For Brett Berish, CEO and cofounder of Sovereign Brands, building industry challenging brands is in his blood. The company he cofounded, Sovereign Brands, is a family-owned, family-run wine and spirits company dedicated to the creation and development of unique, premium beverage brands. I sat down with Berish to learn about the company’s history, his family’s background in the spirits industry and the growth Sovereign has seen in recent years.
Dave Knox: What led you to launch Sovereign Brands and what was the first brand you introduced to the market?
Brett Berish: My dad was in the liquor business so I grew up around it. I’d take note of what works and what I’d do differently if given the chance. I always loved brands. I always wanted to create a brand and finally made the decision to launch Sovereign Brands 22 years ago. My first brand was a vodka called 3 Vodka. It was ahead of it’s time, a truly unique vodka distilled from soy. I would like to think 3 Vodka is my most successful brand, even though it doesn’t exist today, because it got me to where I am. I learn from my mistakes, and I took the learnings and earnings from 3 Vodka to fuel my next big brand, which was Ace of Spades. Today, the current Sovereign Brands portfolio is four brands, which includes Luc Belaire, which is French sparkling wine, Bumbu Rum, McQueen and the Violet Fog Gin and our new entry in cognac, Villon.
Knox: The last year was a roller coaster for many industries, particularly alcohol, where you saw your partners in bars and restaurants shut down but an explosion in home cocktails. How did Sovereign respond?
Berish: I am so proud of the way we handled things and it reinforced our company strategy, philosophy, and ethos. Our company is made up of problem-solvers, we dig right in and we run at issues. So for us, it was “don’t wait for things to change, don’t sit back.” It was “go at it.” We took action and figured it out as we went – that’s who we are. And I think we did everything right in the sense of we wanted to be there for our accounts. How can we help them? How can we drive traffic to them? How can we get our consumer with online orders or curbside pickup or delivery? For the distributors, it was the same thing. We were probably the first ones to start integrating Zoom calls and online calls with our accounts and with our distributors. We also created assets they could use on social media, in-store TVs and emailers, and educated them on how to customize our assets to speak to their core consumers. We gave them the tools that they didn’t have in order to drive traffic. That is what we were doing on an everyday basis. And the result was that while it showed we were supportive of the trade, it also helped our brands.
Knox: Sovereign has a remarkable go-to market strategy as you build your brands. What drives your approach to brand building?
Berish: The go- to market strategy for us is a feel. With our rum Bumbu as an example, we have big plans and we have big aspirations. How we get there is going to depend on what happens the day we showcase the brand. We didn’t know if this was going to be an on-premise brand, off premise brand, or where’s it going to sell. We never assume or dictate the consumer before we release a brand, because how could we? We just release a brand and then we figure it out. And that does not sound corporate, because it isn’t , but it works for us. It is the same thing when it comes to the relationships that we have with brand ambassadors and celebrities. We are not bringing talent on to work with us on day one because we do not know what the “brand” is yet. We learn about people, and they share with us their experience with our brand and use that to drive our decisions. It is very organic. I want to be associated with people who love our industry, who love socializing, who love drinking, who are supportive of the brand. I do not want to force a brand on anybody. And if Lil Wayne drinks rum, let’s have him drink rum. Why should he be drinking champagne? I do not want to force it. So it’s got to be natural for us. And that is what’s always worked for us.
Knox: When you think about marketing your brands, do you market them individually or do you market as a family of brands?
Berish: Both. They are all individual brands. They all have their own stories to tell where they are made, how they are produced, what is special about them, the uniqueness, and they all own their audiences. The difference today is we are learning that “Wow, our brands also fit together. They go together.” That’s because we make category-defying brands. So if you didn’t previously like rum but love Bumbu, then you’ll be open to try McQueen even if you don’t drink gin. And that to me is something most companies cannot do. We are sharing the stories with our sister brands. And we are able to leverage that for more consumers, because at the end of the day, I have a view that especially on the luxury side of brands, they go together, they work together. So that is something new for us.
Knox: While you have four brands today, one of your most successful brands was Ace of Spades, which you sold off. Why did you make the decision to sell the brand vs keep it in the family?
