On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Aaron Thorp, co-founder of Supergay Spirits. Thorp discusses his background as a beverage director working for many well-known establishments in the hospitality industry. However, he always believed the beverage industry was lacking joy in craft distilling.
In response, he co-founded Supergay Spirits, a spirits brand that prides itself on celebrating and giving back to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. The brand currently offers a coconut-charcoal-filtered, corn-based vodka and plans to release a gin and agave spirit in the coming years. Thorp also goes on to detail how the brand is surviving the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tune in learn how Supergay Spirits is bringing joy to craft distilling.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Aaron Thorp. He’s the co-founder of Supergay Spirits. Aaron, thank you so much for your time.
Aaron Thorp: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Z: Yeah, absolutely. Glad to have you on. Let’s start with a bit of backstory here. First, you can talk a little bit about yourself and then how you came to this role of spirits manufacturer.
A: Absolutely. I have a background in wine and spirits buying in New York City. I started working my way up as a server in one of the restaurants while I was going to school at Columbia. I worked my way up to the wine director, fell in love with hospitality, and worked through a few different wine director jobs in the city starting at Raoul’s, which is the quintessential French bistro in New York. Then, at the Standard Hotel, I became the wine director there. Most recently, I opened up Le Coucou as a beverage director and now presently, the beverage director for Happy Cooking Hospitality in the West Village.
Z: I got to say, as a sidebar, Le Coucou was one of the places that I was on my honeymoon with my wife, and we dined there. It was one of the first places I’ve been where I really looked at the wine list and said “this is oddly close to the wine list I would create if it were my job,” which is very cool.
A: Oh, that’s such a compliment because that was my wine list.
Z: Yes. Well, I wanted to pay the compliment to the person who did it.
A: That restaurant has a special place in my heart.
Z: Where, along those lines, did it become “in conjunction with having another project?”
A: I’ve always done something else. I’ve always had a focus and then wanted to do something else. I failed to mention that when I was at the Standard Hotel, my partner and I at the time opened up a wine shop in the East Village. A small, neighborhood-based wine shop called Wine Shop, which was very creative.
Z: Yeah, what was the brainstorming on that one?
A: Well, it was the first iteration of what we wanted to do, which was to create a series of small shops that were a throwback to old New York. The first was Wine Shop, but we never got that far, but it was a lovely experience. It was a great store. We had a lot of fun doing it. However, to answer your question, I’ve always done something else. I’ve always had something else in my back pocket when I’m working. I had some health problems going on that required back surgery after working at Le Coucou. While I was recovering from that, I had the time to think about the world and what was going on politically, which was just after Trump was elected. I was thinking about some of the things that were going on and wanted to create a product that could start a different conversation than what was happening in the world. This idea was a reaction to what was happening in the world, but I can talk more about that if that makes sense.
Z: Yeah, I think so. I would love to have your thoughts on the spirit’s production. The actual manufacture and sale of the spirits is only a part of what you’re hoping to do. Can you talk about what the broader goal or mission is behind Supergay Spirits?
A: Again, it was to create a space for something in the craft spirits industry. One, a space for something that was overtly, flagrantly queer, but also provided a sense of joy to what I felt, at least in working in the beverage industry in New York City, was lacking. I’ve seen a lot of products that are niche and super fun, but not quality. A lot of products that are really amazing quality are not so fun. To me, I wanted to bridge the gap between those two things.
Z: Gotcha. Let’s talk a little bit about the vodka itself. There are some unique pieces to how the components are sourced and how it’s made. Can you talk about the actual production method? Then we can talk about the marketing of it.
A: Yeah, so the product is 100 percent corn. It’s organically farmed corn. We sourced from Missouri and from upstate New York. We are made just outside of Port Chester, which is about an hour north of New York City. The reason why we chose corn was that we’re talking about a product that is inherently not the most exciting spirit and I’m not going to apologize for saying that. It’s a spirit that’s historically meant to be neutral with little flavor and odor. For me, what that left to play with was about texture. I think in cocktails, that’s one of the most important things that oftentimes is forgotten, so we chose corn because of the texture. For me, when corn is distilled, it has a waxy component to it. That was one of the pieces that we wanted to really focus on is how do we make a textural, beautiful product? We started with corn to do that. The other way was the filtration methods and how do you filter something? We have experimented with a number of different filters. We found that this activated charcoal, coconut-husk filter was the best to be additive to the textural component, which is really what we wanted to play with. We wanted to create a product that was relatively neutral and had a beautiful texture, so that’s where we ended up.
