In early July, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced a sponsorship with vodka brand Distill Brands International (DBI).
Based in both Canada and the United States, the brand will bring a line of portable, premium and super-premium vodka products to baseball fans. The MLB-branded drinks include 1-liter and 1.75-liter bags of the 40 percent ABV spirit, as well as freezer pops and ready-to-drink mixers. Pending MLB approval, the company will also offer single-serving flavored vodka shots and “spiked chewables.”
“We are extremely proud to partner with MLB, the most historic sports league in North America,” DBI founder and CEO Paul Neelin states in the press release. “We look forward to bringing MLB fans and DBI customers together in celebration of the great game of Baseball.”
Spirit-loving baseball fans may be eager to get their hands on the products. However, the MLB’s July 8 release states that they won’t be available until early 2023 — and, at that, only in three states. As the sponsorship grows, DBI promises to expand beyond New York, Florida, and California to restaurants and retail locations across North America.
Those looking for a preview on what’s to come via DBI’s prior, non-MLB offerings will come up similarly short. The company’s website showcases only the soon-to-launch branded bags of cocktails and flavored shots, among multiple “coming soon” pages. In fact, there’s little evidence that DBI existed as a spirits producer or brand prior to the deal, which poses the question of what came first: the partnership or product?
The answer to that appears to be the product — sort of.
In 2021, DBI changed its name from BIAB Holdings, the parent company of another Neelin line of novelty packaged spirits, “Booze in a Bag,” which was founded in 2018. (BIAB’s old website remains active but now redirects to DBI’s website.) It’s unclear if any BIAB product ever made it to market, but sports league sponsorship has clearly been on Neelin’s mind for some time. BIAB Holdings announced a separate “brand” in 2020, called “Stadium Series.” As outlined in a press release, the line of products launched with the intention of partnering with various “National Sports Leagues as their ‘Official Spirit.’” Once again, it’s unclear whether this line made it to market, though the “Stadium Series” branding has been carried over into the DBI line.
There’s nothing immediately nefarious about MLB and DBI’s relationship but it might strike some as puzzling that an unknown spirits brand that’s seemingly never reached the consumer marketplace has become the official vodka of MLB. In partnering with MLB, DBI joins the likes of well-known corporations such as Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Constellation (Corona), and Woodbridge by Mondavi — all of which are major players in their respective fields.
While strange, DBI’s lack of physical presence in the alcohol space only scratches the surface of its peculiarities. An exploration of MLB’s official vodka partner uncovers a multitude of pending products and abandoned patents stretching beyond alcohol; a cryptocurrency and metaverse that — true to form — also exist in concept only; and apparently false links to a publicly traded company.
Phantom Documents and Mystery Mailing Addresses
One of the key first steps when launching an alcoholic product is acquiring a Certificate of Label Approval/Exemption (COLA) from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB). Certification from the authorization, which ensures alcohol labeling and marketing is consistent with federal regulations, is a requirement for all domestic or international alcoholic beverages sold in the United States. Even if they’re no longer in production, all approved brands and products are listed on the TTB’s COLA registry.
The TTB provides a search engine function to file through these listings — the ideal place to find evidence of DBI as a legitimate product. Yet, a search for the most common keywords associated with the brand — Distill Brands International, Stadium Series, and DBI — returns fruitless results. While the “™” trademark logo litters DBI’s half-finished website, none of the terms return results when searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s own database.
The Canadian-American company shows more of a paper trail up north, though. “Stadium Series” appears in Canada’s trademark database, under the applicant “BIAB Holdings.” Filed in August 2021, the trademark has met minimum filing requirements but currently awaits examination and approval. A Canadian patent for the bag’s design and tap dispenser is currently pending, while the United States patent is seemingly abandoned.
Evidence of Neelin’s work with BIAB Holdings does, however, appear in American COLA files. BIAB’s listings include a line of packaged gin, vodka, bourbon, and other spirits that shares similarities with the Stadium Series products. Dating back to 2018, six total BIAB products are linked in the database: three from a producer in Wisconsin, one from Barbados, one from Florida, and one from Illinois.
Each COLA entry also includes photos of the products, which feature Neelin’s name and image. The documents shine a light on the producers of BIAB products, such as co-packer Minhas Brewery in Wisconsin. Again, it’s hard to tell if any of these products ever reached the retail market, but there are images of the brand’s founders holding BIAB pouches at a tailgate on BIAB’s Facebook page. Also featured in the album: a photoshopped liquor store where none other than Barack Obama is perusing a display of Mardis Gras-edition BIAB products.
