Alongside a lupine silhouette on a plain wooden box, which, I would later learn had been made from eight-foot-long pieces of solid Douglas fir, the following words had been hot-iron engraved:
“The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.”
Inside the box was a bulky bottle with a label made of a strange, soft, kid glove-like material. The accompanying press materials read like an Onion spoof of some hipster whiskey company, explaining that each bottle of Wolves is wrapped in Italian sheepskin leather, “which is hand cut, embossed, printed with UV light, and laid flush to the glass by hand. The bottle is heavy, French-cut glass, and the cork top is made of maple wood.”
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As a booze writer, I get sent flashy bottles like these all the time. Ones shaped like skulls, cologne bottles, and oil drums. Once, I got a bottle that looked like a solid gold bar, and another time, a three-liter bottle of Belvedere with an LED light switch in the base that could be clicked on to illuminate the whole thing.
I’d seen it all before, and I knew that with such baroque packaging and hyperbolic marketing antics, there was no way this Wolves whiskey could possibly be any good. Nevertheless, I did my professional duty and took a sip.
It was incredible.
“God forbid you open that bottle and it’s garbage,” says Jon Buscemi, the co-founder of Wolves along with his buddy James Bond (the press materials identify them as the brand’s “creatives.”) “Even if the people aren’t into packaging and think it’s a gag, they’ll find great juice inside.”
It used to be that vodka was the spirit that elicited the biggest marketing hype, which makes sense, since it’s inherently odorless and flavorless — and often drawn from the same few mass-produced grain neutral spirit sources that everyone uses. The only way to differentiate it is through the marketing and packaging — and bullsh*t claims that might help make a brand stand out.
Whiskey has never really needed to do that. Sure, whiskey has similarly been a category with its own issues of puffery (no, that craft whiskey isn’t the same as the one once bootlegged by Al Capone), but when it comes to the packaging, it’s always been fairly humble and quotidian. That’s why you still see so many bourbon brands in the no-frills packaging they’ve used since their inception.
Jack Daniel’s is still packaged in its squared-off bottle with the black “Old No. 7” label. Jim Beam has a label so bland I bet you can barely picture it. Old Grand-Dad has some old grand-dad adorning the bottle. Even Pappy Van Winkle simply has a black-and-white side view of Pappy smoking a stogie. In general, if a whiskey tastes good, it typically markets itself. But as the whiskey marketplace grows and new customers are courted, that may all be changing. Wolves whiskey is banking on it.
Wolves represents Buscemi and Bond’s first foray into the alcohol industry, which is yet another reason I expected their whiskey to suck. Both men hail from the fashion and designer sneaker industries. Buscemi is best known for his eponymous sneaker brand. Bond founded Undefeated, a designer footwear and apparel chain, which has locations in the U.S., Japan, and China.
It wasn’t even until about seven or eight years ago that the 44-year-old Buscemi became interested in whiskey. Like many men his age, he was into vodka when he was younger. Growing up in the New York City area, he had access to quality wines and spirits, plenty of which he gladly tried at dinner or in bars, but he was no connoisseur. It was when a friend introduced him to the whiskey-geek-beloved Willett that he got swept up by the emerging bourbon craze. “Drinking 110 proof, 16- or 17-year-old Willett Family Estate,” says Buscemi, “it changes your whole life.”
Still, Buscemi never had much desire to get into the industry himself. He was already a successful fashion entrepreneur. But one day, a friend brought over a bottle of California Gold (a famed underground blend I once broke the story on back in 2017). Buscemi couldn’t believe that some average Joe — an amateur! — had put together a whiskey this remarkable without the aid of a distillery or even industry know-how.
“It was kind of the catalyst — a lightbulb moment,” explains Buscemi, who is now based in Los Angeles. “I thought, we should put together a blend if we want to do something cool. We don’t have time to lay barrels down [to age] and all these other cool blends are hitting the scene as age statements take a back seat.”
The obvious first step would be to go to MGP, the massive bulk spirit factory that operates in Kansas and Indiana, and buy the same whiskey so many other startup brands buy, and then package it in their own slick bottles. And that was the initial plan. “We thought we could f*ck with it,” says Buscemi, “do it on our own and ‘hack’ it.”
