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The Cocktail Creationist

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A Grey Goose ad from 1999.  

The story, at the height of LSU’s Jager boomlet, quotes kids calling the herb- infused drink “liquid Valium,” and theorizing that Jager was an aphrodisiac. When Sidney Frank saw this, he flew into action, assembling a team of hot chicks, dubbed Jagerettes, and dispatching them to New Orleans bars to hand out photocopies of the story. Frank also slapped up eight new Jagermeister billboards in the area. They displayed a wincing man and the words SO SMOOTH, playing on Jager’s ironic appeal. (I remember, back in high school, a friend’s college-age big brother had a T-shirt with the SO SMOOTH guy on it. We thought this was the pinnacle of cool.)

All over the country, Jager shots became a revered symbol of buck-wild partying, and the brand remains one of the hottest in the industry, growing at 40 percent a year. Yet not a single spirits expert I spoke with could explain the Jager phenomenon, beyond shrugging and calling Sidney Frank a “promotional genius.”

“It’s a liqueur with an unpronounceable name,” says Ted Wright of Liquid Intelligence, a beverage-marketing firm. “It’s drunk by older, blue-collar Germans as an after-dinner digestive aid. It’s a drink that on a good day is an acquired taste. If Sidney Frank can make that drink synonymous with ‘party’—which he has—he can pretty much do anything.”

Pretend for a moment you’re the man himself—Sidney Frank, liquor legend. First, you should be aware: You transact much of your business from bed, wearing pajamas and smoking a cigar (it is written into the prenup with your second wife that you are permitted to smoke cigars in bed). When not in bed, you wear a bow tie at all times. Also, you maintain a phalanx of full-time golf pros, at a cost of perhaps half a million dollars a year, simply so you can watch them play the game. You can’t swing a club yourself anymore—too old—so you golf vicariously, directing your pros shot-by-shot down the course. “Hey kid, hit a three-wood to the right of that water hazard,” etc.

To the business at hand. The year is now 1996, and, flush with Jager’s success, you’re ready to invent a new vodka from scratch. Why? Because the microbrewed-beer craze is giving way to a new age of sophisticated cocktails. Dot-com dollars are begging to be spent ostentatiously, at expensive nightclubs. Herein lies opportunity.

We’re out flogging Corazón at a club on the Bowery. The scene is clearly rife with Influencers. On my way in, I brush past Ethan Hawke.

As you lean back in your golf cart, watching another perfect chip shot bounce up onto the green, you ponder the fact that the premium vodka right now (in 1996) is a brand called Absolut. When it was first introduced, Absolut’s high price was considered outrageous. But it’s had great success (with its iconic, artsy ad campaign), and it now sells for the steep, steep price of about $17 a bottle.

So, to steal away Absolut’s market share, your unborn new vodka should undercut this price, correct? No, you think, chomping your cigar as you watch a 30-foot putt roll straight into the cup. Why don’t I price my vodka extravagantly higher than Absolut, at wildly more profitable margins . . . and steal Absolut’s market share that way? This was the great insight of Sidney Frank (and not only him: The makers of Ketel One vodka had the same basic idea). Frank could see that there was a product missing from the shelves. Here were all these vodkas, in the $15-to-$17 range, vying to be the premium brand (with Absolut mostly winning). Frank just sidestepped the fray altogether and charged an unheard-of $30 a bottle. The markup amount was pure profit. “He was the first person to see,” says an executive at rival Bacardi, “that there was a superpremium category above Absolut, if you had a good product story.”

In this story, the name came first—as it so often does when image is the paramount concern. Frank recalled he’d once sold a Liebfraumilch named Grey Goose back in the seventies. These were German white wines that were briefly hip but faded into oblivion. “I remember there was always something in the name that had magic with the consumer,” says Frank. (It may also be that Frank liked the name because he already owned the worldwide rights to it.) Frank gathered his lieutenants at the company’s New Rochelle headquarters. “Go to France and come back with a vodka,” he said. So they met with cognac distillers, whose business had slowed. The stills were switched to vodka, and at last there was an actual product.

But why France? Doesn’t vodka come from Russia, or perhaps, in a pinch, Scandinavia? “People are always looking for something new,” says Frank. It’s all about brand differentiation. If you’re going to charge twice as much for a vodka, you need to give people a reason.


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