Berish: Selling Ace of Spades was the hardest decision I have ever made but also the best decision. I did not want to do it, but we were not a company that raised outside money. We have controlled our own destiny, and we did not have the resources to continue to grow. Bumbu was a brand that was created 12 years ago. It just sat on my shelf because I did not have the capital to launch it. Villon, another brand, same thing; our gin, same thing. So for us it was, “Okay if we sold this, now we have capital to do 3, 4, 5, 6 other brands.” And that is exactly what happened. On one hand, I love Ace of Spades to death. I think it is amazing and I support the hell out of it. On the other hand, it made us stronger. I can do all these other brands for the first time. So unfortunately, or fortunately, it is how we got here. It is a slow roll, but it has worked.
Knox: When you are developing a brand, what inspired the choices you make around the bottle and the brand overall?
Berish: I think it is so many things. There’s a great parallel here with how a recording artist creates. He may have a hook or may have a beat that he likes and sits on it, not knowing what to do with it. In this case, we do not have outside agencies. We do not have focus groups. It is gut feeling amongst a couple people. If you were at my office, I would taste you on a new product or show you a new brand. “What do you think? Do you like it?” So it may start with a bottle shape, a design that we came up with that we really like, or even a name we like, “This would be kind of cool if we could do something with this.” And then ultimately it’s the liquid. My whole thing with my brands is I need to feel that my product is better than the competition that I am going against out there. My rum has to be better than everyone else’s. My gin has to be better than everyone else’s. It is putting all that together. And if my gin is better, if my package is better, if my name is better, if the story is better, I can launch a brand. If I do not have one of those things, I can’t do it. I do not have the confidence that I think I need to be able to share with the consumer and the trade. But what is neat is, it’s all gut. It is truly gut. It is a gut feeling of what we like, but I hope what I like is what the consumer is going to like.
Knox: You mentioned that Bumbu sat on the shelf for 12 years. What was that inspiration that originally sparked when you were looking at that business back in the day?
Berish: I love rum. Like everything we do, I start drinking a product. And in this case I was drinking rum. And that is how it starts. You start experimenting, you start trying other brands, you start seeing what they taste like. To me, rum is the most versatile brown spirit. You can do so much with it. There are so many different profiles. I started learning everything there is about the category. Where is it produced? How is it produced? I did not even know at the time that the original rum island of the world – where rum was created – was Barbados. You see big giant companies like a Bacardi or Captain Morgan, and you think they were the inspiration for everything. They are not. They started because someone else started. Then the name “Bumbu”: if you go back to the 14th century, merchants who traveled the West Indies didn’t like the taste of traditional rum. It was grog, so they would start adding their own flavors to it and blending it. And that was the original craft, which they referred to as Bumbu. We wanted to bring that back to life, that story, that inspiration, that craftiness. And we ended up in Barbados. In Barbados, you do not have to filter the water. The island acts as a natural aquifer and water is critical to rum and the profile we wanted. It all came together. The “X” on the bottle reminds me of the pirate who is searching for the treasure. The big, long cork, if you look at it, it is probably the longest cork in the industry. I wanted something where it felt like you could pull it out with your teeth. Every little bit, nook, and cranny matters to us because it is storytelling. We want that authenticity with our brands.
Knox: How do you approach partnerships for Sovereign?
Berish: We’re not a transaction company. If something is hot or too trendy, it scares me. Everything we do is organic. It is starting a dialogue with somebody no matter how big or small they are. Sometimes it can be one big thing that moves the needle, sometimes it’s lots of little things. For every one of the popular names supporting our brands, I can tell you 99 other celebrities who had brands that didn’t work. To me, a successful partnership is finding like-minded people who we connect with and where we both get something out of this. This works for both of us because we are both inspired by each of our spaces. That works for me.
And it’s crazy to say, as well as we’re doing, I get more excited about the stuff that doesn’t exist yet. We have 3, 4, 5, 6 new brands, new categories, all at the premium level where we firmly believe our product is better. And I am excited because I want to share that with our consumers, both new consumers who do not even know who we are, and our existing consumers who know and love each of our individual brands.