"I like to start off every meeting with a shot of Coldcock. We don't have to do big ones, but we have to do one!"
Well, OK, if John Reese says so. Reese is rock royalty. He managed tours for Guns N' Roses back in the day. Now he's a promoter. Among his properties is a barnstorming heavy metal festival called Mayhem, stopping today at the Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.
Outside Reese's tour bus, it's not just insanely loud, it's also 106 degrees. Inside, though, we're cool. At 53, Reese has that slightly-damaged-old-rocker look that makes you wonder, wistfully, exactly how much fun he has had. He's wearing camo board shorts, a baseball cap, high-top sneaks, and a full-body coating of tattoos, and he's pouring shots-for me; for his willowy wife, Elenie; for young Sam Bettley, who plays bass for a U.K. metal band called Asking Alexandria; and for his business partners, Rick and Sarah Zeiler, co-founders of Zeiler Spirits.
The Zeilers are not as old as Reese but they're not as young as Bettley. They look like they took a wrong turn on the way to their kid's soccer game. Yet they belong here, absolutely. They used to work for Sidney Frank, the booze baron who died in 2006 after making a fortune importing Jägermeister and creating Grey Goose Vodka, which he later sold to Bacardi for more than $2 billion. Rick ran the marketing campaigns for both brands and Sarah, his wife, ran PR. Now in their early 40s, they're hoping to use what they learned at the feet of the master and build blockbuster brands of their own.
Coldcock is their initial offering, and, no, it's not subtle. It's a "shooter," in the lingo of the trade, and it comes in a big black bottle with a fist on it. Inside is three-year-old Kentucky bourbon, 70 proof, mixed with flavorful herbs to make it palatable to entry-level drinkers. That puts Coldcock smack in the middle of the current liquor industry sweet spot. Domestic bourbon and whiskey sales topped $2.4 billion in 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, up 34 percent since 2008. And Demeter Group, a merchant bank that specializes in liquor deals, says flavored whiskey is by far the fastest-growing segment of that market.
The opportunity the Zeilers see-the chance for Coldcock to become the next big thing in booze, as Sarah puts it-is huge. Consider Fireball, a much-copied cinnamon-flavored whiskey from Sazerac that has suddenly emerged as the ninth-best-selling spirit brand in America. But here's the thing, says Bill Thompson, who led the development of Grey Goose and was an early investor in Zeiler Spirits: "The liquor graveyard is full of excellent tasting brands that were not marketed correctly." The Zeilers face a classic startup challenge: How do they compete against deep-pocketed giants like Sazerac in an industry where outsize marketing budgets rule?
That's the challenge that inspired an innovative, low-cost scheme that builds what Coldcock needs most but can't afford-marketing, distribution, buzz-right into the financial structure of the company. The strategy revolves around an army of highly motivated brand ambassadors whose members include metalheads, DJs, concert promoters, talent agents, a tattoo artist, a street muralist, an X Games snowmobiler, and an NHL goalie. Some, like Reese, are actual investors; the Zeilers, casting a wide net, have raised about $3 million from more than 100 partners. Others, like Bettley, didn't have to put up any money at all; instead of equity they have shares in a pool representing a 15 percent claim on the brand's profits.
It's celebrity marketing with a grassroots twist: neither a straight promo deal with a single A-list star, like Jack Daniel's did with country star Zac Brown; nor an outright equity play, like Diageo's 50-50 partnership with Sean "Diddy" Combs for DeLeón Tequila. "Very cool," says Malcolm Gosling, scion of Bermuda's first family of rum, who is not an investor in Coldcock. "It's a unique way of approaching an endorsement strategy." Marc Levit of Demeter Group agrees: "It really empowers each of these local champions." If Coldcock succeeds, so do they. Without them, Coldcock doesn't stand a chance.
One day 20 years ago, Sidney Frank walked into the pro shop at the tony Farms Golf Club in Rancho Sante Fe, California, and asked, without preamble, "Are there any young golf pros here who want to travel around the country and be my personal pro?"
There were half a dozen candidates in the room. Only one-a working-class kid from tiny Ridgecrest, California, who'd taught himself to play on the course at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and was paying his way through community college-raised his hand.
"Do you want the job?" Frank said.
"Well, maybe we should get to know each other," young Rick Zeiler said.
"OK. Let's play golf on Wednesday."