While Buscemi and Bond were in the process of sourcing the whiskey for Wolves, however, they were introduced to a master distiller making some pretty extraordinary whiskey north of them in California wine country. That man was Marko Karakasevic, a 13th-generation family distiller who’s made a reputation for himself distilling local craft beer into whiskey.
“He’s into wacky sh*t,” says Buscemi, who during our conversation referred to Karakasevic as a both a hippie and a mad scientist. “He’s into just doing cool stuff. So why don’t we f*ck around and make a blend — start the brand this way?”
After several trials, the ultimate result was First Run, a blend made with whiskey distilled from stout beer and aged for eight years in French oak, whiskey distilled from pilsner and aged for five years in new American oak, and a rye whiskey (sourced from MGP) to round things out. The full blend is “lightly filtered with the mineral-rich water of Sonoma county,” according to the press release, to get it down to 106 proof.
I instantly recognized the one-of-a-kind hoppy yet underlying chocolate malt flavor profile when I tasted First Run. I was certain it was the result of distillate from Charbay Distillery in Ukiah, California — a cult favorite among whiskey geeks, though it’s never really broken out into the mainstream. Buscemi and Bond don’t cover up the fact that they source from Charbay — Karakasevic, whose father founded the distillery in 1983, is mentioned in the Wolves press materials — but they don’t completely own that fact, either.
But then again, the Wolves website doesn’t even refer to Buscemi and Bond as distillers or producers. Instead, they label themselves as a “unique creative group.” As they see it, their ideal customer has no idea who Karakasevic or Charbay are. In fact, their ideal customer might not even know Pappy Van Winkle. “I think the 1 percenters like you deserve the [sourcing] information,” Buscemi tells me. “But the 99 percent [of our customers] don’t really care about the story.”
Understanding Wolves’ Target Market
The New York launch party for Wolves was held in the Lincoln Room at Keens Steakhouse. I was invited, but unable to attend. Only one other journalist was invited — and not even a spirits writer: Jonathan Evans, the style director of Esquire magazine. Judging by the Instagrams from the night, it seems like the rest of the attendees were equally cool scenesters: men in gold double-breasted jackets and wide-brimmed hats; women in statement glasses and fur-lined coats, lots of flashy watches, dangling chains and neck tattoos. (Buscemi insists there were a couple dozen whiskey geeks in attendance, too, but that they just aren’t perhaps as… photogenic.) Still, despite the fashion-forward crowd, Buscemi isn’t even sure who is ultimately going to be a fan of Wolves whiskey. “We’re slowly finding out,” he says. “We’re learning as we go. We don’t even know who our customer is yet.”
But Buscemi suspects that if he produces great whiskey and puts as much effort into the packaging, he and Bond will start attracting the same type of customers who’ve bought their other non-whiskey products in the past. Those people, or the 270,000 Instagram followers of the Buscemi brand, or the 1.8 million followers of Bond’s Undefeated, don’t need to know what Charbay is or who Pappy is; they just have to know what luxury looks like and what quality tastes like. Though it veers far from just about every other American whiskey brand’s marketing strategy, that’s the Wolves game plan.
“There’s a certain discerning customer that likes quality, digs New York street culture [and] East Coast late-’80/’90s [style] — that’s the overall umbrella,” explains Buscemi. “It could be a burger place, a hat, a sneaker, a hot sauce, a car, a whiskey. It’s a certain customer who likes a certain look. That’s always been our customer base, no matter what category we’re going after. No matter what industry.”
And yet, Buscemi also wants to intrigue the whiskey geek. Remember, he’s one himself. He recognizes that this luxury placement, this image-is-everything marketing and the fanciful bottle, might immediately turn off the connoisseurs he’s trying to court. “The packaging,” he concedes, “almost might be too thoughtful for the bourbon community.” But again, us whiskey geeks make up only a tiny fraction of Buscemi’s perceived target market — it’s the quality of the product itself that Buscemi and Bond are hoping will lure us.
A Fashion Strategy That Works for Whiskey
Wolves only had enough whiskey to produce 898 bottles of First Run, but that was fine because its sales model is also fairly unique. The brand doesn’t have any typical distribution or points of sale, such as liquor stores. All of Wolves’ whiskey is released online at the same time, exclusively available at Reservebar.com and Flaviar.com, which serve different states (though not all 50 states). Customers can find out about each new release by signing up (for free) for the allocation list, which currently has 4,500 names on it, though Buscemi admits a good 1,000 are family and friends.