Z: Gotcha. Given what you said a moment ago about the idea that vodka is inherently intended to be neutral, nominally odorless and flavorless in a sense. Again, this is just an impression I have, not to think it’s a researched position. In the vodka category, since the initial craft distilling boom, I think it’s been an interesting challenge for people trying to market craft vodka because it’s harder to distinguish. What is the approach when you’re trying to sell this product? How do you talk to people about it? Is it all about the textures, about the production method? Is it about the fun? What goes into the story?
A: I think that there are a few disparate pieces of this. The quality of the product, I think, is one. That’s first and foremost. If the product sucks, we’re not going to sell it. That’s the first piece of the brand itself, I think is fun to talk about. It’s a brand that is focused on bringing joy to the craft spirits market and gives back to the community in which we’re born in or born out of. I think that’s a piece that people really gravitate towards. The bottle’s label has expressed this joy, in my opinion. I think those are some pieces that we have been relatively successful in conveying to people that are tasting it.
Z: You guys launched the spirit just over a year ago, right?
A: We launched the week before the shutdown in New York City, which was, in my opinion, don’t ever do that. To anybody listening, you can’t predict what is going to happen, but that’s not the smartest way to do this.
Z: Yeah, I can’t imagine that was the rollout you had envisioned. What did that mean? What did you have to do when looking at the reality that at least for months, bars were essentially shut down. How did you handle that period?
A: Honestly, I panicked. My background is in on-premise relationships, which are bars and restaurants. Those are the people that we had focused on. I was calling people that I knew to share this product with them, and I was super excited about doing so. Then, grasping the fact that all of us were shut down was a big realization for us. The only method that we could use as an avenue for sales for us, at least in New York, were retail stores. I have to give props to all of the retailers that supported us because they made it happen for us.
Z: Oh, I was just going to ask, is there a lot of desire for local or New York State-based craft spirits? That’s a conversation that I’ve had with producers and other places where sometimes it can be hard to get shelf space. Obviously, New York has a range of different liquor stores. None of this is easy, but were they open to the idea?
A: One thousand percent. I think that particularly in this category, in the category of vodka, what I found is retailers were looking for something that had excitement and energy. If the price was right and there was a story behind it, they would much rather have something like this on their shelves than they would a bottle of Tito’s if the price is comparable.
Z: Oh, I was just going to ask, now that you mentioned it, the behemoth in the vodka space these days. Presumably, people who like Tito’s are drawn to the part that it’s handcrafted, whatever the heck that actually means. It feels American, as opposed to Russian, French, or Swedish. Is that where you’re seeing some buy-in, or is it just all vodka drinkers are interested in a product that has a sense of joy to it, more local, etc.?
A: I think people are creatures of habit, and we will never be Tito’s. I don’t think we’ll take any business away from Tito’s. It would be amazing if we did. This is my experience in both wine and spirits. I think people order what they’re comfortable with, or they purchase what they are comfortable in purchasing. Oftentimes, particularly when money is tight, people don’t want to take risks on things. For us, that was an amazing part of this process, because when we launched in Covid, I was walking. I was terrified and didn’t want to take any trains or cabs. I also was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to sell those products. It was walking over each of the three bridges, probably walking on them 20 times to go to Brooklyn to drop bottles off to people. I would say 95 percent of the time that I dropped a bottle off to people, they purchased it. For me, that wasn’t the biggest thing, because I do think it’s fun packaging and all of the things that we’ve spoken about. To me, the question was whether or not they were going to be worth it? They seemingly did and still are. That was the real test of whether or not this had viability in the market.
Z: Now that we’re in this place where I think nationwide, certainly in New York and maybe some of the other markets you’re hoping to be in, we are seeing a return of on-premise consumption. How is it working for you in trying to tap back into those connections? Is there still a sense from those places that they may be open to a new product? Are so many of the operators and beverage directors saying they can’t take any chances right now?
