“You’re Steve Grasse?” the tattooed brand ambassador for Sailor Jerry Rum asked him. “Yeah,” Steve responded.
That question is particularly pertinent because Steve Grasse (pronounced with a silent e) is subtle and subdued when you compare him to the brands he has created in the last 15 years. Once an ad man for the likes of Puma and Camel cigarettes, Grasse’s passion has led him to create some of the most iconic and unique liquors in history. Here’s the kicker: unlike Jack Daniel (who I featured in the last Man Behind story), Grasse is still alive and making great liquor.
Steven Grasse’s ad agency, Quaker City Mercantile, has represented many clients over their 25 years in business, but Grasse is happy that those days have passed. “Yeah I used to be an ad guy, but I’m glad I’m not anymore,” Grasse says. “Our hobby was to create our own brands, though. We started with a film series called Bikini Bandits, featuring strippers who robbed stores, then started the GMart Convenience Stores.” Quaker City then started the Sailor Jerry clothing line and created a companion rum to help sell clothes.
Sailor Jerry Rum took off. Grasse’s agency developed everything for it, from the marketing to the label to the actual taste of the liquid in the bottle. Concurrently, they created a gin called Hendrick’s, and like Sailor Jerry, Quaker City developed everything for it, from the liquid to the legend.
A Twist in the Plot:
William Grant and Sons, a liquor conglomerate that covers big brands like Stoli Vodka, took notice. They bought the brands and the story from Quaker City.
Steven Grasse continued to create, though, and invented another liquor line, officially titled Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He told me,“We created Art in the Age the day we sold Sailor Jerry, and we purposely made it the most challenging brand ever. We said, ‘alright, we’re going to have the plainest bottle possible, and we’re going to put the weirdest liquid in it, and we’re not going to make it obvious where to look for it in the store.’” William Grant and Sons bought that brand too.
Selling the Unsellable:
Art in the Age’s spirits line currently has four liquors: Sage, Root, Rhubarb, and Snap, the last of which was developed from Grasse’s grandmother’s ginger snap recipe. “I worked with our resident chef to create a liquid version of that recipe, and then we sent it to our distiller and said ‘make that into a liquor.’ We chose our favorite, and you have Snap.”
“Making spirits is no different than being a chef,” Grasse says, and though flavored vodkas are big sellers nowadays, people don’t have the deep connection to the brands in the same way they do to Hendrick’s or Sailor Jerry. “It’s shitty vodka with chemicals” he told me. “Three Olives is the Ed Hardy of spirits.”
From Marketing to Liquid:
A fifth Art in the Age spirit is set for release later this year, and Grasse says that it’s “fantastically odd, but infinitely mixable. It has some very odd ingredients.”
Grasse’s team doesn’t market test their liquors, and he told me that most of their ideas come from history books, not barrooms. He told me, “I’ve seen quite a few ad agencies emulating what we’re doing, and they’re all belly flopping.” He stressed that the quality of the liquid in the bottle is the most important thing, otherwise you’re just “selling a gimmick.”
Grasse says, “so now we’re a genuine liquid firm that knows something about marketing. We know how to build a community around our brands.”