New Columbus-based spirits company Revolution Experiment knows their first release, Karate Cowboy is a bit of a shocker, and that is just what company Co-Founder Mark Tinus intended.
“We wanted the first brand we put out in the market to be an eye-grabber,” he says.
Karate Cowboy’s honey wasabi spirit & sake mix is an east-meets-west fusion both in its flavor profile and base alcohols. To understand how the sweet up front, ends with a burn spirit came to be is to understand what Tinus knows about the alcohol industry.
Describing himself as a jack-of-all trades but master of none, Tinus’ background includes an engineering degree from OSU, a position as a brewmaster with Anheuser Busch, an MBA and time spent as a management consultant. While consulting, Tinus worked on sales strategies for brands like Bacardi and Heineken, with the beer brewer eventually hiring him as the marketing director for Central and South American and Caribbean markets. But after a few years, Tinus realized the board room just wasn’t for him.
Tinus had spent enough time in the alcohol industry to learn a lot about different aspects of the business. He saw some interesting quirks to how innovation groups within these big companies worked.
“There was this whole gray space of products they didn’t even want to touch,” Tinus says.
The thinking was mostly that small creators would develop innovate spirits and larger companies would then buy out. As with large organizations, turnaround time could also be slow and innovation was mostly limited to what had proven successful in the past. Tinus decided to approach it differently with Revolution Experiment.
“Let’s make a company where all we put in market is real greenfield stuff that nobody else is doing but has big, mass-U.S. potential,” he says.
While he was based in New York for his position with Heineken, Tinus was adamant Revolution Experiment be built in Columbus. The company made the decision to launch here and Chicago, rolling everything out in Central Ohio first then heading up north.
To decide on the first spirit, Tinus looked for undersaturated categories lacking innovation.
“We came upon sake as a category to play with because most people know what sake is,” he says, but there were two major reason the market wasn’t growing. “One was there was no brand.” Their field research revealed, “Ninety percent knew what the category was, six percent could name a brand.”
That’s where Karate Cowboy came in. Tinus wanted a strong, recognizable brand that signified the east-meets west fusion.
The other was based on consumer behavior. Tinus says when creating a brand, brands either need to change the way consumers behave with their product, or change the product to fit the way consumers are behaving. Revolution Experiment found that most younger consumers were treating sake, technically a rice wine, like a spirit (aka sake bombs). They could either tackle the challenge of educating consumers about sake or change the product to truly fit that spirit category.
Swaying to spirit also came with another important advantage. Mixing the sake with whiskey gave the product a shelf-life comparable to a spirit like vodka, meaning the bottle could be left in plain site where bar patrons could see it, unlike some wines.
Karate Cowboy’s unique honey wasabi flavor has generally elicited two reactions.
“Pure intimidation or explorer wonderment,” Tinus says. “Unless we get you to try us, you’ll never know what we are. We are a brand you have to experience. That’s the big challenge in doing anything new.”
The surprising versatility of the spirit is revealing itself as it hits the market. The brand doesn’t want to force people into how they should drink it, presenting everything from shots and bombs, to mules, margaritas and Bloody Mary’s.
It has been no small feat getting the spirit on the market as of 13 weeks ago.
“It literally is a series of 1,000 conversations,” Tinus says of launching the company. And in a highly-regulated industry like alcohol, many of those conversations have been with the government.
Everything from the spirit formula to labels to the supply chain has to fit into the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s standards. While the standards for something like a vodka that has been produced time after time are challenging enough, “We’re taking two categories that have never blended together in the U.S. and making it not a third category,” Tinus says.
Once over the hurdle of sake being considered a beer by manufacturing standards, but being classified as a wine in the U.S. by alcohol content and Revolution Experiment throwing a liquor in the mix to hit all the categories, the business had to tackle their supply chain.
“The one that we are currently using is the fourth supply chain we built,” Tinus says.
It was another multi-month process to get the labels just right. While it seems simple, the spirit & sake moniker is meant to reflect the uniqueness of the product and accurately convey the 28 percent (although soon to be 33 percent) ABV.
Then there are state-level regulations, which differ on a state-by-state basis. Revolution Experiment has already worked through the process on their first and second spirits (more coming on that) and are tackling more regulations to set themselves up for a strategic summer growth.
While the spirit is already available at bars from campus to Downtown to Grandview and claiming shelf space at a smattering of liquor stores around the city, Revolution Experiment is eyeing Lakewood and Sandusky for expansion hoping to tap into the spring and summer island crowd. Tinus says some things are also on deck for a Q2 expansion to Cincinnati.
Aside from geographical expansions, Revolution Experiment is working on flavor expansions. The company is gearing up for the March launch of their second flavor, ginger mint, marking a more accessible and recognizable profile. Tinus hints at other possible marriages featuring ingredients like lemongrass, ginger and teas, all fitting into the east-meets-west theme.
For more information, visit revolutionexperiment.com.