Meanwhile, trademark documents provide other important company details, including a physical address for BIAB Holdings’ headquarters. A Google Maps search for the address provided on the Canadian Trademark filing for Stadium Series arrives at a row of apparently residential townhouses in Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Details of the Canadian-American company DBI’s addresses are also available online via press releases and its website. The brand’s one-time Niagara Falls headquarters seems to be the address of American Mailbox, a company that offers a U.S. mailing address for Canadian residents. More recently, the company has moved its U.S. offices to mailboxes in Santa Monica, and a service that promises “a Virtual address for you and your business” on its website.
None of the listed properties quite align with the headquarters of the brand that’s just been named MLB’s Official Vodka.
Questionable Stocks and Life Before Booze in a Bag
Similarly, the company’s employee structure isn’t consistent with the alcoholic beverage sponsor of a multi-billion-dollar sports league. The company’s only employee on LinkedIn appears to be Neelin. There isn’t a generated page for Distill Brands International, but a quick company search of the networking site returns Neelin as the sole employee listed. Co-founder Diane Hope, who is identified on several of the brand’s press releases, is not listed on LinkedIn.
It is on Neelin’s LinkedIn that we learn of prior entrepreneurial ventures. Before entering the spirits industry, he had a hand in the “lifestyle company” Tailgater Ultra Q, a producer of hybrid BBQ grill, drinks cooler, and liquor dispensers that fit onto the back of pickup trucks. The company’s website shows a crude rendering of the BIAB TG Ultra Q™ XXL model — which is in fact in a backyard rather than on a truck bed — that includes frankly bizarre photoshop additions, including an orange cat lounging on a lawn chair, a woman holding a wooden staff, and a group of people opting for ice cream over freshly grilled proteins. A BIAB Countertop Spirit Dispenser takes pride of place alongside the grill, with the Tailgater’s purpose explained in a separate, labeled diagram above. A Canadian trademark entry for the innovative product now lists Tailgater’s BBQ & Grill’s status as “abandoned.”
Today, Neelin’s entrepreneurial spirit seems focused entirely on DBI, along with directly associated ventures. On its website, DBI states that it’s moving into the “Metaverse Sector” by launching a “Virtual Liquor Store Online.” Cryptocurrency — also “coming soon” — will be available, too. And those interested in claiming their own slice of this pie can visit the website’s “Investor Relations” tab, which currently provides little information but does feature the stock ticker “NYSE: DSTL.”
On DBI’s homepage, the ticker shows a value of $00.00, despite the NYSE listed DSTL trading at around $40.86 at time of publishing. More confusingly, the ticker does not seem to be associated with DBI in any way, but instead is linked to Distillate U.S. Fundamental Stability & Value ETF, a Chicago-based fund with which Paul Neelin and DBI have no easily discernible ties.
As for physical stock, details about the manufacturing of DBI’s products remain hazy. A third-party website for Unique Flavor Teas, an alleged partner to DBI’s Stadium Series products, lists Red Boot Distillery as the brand’s co-packer. A photo on the Unique Flavor Teas web page displays DBI products apparently photoshopped into an image of a conveyor belt, which accompanies an announcement of the Red Boot-DBI partnership.
“It’s enjoyable working with the management at Red Boot as they have the same overall vision as we have here at DBI,” the announcement states.
Yet Red Boot Distillery owner Stuart Oxer tells VinePair via email that the co-packer does not produce any product for DBI, nor has it ever. About a year ago, the two companies were in talks about production, he writes, but they could not reach terms.
As for Neelin, multiple efforts to speak with him for this story have proven fruitless. After establishing initial email contact and agreeing to an interview, Neelin stopped responding.
This might have been because the founder was tied up in this week’s MLB All Star Game in Los Angeles — DBI’s first in-person presence at an MLB event, which it widely documented across social media.
On July 18, the brand’s accounts posted some 40 photos on Facebook, 24 individual Instagram photos, and five tweets. Photos from the event capture visitors posing with mostly capped bottles of DBI’s ready-to-drink cocktails, while many of the drinkers also juggle open beverages from other brands. It’s unclear whether DBI’s cocktails contain any liquid, though a sign in the background lists the RTD for sale at $13.
A separate website for Stadium Series also appears on the brand’s social media. The address leads users to a sweepstake giveaway for a DBI-branded baseball jersey, complete with a rotating, 3D, CGI rendering of the apparel. There are 10 days left to enter, as of July 20.
Currently, DBI’s Instagram account has three followers, one of which belongs to BIAB. The MLB’s official account does not follow DBI.
At the time of publishing, the MLB has also not responded to several requests for comment, but the league did comment on the partnership in the July 8 press release.
“With their breadth of creativity and experience in the industry, DBI is a great addition to the MLB lineup of official sponsors” Noah Garden, MLB chief revenue officer, said. “We look forward to working together over the coming years.”