
Tell us about your business.
Jeff Kozak: WhistlePig leads the ultra-premium rye whiskey category in the U.S. and we are in the process of expanding our breadth of offerings with a recent launch of a “new to world” brand called Limavady Irish Whiskey in test markets. We are about 100 people strong and hungry to continue to grow.
What sets your brand apart in the marketplace?
JK: WhistlePig re-defined the rye category almost 10 years ago and I think we are always trying to challenge the norm or conventions of what is an extremely traditional industry. Even though we compete in the ultra-premium category we would never define ourselves as a luxury brand but rather a challenger brand. If somebody has already done it, then it’s not for us.
What was the greatest challenge your brand had to overcome initially and what did you learn from it?
JK: WhistlePig started out using sourced whiskey before we became a true grain to glass distiller. There was always that stigma that we needed to not only address internally but communicate to our consumers that regardless of whether we distill it or somebody else the whiskey we sell will always be world class. It is paramount that quality remains at the core of your product regardless of how you get there.
Does your business have any causes it supports?
JK: As a business on a farm in Vermont we gravitate towards not only local causes but broader ones that we can relate to. We recently auctioned one of our first barrels under the Farmstock -Beyond Bonded series at a Mecum car auction to benefit Farm Aid to the tune of $100k. Farm Aid is a non-profit organization that promotes and works to build a family farm system of agriculture that benefits farmers, eaters, communities, and soil and water. Super simple and something we can get behind.
What is your best business finance tip for other brand owners?
JK: Spend your dollars on the brand and not on operations. The consumer does not care how many heads you have on your bottling line. They need to hear your story.
What is your best advice for a mutually beneficial relationship with your distributors?
JK: Do not fall into the trap of the large suppliers and their strategies of distributor management. If you are trying to grow and establish your brand, then make the messaging simple and fun. Do not scorecard your partner to death. They already have enough of that.
What has been your most successful strategy for pitching a new retail partner?
JK: Use live animals, particularly pigs…….
Is your company investing in the fast-growing digital space for beverage alcohol? If so, where?
JK: We are spending with established key e-commerce partners and also trying to create our own marketplace. I think it will always be a balancing act of catering to your super fans but attracting new ones.
Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend?
JK: My favorite book is LoonShots by Safi Bahcall. It encourages you to create the room for key individuals to take risks alongside of the people that need to deliver the day to day demands of the business. Without creating this room for true innovation, you will become an also ran.
If you were starting a new venture today, what’s the first thing you would do?
JK: Acknowledge your shortcomings and find the people that you trust to fill in your blanks. Nobody can do it alone and the ones that think they can, will fail.