Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Tom Baker was drinking espresso by age 12 and became a self-proclaimed “coffee snob” by the time he was a teen, yet the idea of turning caffeine into a career never dawned on the driven youngster.
He instead studied industrial design before becoming a consultant for food and liquor companies including Absolut, Brancott Estate, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, Baker soon learned the corporate world wasn’t for him.
“The innovation process used by multinational liquor companies was designed to guarantee mediocrity,” he says. “That’s what allowed the craft liquor industry to blossom — big companies weren’t making interesting enough products. I thought, ‘Can someone just do something interesting?’”
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In 2013, Baker encountered someone doing just that — Philip Moore, who was producing coffee liqueur at his craft distillery Distillery Botanica. “I tried it and went, ‘Mate, every bar and restaurant in the world needs this on their shelf.’”
The same year, the two co-founded Mr Black Roasters and Distillers (Moore becoming head distiller and Baker acting as managing founder and creative director) and have since thrived — exceeding $2 million in revenue in their third year, growing staff, and entering the U.K. and U.S., where the liqueur’s found in bars like New York’s Employees Only.
Baker has meanwhile won multiple design awards for the brand’s sleek, elegant bottle.
Although the pandemic slashed on-premise revenue, Baker and Moore are continuing their mission to “bring Australian coffee culture into the night.”
Baker talked to VinePair about Australia’s coffee culture, how working with KFC prepared him for the beverage industry, and why coffee’s more than just a flavor.
1. How did you get into coffee culture?
My earliest memories of coffee are driving to soccer on a rainy morning with my mom in the front and her Nescafé wafting out of a thermos. I started drinking espresso-based coffee early — I was probably 12 — then I worked in coffee shops after high school.
In Sydney, coffee becomes part of what you do, whether that’s meeting friends for coffee or trying new coffee shops. It’s part of Australian identity.
2. You were on the design team for memorable KFC products like the “double down dog” (chicken hot dog) and “chizza” (chicken pizza). What did you learn from those projects?
It was the era of extreme, shocking fast food, so KFC went, “Let’s make things that are interesting and talkable.” Their challenge was to go viral in the food space. People laugh now, but when that Double Down Dog launched, there was 6 percent same-store sales growth in the Philippines and lines out the door.
As a 24-year-old, flying around the world to invent new items for KFC was fun, but you learn it’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Ideas like the Double Down Dog are cute and amazing when someone suggests it, then it takes a month to commercialize it. And if you want to do anything at scale in big companies, it’s hard to maintain that kernel of the idea by the time it gets to market. It helped me realize the corporate world’s not for me.
But that job empowered me with the skills to turn ideas into reality and translate, “I think people might like this,” into, “This is what it could look like.” When I met Philip, that allowed me to go, “I think this could be bigger.”
3. Philip had already created the product at that point. How did you evolve it into Mr Black?
Philip was Australia’s largest horticulturist, growing millions of plants that were supplied to herb nurseries. He’s plant-obsessive but sold his nursery and built a distillery because, as Philip says, drinking plants is more fun than eating them.
He’d been working on it for nine months and done around 240 trials. That obsessive attention to detail made Mr Black taste as good as it does. One sip brought back every evocative coffee memory, and I said, “We’ve got to get this product out.” So, we started a company, he kept working on the liquid, and it was just us for two years.
4. Despite your love for coffee, you’d never previously bought coffee liqueur. Why not?
Many products in the liquor industry say “coffee” on them, but none taste like coffee. We give people other coffee liqueurs in blind tastings, and no one ever says they taste like coffee, which is why we went, “Let’s make a coffee liqueur that actually tastes like damn good coffee.” People look for other reasons for our success, but I think it’s genuinely because we have a stunning liquid.
5. You used some interesting marketing tactics in the early days, like dissing Kahlua. What do you think about that now?
That was 24-year-old angst. I went to a liquor trade show with 12 bottles of Mr Black and a poster reading, “‘I really feel like a big glass of Kahlua,’ said no one ever.” I stuck it behind the booth right opposite Pernod Ricard, the brand’s owner.
