“What we do is tell stories, and get people excited about them. Every one of those bottles on the back bar has a great story behind it.”
That’s Blaine Mason, the area sales manager for General Beverage’s LaCrosse division—and, more to the point, Death’s Door’s western Wisconsin rep—but it’s a philosophy I’ve heard over and over again as I follow these guys around.
The Death’s Door story is a good one and at this point Brian Ellison tells it well. It hits multiple trigger points on the contemporary foodie consciousness—organic farming, small-batch distilling, local flavors—and taps into larger veins of sentiment about island living and Great Lakes maritime lore. He can tailor the pitch for any audience, always emphasizing that, while the story is what will initially sell the product, it’s what’s in the bottle that will keep people coming back for more. “Everyone’s had the experience of going to a new town and checking out the local brewpub, right?” he often says. “Half the time, that beer is nothing you’re gonna want to try a second time. That won’t happen with our stuff.”
At an upscale vegetarian restaurant in Wicker Park he emphasizes the spirits’ wholesome pedigree and clean flavors. At a Prohibition-themed bar in LaCrosse he plays up the gin’s old-school flavor profile, offering to come back and work with the bartender to create specialty cocktails. (Where Tanqueray, for example, is a London Dry-style gin, Death’s Door is an Old Tom, a sweeter, creamier style that fell out of favor in the U.S. since after Prohibition, but popular in the early 20th century.) At a beer bar in the same city he talks up the limited-edition white whiskey, and the novelty value and sales potential of Wisconsin-grown and distilled products in a town built on beer.
Of the half-dozen sales calls I’ve sat in on the story fell flat just once, with a bored LaCrosse bartender with a sore throat and a profound distrust of gin. We got out of there quickly, leaving her to a tasting of flavored Skyy vodkas.
But even at an unsuccessful sales call you have the buyer’s undivided attention—at least for five minutes, until the bar back calls in sick, the soda guns go on the fritz, and the Anheuser-Busch guy shows up. Selling your story to the public is more hit and miss, especially in a chaotic setting like the Green City Market benefit, where more than a thousand sun-baked people are wandering round in a food coma, looking for something new to nibble. (I overheard one guy describe it as “Taste of Chicago with green branding.”)
Here Ellison only had a small window of opportunity to get his story out before people lost interest. The night before he’d stayed up till 3 AM making a giant banner for the booth. Inspired by a friend’s observation that, to him, Door County meant cherries, salt water taffy, and ticky-tack tourist traps, he’d created six-foot-tall anthropomorphic bottles of vodka and gin, with cutouts into which people could stick their heads and have their pictures taken. Ellison planned to take snapshots with his iPhone and email them on the spot to the subjects. But taped to two monster pieces of foam core and leaned up against a tree, the sign refused to cooperate. Flapping and accordioning in the stiff breeze it lasted about five minutes.
This did not help with the branding.
Instead, as he squeezed a tree’s worth of lemons with military precision, he compressed his spiel into a few key talking points: Farmers. Wisconsin. Organic wheat. 35-gallon copper-pot still.
Passersby seemed responsive, and in fact what seemed initially a detriment—he’d chosen to make a mess of complicated cocktails involving berry puree and pear eau de vie rather than a pitcher of gin and tonics—turned out to be a bonus, as people were drawn in by the persisent rattle of the shaker and waited (mostly) patiently for their shots of Ramos Gin Fizz.
Still, late in the afternoon Mitch Einhorn, the owner of Wine-O-Rama, which distributes Death’s Door in Chicago, and who was on hand to help serve drinks and schmooze the industry folks, decided the story needed some extra juice. Einhorn’s also the man behind the Lush wine shops in University Village and Roscoe Village, and the Twisted Spoke, the West Town biker bar famous for serving up porn movies and scrambled eggs (“Smut ‘n’ Eggs”) late on Saturday nights.
“You gotta switch it up a bit, man,” he freestyled. “Tell people the wheat’s tended by scantily-clad teenage virgins. They rub up against the grain in field all summer long. Yeah! Naked virgins!”
He started spinning his alternanarrative to the masses. Some laughed and some seemed befuddled–though that could have been the aforementioned pork coma.
Ellison pressed on with his boring-but-true version of the story, but I started thinking about stories and marketing. Did Einhorn secretly think Death’s Door needed a better tale to tell? Something more in line with the stories told by other vodkas, like Svedka (“I am sexy robot from space”), Belvedere (“I am about to give you a blow job, just as soon as I apply more inapproprately bright lipstick”), or Grey Goose (“I am a WASP master of the universe. And a tennis pro. And a rap star.”)? Absolut, which retired its iconic bottle-based campaign (“I am culturally literate and appreciate good graphic design”) appears to be spoofing this last with its new Be Like Kanye ads, which I confess flummoxed me when I came across one on the F train last week in New York.
One of the things Ellison often emphasizes in sales calls is that it doesn’t do anyone any good for a buyer to bring in a bottle of Death’s Door and let it gather dust on the back bar. He or she has to be willing to get behind the story (“Farmers. Wisconsin. Organic wheat. 35-gallon copper-pot still.”) take the extra step into hand-selling to get drinkers to take the first sip that will then, hopefully, lead to the second and 45th. Otherwise the bar’s just bought itself a pretty paperweight.
But how, then, do you cut through the static, the multimillion dollar marketing, taxi toppers, wet-lipped models, cherry-vanilla vodkas, rap stars, and robots from space? How does a busy bartender convince an undecided to tip for something whose story says “I care about the environment, sustainable rural economies, and northern Wisconsin?” Even the self-selecting minority who, like the folks at the Green City benefit, find farmers unbearably sexy can barely hear it for the chatter.
When I think about it that way, it seems more than a little insane.