How Virgil Kaine Whiskey Got Its New Look
About 10 months ago, Dave Szlam approached the marketing agency BFG Communications with a problem: Virgil Kaine, the South Carolina bourbon brand he founded in 2012, had hit a plateau. Could BFG help turn it around?
Ryan Meany, the BFG account executive who took on the project, thought the original packaging was decent, but he felt the brand "lacked that craft character" that conveyed its southern roots. The reason for that was simple: Szlam was trying too hard to fit in.
"We launched this product at a time when Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, Fireball Whisky, and all these bourbons and whiskeys were hitting the shelf," Szlam explains. "We kind of felt forced to go into that niche and compete with those players, neglecting the fact we were using pressed ginger."
But the persona of many of those brands was mostly about shots, which wasn't what Szlam had in mind. "We're a $26 liter bottle, which is too expensive for the shooter crowd," he says.
Szlam's branding strategy wasn't much better.
It was "whatever was the cheapest," Szlam admits. "I made the label on my laptop computer. We wanted to get the price as low as we could. But we found ourselves having a hard time even entering the Atlanta marketplace. We just kind of felt the resistance."
Virgil Rides In
To overhaul the brand, Meany and Szlam put themselves in the mindset of the character the product was named for, Virgil Kaine. "We focused on bootlegging and the southern rebellion spirit," Meany says. "And when we started to look at [Virgil] from an outside perspective, we ended up with this really cool story."
The Virgil Kaine legend they concocted goes something like this: A train conductor named Virgil "scoured for choice ingredients by day and toiled over a hot still at night until he concocted a product he was proud of." That product, of course, is the handcrafted bourbon made with yellow Hawaiian ginger in South Carolina.
With this narrative in mind, Meany and Szlam agreed on a vintage aesthetic and began eyeing bottles from the Civil War era. "Identifying a bottle shape was key," Meany says, especially because the current iteration looked so generic. To differentiate the product in the well-saturated market, "we wanted to start with a really strong foundation," he says, "and for us, the best place to start was digging up bottles from the South Carolina Distillery--the only one allowed to operate during Prohibition."
After examining some photos of old bottles' silhouettes, "we noticed they all had wide shoulders, with a small base and embossed glass," Meany says. The latter feature was so drinkers caught in the act in the Prohibition era could strip the bottle and claim it was medicine. "We tried to work in these little details that 99 percent of people might not pick up on. But the people who realize these things are in, hook, line, and sinker."
Designing the bottle took roughly three months, after which the team shifted over to labeling. Meany and Szlam wanted to come up with a memorable way to represent South Carolina and ginger. They discovered that burnt yellow trim set against a night sky struck the right kind of high-low balance: the temptation of nightlife and Virgil riding a train. The yellow signified the ginger perfectly.
With the bottle design set, the focus turned to marketing, which Szlam concedes is still a work in progress. "The goal this year is to prove the concept with this story and take it to the South and Texas," he says. "Thirty percent saturation of the market would be the goal. [The redesign] is the tip of the iceberg."
For now, Virgil Kaine will remain a mainstay at local tasting events, including a mixology campaign with James Beard award-winning chefs, says Szlam, who is a chef himself.
Since last week, the team has sold roughly 160 cases, and it is confident it's on target to sell much more. "What we've discovered was everyone remembers the name but hasn't tried it," says Szlam. He's confident Virgil's new look will change that.
What do you think? Does Virgil Kaine's new look better reflect the core brand?
JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer | Staff Writer
Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.