A: To be completely transparent, it’s a mixed bag. A lot of restaurants are not open. A lot of the bars that we thought we would align ourselves with are still not open yet. That has to do with regulation based on what percentage of occupancy restaurants can open up and if bars can actually meet the regulations that the state is permitting. With that being said, we are slowly moving more into on-premise relationships now, which is great. We’re formally moving to a distributor. We are now working with the logistics center for distribution. We have some movement, which is great.
Z: I’m also wondering from our discussion, in the beginning, the genesis of this whole idea was giving back to various communities that you belong to. Is it still something that happens through Supergay?
A: It is. That is actually the way that it was brought about is how do we affect change based on our purchasing power? How do you create a brand that actually gives back to the population of people that it was born from and/or the allies that support it? For us, that was the most important part of this project. I really want to create something that has an interesting perspective, that is unapologetic about its presence, and that gives back to people. Yes, we give back a portion of proceeds to the queer community, but also to our allies. It’s not specifically queer community. For instance, in 2020, we had ideas of the organizations that we wanted to align ourselves with for that year. With the pandemic, it did not make sense for us to do that. We partnered with Roar NY to give back to restaurant workers that have been displaced or unemployed. For us, that was the most important part. We’ll still do that for 2021 just because it’s still an important part of the population, at least in New York City.
Z: Besides the vodka, what else do you have in the works?
A: We’re starting with vodka. That’s the easiest access point, if not the most saturated point. It was the easiest for us to afford to do. We will be creating a gin as well, which is hopefully coming at the end of 2021. Then, we’re working with a producer in Mexico to produce an agave distillate, either mezcal or tequila. We’ll have those three lines of distillates that we’re going to be making.
Z: Excellent. With the gin, is it still the idea to keep a 100 percent corn base to give that same textural note, or are you looking at a different base?
A: Obviously, with gin, I think you’re talking about something that is different. I do think texture plays a part in it, but I think the aromatic profile is much more front and center. For me, the most important part of a gin depends on what the intention is for the gin. If it’s a gin that’s supposed to be mixed into cocktails, then you want to have something that’s straightforward in terms of its expression. If it’s a gin that’s meant to have its own voice in the market, then more interesting aromatic components will be employed in the making of it. However, for me, gin is about aromatics. I think that we will probably still use the same base, although we haven’t started experimenting with the aromatic profile that we’re thinking about. But we’re excited about doing that.
Z: Very cool. As far as access for people, where is the vodka currently available, either in New York State or outside of New York State?
A: It’s available in a number of retail stores right now throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. There are a few upstate in Hudson that are selling it. I mentioned this before, but we’ve been picked up with Skurnik, so will be in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California with Skurnik Wines. We also have a distributor in New Orleans that we’ll be moving to in the next few weeks.
Z: The last question on this: As someone who lived in New York for a little while, is there more excitement about what might be going on upstate? It always felt to me that culturally, there was a little bit of looking down upon. Is it almost a selling point that you’re not New York City-based?
A: Interesting question. I think that you’re talking about looking down upon from New York City to New York State. I was going to say, I think upstate might look down on New York City, but it’s vice versa. Personally, being in the restaurant industry, people believe that the best produce and the best water sources come from upstate New York. When you’re talking about food, wine, and the products that can make a spirit, we believe that notion of upstate produces some of the purest water and products. For food or any kind of produce, that is what I believe at least.
Z: Is anything else that you want our listeners to know about Supergay Spirits or what you are up to? Did I miss anything?
A: As I said before, it’s a product that’s meant to bring joy to people. I think it’s easy for us to be pushed into a queer category or a “gay spirit,” but it really is just a product that’s meant to be joyful and to bring people together. That is the most important part for us.
Z: I can’t believe I didn’t ask this question before, I really should have. We can end with this, which is great. What are three ways that you recommend enjoying the spirit, like cocktails or other forms?
A: A Martini is the way to go. I shared this with my friends who are like, “Listen, Aaron, I don’t drink vodka.” I would say, “Let me make you a Martini.” They would have and say it is literally the best Martini that they ever tasted. In cocktails, it’s great. Also, I know people drink vodka on the rocks, but it’s really lovely on the rocks with a lemon twist. It’s very refreshing and delicious.
Z: Aaron, thank you so much for your time. I know you’ve launched in a very, very tumultuous year. Hopefully, years two and beyond will be a little calmer. Best of luck moving forward as you expand the product line and the reach.
A: Zach, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
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Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City, in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.