They’re all nice people, but they’ve recently reduced their ABV by 4 percent. It was 23 percent when I started, and now it’s 16 percent, so it’s got less coffee than ever and is sweeter than ever. They just don’t care, and if they’re going to be so disparaging of their customers’ taste buds, then they deserve all the shame they get. I was an angsty child when I made that poster, but 10 years later, I don’t think I was far off the mark.
6. Given your design background, how important was the bottle’s appearance?
I think it’s one of the most iconic bottles designed in the last 10 years. You can squint in any bar and instantly see Mr Black. Having a breathtakingly beautiful bottle was important, and if our liquid’s the No. 1 reason for our success, our bottle’s No. 2.
The challenge was to make everything in our world as beautiful as our liquid. We want our business cards, website, flyers, and invoice templates to be as impactful as the liquid, because one thing reflects the other. It’s the same with a cup of coffee — the cup it’s served in and the coffee shop matter.
7. What have been the biggest challenges with building the business?
It’s been barrier after barrier with production. If you want to make more gin, you can buy a bigger still, read books, visit other gin distilleries, or employ a consultant gin distiller. We started making 200-liter batches in drums, and to scale that up, you can’t buy bigger equipment or hire a consultant coffee liqueur producer, and there’s no books on Amazon about upscaling a coffee liqueur company.
So, we’ve just finished building a purpose-built blending facility, which can make over 3 million liters of Mr Black per annum on a single shift. What I’m most proud of is that six years ago, we were making 5,000 bottles per year, and this year, we’ll make a million — but it tastes better now. Not many companies can say, “Our product tastes better when we make more of it.”
8. How do you hope to bring Australian coffee culture into the American nightlife scene?
There’s lots of flavors that are important, but people don’t go into, say, a juniper store in the morning. The flavor of coffee has this incredible culture along with it, which is what we’ve tapped into. Our slogan, “Bringing coffee culture into the night,” means bringing those elements which have been popularized in Australia and New Zealand — community, conviviality, craft, and ritual.
I remember going to New York 10 years ago, and you could get a good cappuccino, but the idea of sitting down and having avocado toast and well-made flat whites with friends was foreign. You’d get a go-cup, then power-walk to the office. Aussies bought that sit-down, have-some-food-and-chat vibe, which is a part of our brand DNA.
9. Are there challenges with people thinking they can’t drink coffee liqueur at night because it’ll keep them up?
Mr Black isn’t particularly strong in caffeine. If people are looking for a caffeine hit, they can definitely have an Espresso Martini with it, but if they just love coffee and want a cocktail, they can have a Coffee Negroni or a Cold Brew Old Fashioned, which won’t keep them up. There are delicious, nuanced ways to enjoy coffee in cocktails — Coffee Mezcal Negronis are my favorite — which touch on all those savory, roasty notes but don’t punch the stay-awake bulb in your brain.
10. Americans and Australians often have quite different palates for coffee, so how did you ensure you successfully expanded into the U.S.?
We didn’t assume Americans would drink Mr Black the way Australians did, and we spent time there without putting pressure on ourselves to become the next big thing overnight. A colleague and I hit the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan for a year, staying in small Airbnbs and calling on bars saying, “Hey, do you like coffee? Try this.” We learned what our product means to Americans and what they do/don’t want to hear, which allowed us to refine our approach before expanding into the market.
11. What’s in store now that you have a new facility, and what new products can we expect?
As I said to Philip when we met, this product should be in every bar and restaurant in the world, so we’ll keep working towards that. We’ve done barrel-aged products, like one with WhistlePig Whiskey, and we’ve got a mezcal, barrel-aged Mr Black coming August 1 with Ilegal Mezcal. We’ve also launched canned Espresso Martinis in Australia, which will be coming to the U.S.