Castle Brands has become a stronghold for some very special premium products
Christian Leibfried enjoys a Rum and Coke made with Gosling’s Black Seal at the bar of his West Hollywood restaurant, Saint Felix.
I once had a mixologist tell me he could ascertain a customer’s character based on the cocktail that person ordered. In the interests of diplomacy, I decided not to pursue the matter, especially since I was drinking straight whisky at the time. However, I think it is more accurate to state that a supplier’s or importer’s image is shaped by the spirits it carries. This is certainly true of Castle Brands, Inc. (AMEX: ROX), an innovative company currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. Within that brief span of years, Castle Brands has become a leader in the field of premium, niche-market products, and while not the biggest player on the field, it is one of the most versatile.
Celtic Crossing on the bar at Saint Felix.
I first met Mark Andrews, Castle Brands’ Chairman of the Board, years ago at a spirits tasting. He was standing beside some wicker-covered demijohns filled with old stocks of British Royal Navy Imperial Rum. This set the tone for the finely crafted spirits Castle Brands would eventually have in its portfolio.
Today, the Castle Brands family includes Knappogue Castle Irish Single Malt vintage-dated whiskey (this year, 60 bottles of Knappogue Castle 1951—the world’s oldest Irish whiskey—plus a Castle Collection anniversary set of vintages 1990 through 1995, will be released); Boru vodka, a Gold Medal winner in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition; Clontarf single malt and blended Irish whiskeys; Celtic Crossing liqueur, a marriage of Cognac, Irish whiskey, and honey; Brady’s Irish Cream, combining fresh cream with Irish single malt; and Sea Wynde pot-distilled rum. However, three rising stars are Pallini Limoncello, Gosling’s rum and Jefferson’s very small batch Kentucky bourbons.
Seal of Approval
To get their messages out, each brand is targeted to specific on-and-off-premise personnel, and sometimes directly to the consumer to build demand. This is the case with Gosling’s, which has a maritime history that began in 1806, when James Gosling, a British merchant, set up shop at St. George’s, Bermuda, where the Gosling family eventually began selling their blend of dark rums. During World War I, when Royal Navy officers celebrated on the island with champagne, the Goslings would gather the empty bottles, wash them, refill them with rum and seal the caps with black wax.
Years later, as a play on words, the Goslings devised a label depicting a black aquatic seal balancing a rum barrel on its nose. The “black seal,” of course, had nothing to do with those “bad boys of the sea,” but rather, black sealing wax. Thus, Gosling’s Black Seal was born. Today, Gosling’s is run by the seventh generation of the family, and Gosling’s trademarked Dark ’n’ Stormy cocktail (Black Seal and ginger beer over ice) is Bermuda’s official drink.
Although Black Seal accounts for over 90 per cent of sales, there is a Gosling’s Gold for lighter cocktails and a Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum, a handsomely packaged, individually numbered bottle containing rums up to 30 years old, which places it in the gift and after-dinner categories.
“English rum is a very precise—although quite small—category in the United States,” says John Glover, Senior Vice President, Marketing for Castle Brands, “and although I feel Black Seal could be priced even higher than it currently is, considering its quality and consumer perception, it is sold to very upscale yachtsmen and golfers.” As a result, Gosling’s is involved with yachting events like the Newport Bermuda Race and sponsors the Essex Rum Challenge in Connecticut. It is also working with the IMG agency to make Gosling’s more of a presence at golf resorts. “We want upscale golfers to be drinking a Dark ’n’ Stormy on the 19th hole,” says Glover.
People are discovering unique cocktails made with Pallini Raspicello, Limoncello and Peachcello.
Pallini Limoncello is another family-owned brand, made by Dr. Virgilio Pallini and his daughter Micaela from their 100-year-old recipe. Although the category is still evolving, Glover has seen demand rising. Last year U.S. sales were up 40 per cent. In Italy, Pallini dominates the super-premium limoncello market.