In his article for Esquire, Evans described Wolves’ marketing strategy, referring to it as the “sneaker drop” model of releasing whiskey. “A limited-time-only release with just a handful (or fewer) points of distribution, scarce enough that you might miss it, even if you want it? That’s a sneaker thing,” he wrote. “A fashion thing.” But the “drop” is not a term Buscemi or Bond have ever used in Wolves’ marketing. They believe it’s simply the parlance of what their fashion-knowledgeable customers are most familiar with, so why not let the fashionmongers make that connection and believe Wolves whiskey is following this “sneaker drop” idea?
The second release, Winter Run, which (ahem) “dropped” in November, featured the same hyperbolic press-release language as First Run’s release. At that point, I just drank it up, poured myself a dram, and leaned back in my easy chair as I read it:
“[E]ach bottle is wrapped by hand in a chocolate espresso Italian sheepskin leather, which is laser cut, embossed, printed with UV light, and laid flush to the glass by hand. The bottle is heavy and French-cut, while the cork top is made of maple wood. Each bottle is delivered in a custom canvas sleeve that was stitched by hand and designed to fit Winter Run like a glove.”
Even if I couldn’t help but laugh again at how absurd this all was, I was pretty sure the whiskey inside was going to be great.
Indeed, I liked it even better than the First Run.
Wolves has four more releases planned in 2020 — and I’m sure four more hilarious press releases will accompany them, which I will copy and paste lines from and text to my whiskey geek friends so we can all share a good laugh. (Though, after laughing about it, I always tell them they should really try the whiskey as it’s, I-sh*t-you-not, actually great.)
There will be a Spring Run blend at the end of March, a second release of First Run in the fall (hopefully with a larger quantity this time). Wolves is also doing an upcoming collaboration with Neighborhood — Japan’s popular streetwear brand — that will be a bourbon finished in sake casks. The biggest and surely most ballyhooed release will occur late in the year, when Wolves sources whiskey from a distiller that isn’t Charbay (and that I agreed to keep off the record for now).
“I strive to create products that are obnoxiously high quality,” says Buscemi. “Wolves is a luxury and lifestyle fashion brand.” To market Wolves, he and Bond are applying their learnings and resources in luxury marketing to the spirits industry. “We see California whiskey as the vehicle.”
Back to Those Bottles
When they were planning the bottle design, Buscemi and Bond started by playing around with different materials for labels. “James and I are in charge of the forward-facing part of the brand, the marketing, the feel, the look,” Buscemi explains. “For the bottle we wanted something that incorporated both of our careers.”
Buscemi’s experience using leather goods from Italy for his designer sneakers and accessories seemed like a clever idea, especially when they found someone who could make and apply the sui generis labels. Since Bond is known for the utilitarian, military-inspired branding he used for Undefeated, they chose to go with similarly clean and simple typeface copy for the bottle, “like a BDU jacket,” Buscemi says. The production of the Wolves bottles also costs some six to seven times what, say, Jim Beam pays for its packaging.
Buscemi readily admits they spent as much time designing the bottles as they did the whiskey blend. His and Bond’s backgrounds have taught them that all the tiny details matter. As far as they’re concerned, that’s how you want to launch a brand. Maybe more American whiskey companies should follow suit.
“The thing is,” says Buscemi, “if you saw the Kentucky distilleries step out and do it, everyone would think it was corny, so it somewhat makes sense for them to stay in their lane. But, I’d love to see some kids down in Bardstown, [Kentucky, doing it]. I’d love to see a little more irreverence. I’d love to see some young, punk motherf*ckers making some great juice and putting it in sexy bottles.”
And, though Wolves may also move to simpler bottles with simpler paper labels one day, like everyone else in Kentucky and most of the whiskey-making world, for now the Italian sheepskin leather-wrapped French-cut glass bottle with the heavy maple wood cork inside the Douglas fir-bored box is how they’re going to continue trying to sell the country’s next great whiskey.
As Buscemi points out, “It’s kind of like getting an entire elevator pitch immediately when you just touch the bottle.”