So on Wednesday, they did. And somewhere around the 17th hole, Frank asked Zeiler again, "Do you want the job?" This time Zeiler said yes. "By the way," Frank said, "we're leaving Saturday for South Carolina."
Three days later-having quit his job, dropped out of college, moved out of his apartment, and broken up with his girlfriend-Zeiler met Frank at the airport. "He flew me first class to South Carolina," Zeiler recalls now, "and we got off the plane, and it was a completely different life from that day forward."
Zeiler did little else but play golf with Frank for the first couple of years, but eventually Frank made him his personal assistant, and then gave him a sales job at company headquarters in New Rochelle, New York, which is how he met Sarah; he was in a bar in Manhattan, buying Grey Goose for pretty girls. They didn't get married right away. Rick was only 25 years old and Frank had told him he couldn't marry anyone until he turned 30. ("He wanted to make sure all of my attention was on him.") Frank did approve of Sarah, though, especially after he found out about her background in the tech world. He was always grilling her for investment ideas, and when one of her tips made him a fast million, Sarah says, "I was the new favorite." A week before the wedding, he named her PR director at Sidney Frank Importing.
Frank didn't say the newlyweds couldn't have kids right away, but he didn't have to. He gave them Jägermeister to nurture and grow instead.
Jäger is vile stuff: green, viscous, and sticky. Frank himself once admitted it "tastes like cough syrup." (He also said it "tastes like money.") But as the patron saint of gonzo marketers, he was up to the challenge. He leveraged a single 1985 press clipping in the Baton Rouge [Louisiana] Advocate to spread the rumor that Jägermeister was laced with Quaalude and an aphrodisiac. And he recruited an army of sexy sample-dispensing mercenaries-Jägerettes, he called them; "boobs in the bar" is Sarah's description-and deployed them across the United States.
In 1999, Rick slapped some Jägermeister stickers on a rented motor home and drove to the Woodstock festival in upstate New York. Jägermeister had a promo deal with a band called Lit that was playing there. Rick managed to get a bottle into the hands of A. Jay Popoff, Lit's frontman, and when Popoff drank from it onstage, and Rick brought the pictures back to the office, Frank doubled his budget.
Rick made Jägermeister's band program the envy of the industry. His timing was perfect. With recording revenue plunging thanks to digital downloads, bands were looking for new sources of income. Rick gave them gas money for the tour bus, shot glasses for the merch table, and all the free Jägermeister they wanted. Later came a fleet of Jägermeister RVs that plied the festival circuit. Eventually Jägermeister and Grey Goose launched their own branded tours. By the time Rick left Sidney Frank Importing in 2012, the band program had an annual budget of more than $2 million and Jägermeister was a top-10 global brand.
Along the way, the Zeilers-"a golf pro and a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs," in Sarah's words-got cozy with all manner of screamers, rappers, and guitar gods. When bands came through San Diego, where the two had moved to be close to Frank's home office, Rick and Sarah would invite them over for a home-cooked meal. When band family members wanted a case or two of Grey Goose for a wedding, the Zeilers provided. When band grandparents came out to see their kiddies perform unspeakable acts of rock 'n' roll depravity, the Zeilers hooked them up with VIP passes.
Deep friendships came of that, not to mention valuable relationships-with rapper Lil Jon, for instance, who calls me from a tour stop in Australia to say, "Me and Rick are best friends. He tells it like it is, keeps it real with you." And with legendary Slayer guitarist Kerry King, who drops by the house so often with his wife, Ayesha, that the Zeiler kids call him Uncle Scary.
Straight bourbon wasn't going to cut it. The twentysomething demographic the Zeilers were aiming for wants a shot that goes down easy-no burn, no whiskey face. Sugar in quantity works-that's Fireball's approach, and that's where Coldcock started. "But we wanted compelling reasons why someone should try Coldcock," says Sarah. Less sugar is an attractive differentiator. So are herbs.
Sarah knew something about herbs. As a PR professional in the liquor industry, she'd been experimenting for years with various concoctions, blending and steeping teas, hunting for ways to make her mornings-after more bearable. What she didn't realize until she began fooling around in her kitchen was how well some of those brews went with bourbon. The recipe she and her husband chose in the end-the Kings joined them at their kitchen table for the final elimination round on Super Bowl Sunday in 2013-has about half the sugar that's in Fireball. There's green tea in there; also hibiscus, eucalyptus, and gingko.
If you're thinking all those healthful detoxifying and anti-inflammatory agents will mitigate your Coldcock hangover, you're dreaming. But dream on-the Zeilers won't argue with you. And if, when you read the words "American Herbal Flavored Whiskey" on the bottle, you think crafty, small batch, organic, the Zeilers are fine with that too. Even if they do buy their raw bourbon wholesale and blend it at a grim, windowless warehouse in Florida.
And what of the name? Searching for something unforgettable, Rick made a long list of candidates and asked bartenders to pick their favorites. One day at a dive bar near the Zeilers' Rancho Bernardo home, a woozy patron, eavesdropping, went off on Coldcock for 30 minutes: "How could you ever order something called Coldcock?" That sealed the deal. The fist on the bottle guides the mind's associations, but it can't restrict them, which, again, is no accident. Hence the Monster Cock (Coldcock and Monster energy drink), the Cock Star (Coldcock and Rockstar energy drink), and the Morning Wood (Coldcock and orange juice). "I'm sorry," says Sarah, running down that list. "I don't blush anymore."
It quickly became clear that although whiskey is sexy and there was VC money on the table, it wasn't going to be enough to build the brand. So the Zeilers made a strategic choice to tap the networks they'd spent their whole careers developing. King was an early investor. His involvement put a metal imprimatur on the whole undertaking, which "legitimized everything we wanted to do in that world," says Rick. Reese, meanwhile, is the reason Coldcock gets its own bannered stage at every stop on the Mayhem tour. And several big-time agents have put in money, helping open doors to athletes, musicians, and venues.
So what happens when people get free Coldcock profit shares? Snowmobiler Sam Rogers wore a Coldcock-logo'd helmet in the X Games last winter. ("He crashed, too!" says Rick, fondly recalling how ESPN zoomed in on Rogers's helmet as doctors checked him for signs of concussion.) Bettley, the Asking Alexandria bassist, got a Coldcock tattoo high up on his right thigh and posted a video on YouTube. ("I was sober when I got it," he says, "but not when I promised I was gonna get it.") Others push product at the point of sale. When Big B, a West Coast rapper with a loyal following, went crazy for Coldcock onstage at a bar in Ridgecrest, the house sold 56 bottles. "There were maybe 700 people in the place," remembers Sarah. "I don't know, they might [have been] injecting it."
Coldcock went on sale in September 2013 and moved 13,000 cases in 12 months-about 20 percent above target. This is nowhere close to the double-digit millions that define success in the liquor industry, but it's a start. Currently, you can buy the drink in 22 states, but challenges remain. "Right now everybody's got their paws in," says Phil Heath, an industry vet who's done some selling for Coldcock. "We didn't realize how expensive it would be to incentivize distributors. You can have all the marketing in the world but you still need sales." Gosling, of the Bermuda rum clan, wonders what it must be like to preside over a committee of more than 100 owners; the Zeilers retain a 52 percent stake, but still, he says, "that sounds like a nightmare." And how committed to the brand, really, are all those shareholders? (The Zeilers closely monitor their partners and reserve the right to revoke their shares.)
But nobody's worrying about that right now, not with the sun finally setting, the sky gone to purple, the temperature settling down into the balmy double-digits. Rick's at the wheel of an overflowing electric golf cart, heading for a lot where the band buses are parked. He stops in front of the one belonging to Mushroomhead-another metal band, from Cleveland-and knocks on the door.
Somewhere back in Rancho Bernardo, in a parallel Zeiler universe, is a house with a yard, three little kids (a girl and twin boys; they're probably getting ready for bed), a labradoodle named Teddy, and Roy, a Chihuahua. By this time tomorrow, that's where Rick and Sarah will be.
At the moment, however, they're jammed in Mushroomhead's funky-smelling tour bus, wearing their matching black Coldcock T-shirts, the two of them a little loopy after a day of drinking in service to the brand. They're listening politely to the band's bass player, Dr. F, hold forth on his new favorite beverage. "It's really great for us to drink before we get onstage," he explains, "because a lot of times, like in this heat, I can't drink a whole Bud Lite. I'm gonna need six Bud Lites anyway to get lit." And out comes the bottle, again, and the tiny plastic shot cups. "One more Coldcock!" Dr. F shouts. "Are we doing this?" We are.