“One of the reasons,” says Glover, “is that the family’s proprietary process keeps the lemon oils from separating. And the Pallinis only use artisan selected Sfusato Amalfitano lemons from Sorrento farms. They’re as big as grapefruits, with very thick skins. Only the rinds, which contain maximum concentrations of flavor, are used.”
Pallini Limoncello is traditionally a digestif, served chilled. But it can also be enjoyed in other ways. “People are discovering you can make cocktails with Pallini Limoncello,” says Glover, “like Lemon Drop Martinis, and Bellinis with our peach-flavored Peachcello. We also have a thirst-quenching Pallini Palmer—iced tea and a shot of Limoncello instead of lemonade. You can even pour Raspicello over vanilla ice cream for dessert. There’s a real potential to move Pallini forward in the drinking day, not just after dinner. We are also seeing Limoncello used in the culinary field. People like Giada De Laurentiis on The Food Network use it to make tarts and other desserts. Our challenge now is to work with mixologists, teaching them to make sophisticated cocktails with Pallini. Much of it is one-on-one trade education by our sales force.”
Jefferson’s and Jefferson’s Reserve very small batch bourbons represent the American side of the Castle Brands portfolio.
Small batch bourbons are less challenging, but brand recognition can be difficult when you’re a very small batch bourbon, as with Jefferson’s and Jefferson’s Reserve. However, the fact these bourbons have recently won Gold Medals at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition has helped spotlight these brown spirits. As one of the judges, I can tell you that each has its own distinctive persona.
Jefferson’s, at 82.3 proof, is easy drinking, while the 90.2 proof Jefferson’s Reserve has more depth. Both are aged in barrels with a light #2 char, which allows more fruit flavors to come through.
Like the Andrews family’s Irish castle for which it is named, Castle Brands is an imposing edifice. But its real value can be found in the treasures that lie within those castle walls. And each has a spirited story to tell.
On the Cover
Saint Felix is West Hollywood’s Latest Divine Hotspot
John Arakaki (aka Johnny 99) and Christian Leibfried at Saint Felix, their newly-opened West Hollywood creation.
“We all pitched in on the design,” says Saint Felix co-owner John Arakaki. He’s referring to himself and co-owners Christian Leibfried and Jay Krymis (aka the Libertine Group), who combined their various talents to create the funky-chic look of Saint Felix, their new bar-slash-bistro on one of West Hollywood’s busiest pedestrian intersections. Why Saint Felix? Felix is Arakaki’s dad’s name as well as his own middle name, and moreover, Arakaki says, “I did some research and there are a lot of interesting Saint Felixes out there.”
Although it only opened in June, the place has a been-there-forever Greenwich Village vibe thanks to exposed brick, shellacked wood paneling, comfy banquettes, carmine flocked damask wallpaper and outlandish accoutrements like a female leg lamp sheathed in fishnet stockings.
“We were just trying to create a cool atmosphere,” shrugs Arakaki. It works in spades. (The partners also own the even more outré WeHo dance club called Fubar, not far down the boulevard.)
The mixed, post-modern crowd—one part same-sex men and women from the neighb’, one part Hollywood hipster straights and a generous dash of the simply curious—thrives on the creative food from Executive Chef Brian Vacarella (“a big part of our plan,” according to the owners) and the lip-loosening libations, which range from super-premium cocktails made with spirits like Boru vodka, Jefferson’s Reserve bourbon and Gosling’s rum, to sangria served in Mason jars and blue-collar-chic Colt 45 in 40-ounce bottles. (“I’m from Cleveland,” explains Arakaki, unapologetically.)
Arakaki is also known as the promoter of L.A.’s infamous “Kiss or Kill” club nights, and he and Leibfried both play in rock bands—Silver Needle and Mother Tongue, respectively—when not overseeing their growing bar portfolio from Libertine Group “corporate headquarters” in the back room at Saint Felix. As far as we know, there’s no rule that says business can’t be fun, especially for libertines.—David Gadd
Saint Felix, 8945 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA