A Crash Course on Taking on Centuries-Old Brands... and Succeeding

When you are getting 90+ ratings and Gold Awards, when Forbes is saying your flagship artisan spirits product is "far superior" to that of your counterparts, waxing poetic and promising "trust me when I say you will love this rum," it would make sense that you would charge an arm and a leg for such a product, right? Wrong. Conventional wisdom doesn't help you compete against the billion dollar big boys.

This interview with Nick Pelis, creator of the widely celebrated Denizen, an upstart brand of rum, is phenomenal for any entrepreneur, but especially entrepreneurs who made the leap from the corporate world with a whole lotta knowledge. The reality is, Nick has succeeded in no small part due to his adaptabilty to a constantly changing world, regularly pivoting thanks to small-batch market testing, vendor feedback, and his own gut, and not relying solely on his MBA, textbooks, trade press, or conventional industry wisdom.

Nick has worked for some of the most recognizable distilled spirits industry brands and distributors in the U.S., including Diageo, Moët Hennessy, William Grant & Sons and SKYY Spirits. He founded Citizen Spirits with its flagship artisan rum, Denizen. Denizen's first product was a white rum that blended flavors from Trinidad and Jamaica, and it hit the ground running, earning praise from Forbes, iVillage, and the Beverage Testing Institute. Rum is the second-largest spirits category in the U.S., but Denizen got noticed in a hurry, with 90+ ratings and a number of awards. The Cocktail Enthusiast raved that "Denizen is a game changer for white rums." Denizen introduced its amber 8 Year Aged Merchant's Reserve in 2014, a blend of flavors from Jamaica and Martinique. Denizen's Merchant's Reserve has been praised for capturing the essence of Trader Vic Bergeron's legendary Mai Tai rum.

Nick lives in New York, but has seen distribution for Denizen explode beyond New York all over the US. Recently, Time Out Seattle and the Rum Collective celebrated the arrival of Denizen rum in Washington State.

Notes from the show:

Nick's father, as a sales manager for a high-end Greek food importing company, gave him the opportunity to see how things operate in a business, and Nick saw firsthand how people got excited to receive products.

"If you're going to be successful, you have to deliver something different."

"You need to value other people's feedback."

Nick noticed early on that there was a void in distilled spirits products connecting emotionally with consumer.

Rum was a category that was "a mess."

Nick saw a big opportunity in the "tweener" market - post-college graduates still trying to find themselves.

The concept of a denizen matched Nick's goal of creating a brand around the "liberated spirit."

Nick's first goal was to create a brand that transcends the category.

Nick spent a considerable amount of money developing the brand before developing the product.

Pricing was a barrier to entry; white rums over $20 don't sell.

Offering in-store tasting mitigated risk to retailers.

"On premise"--in bars, restaurants, etc.--cost per ounce matters more.

Nick ended up at Diageo after his boss at DC Comics moved to Diageo.

Nick got an MBA in marketing, because he already had a background in finance, strategy, and operations.

"Very few big companies give people the opportunity to get outside of their comfort zone."

Very few people deliver on promises, especially if you can't offer something of value immediately.

Denizen was not Nick's first entrepreneurial endeavor: he decide to pivot from an online liquor delivery service after 6 months.

Owning a house and renting it out provided greater financial flexibility.

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Put your own money in."

A SWOT analysis is everything.

A marketing plan is not just based on messaging.

It was a mistake to hire a PR firm.

Email info[at]citizenspirits.com - Nick takes the time to get back in touch with you.

This podcast hosted by New York attorney Michael Prywes was sponsored by Prywes Schwartz, PLLC, a law firm devoted to artists and entrepreneurs.

This podcast may contain attorney advertising. Prior results do not guarantee future outcomes.