December 5, 2017
To most marketers, Chris Olshan is the CEO of the Luxury Marketing Council, running the networking organization along with founder Greg Furman. Not many are aware how he puts into practice what is preached in luxury: craftsmanship, attention to detail, personal service and exclusivity – all through The Surly Penguin Distillery, an upscale maker of cordials and bespoke liqueurs.
Based in Conestoga, PA, Mr. Olshan and his wife, Kristy, run the Surly Penguin in a rural corner of Pennsylvania, handcrafting distilled spirits with handpicked and hand-juiced fruits that are GMO-free and organic. All fruits, herbs and spices are sourced from local farms around the Foggy Bottom Forest, generating 20 flavors for sale initially on the East Coast of the United States.
“People more than ever want and appreciate authentic products,” Mr. Olshan said. “They want to know that what they are buying is real and being made in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
“Mass brands are rarely handcrafted,” he said. “Once they expand beyond a certain volume, they lose the ability to be artisanal.”
In this Q&A, Mr. Olshan discusses the genesis of the Surly Penguin, the choice of moniker, how the business complements what he does at the Luxury Marketing Council, the focus on craftsmanship, how to nab market share as a nascent upscale brand in a crowded spirits industry, the marketing and distribution strategy, and how he would like to work with the liquor giants. Please read on:
You lead a double life: CEO of the Luxury Marketing Council by day and CEO of the Surly Penguin by night. How come?
My answer, jokingly, is that my love of multitasking is a kind of boot camp to prepare myself for all the sleepless nights that come with being a new parent.
More seriously, I'm a creative and have always loved working with my hands. Whether building, taking photographs, cooking, landscaping, there is something special about turning a dream into a physical reality. I am always looking for new outlets that allow me to give something of value to my clients and friends and the satisfaction that goes with that.
The Luxury Marketing Council is my intellectual outlet and another revenue stream. The council gives me, as CEO, privileged access to C-suite executives from the best luxury brands and insights into the best global strategies to market to ultra-high-net-worth individuals.
Surly Penguin gives me an opportunity to be a creative and to experiment freely. From the beginning Surly Penguin has enjoyed many natural synergies with the Luxury Marketing Council. Each complements and inspires the other.
The Surly Penguin seems to be the embodiment of what your members stand for: luxury by virtue of being handcrafted, personal service and focus on quality. Did you borrow any ideas from your council members that inform the way you run your business?
The 11 years running the Luxury Marketing Council and hearing best practices from hundreds of luxury brands across all categories provided Surly Penguin with a perfect blueprint for success. We were inspired by the most sophisticated luxury brands’ best marketing and selling practices influencing the world’s richest and most discerning customers.
Our first area of focus with Surly Penguin was authenticity. I've sampled many different spirits from many of the best brands around the globe. One thing that always disappointed me was sampling a flavored spirit, expecting it to taste real and it’s not even close.
We wanted to make sure every flavor we produced tastes exactly like the fruit, herb or spice we used to make it. No exceptions. If we create a flavor and it doesn’t taste the way it should, we won’t sell it. We are always experimenting.
We also wanted to build a brand that was environmentally sustainable.
We are committed to ethical business practices and local sourcing for all ingredients. By design our carbon footprint is extremely low. Our distillery is located on a private forest reserve. This allows us to protect the land from development and preserve the natural beauty of the area.
All of our products are made by hand and produced in limited batches. The extraordinary amount of work that goes into making each bottle and maintaining our standards of quality is well worth it.
Our strategy is organic growth. We limit samplings, focus our advertising, and target only the most sophisticated buyers. We intend to expand but in a way that allows us to stay consistent with our brand’s values.
The name begs the question: Why?
We were inspired by the Macaroni penguin. The most traveled penguin of all, migrating more than 6,200 miles per year and member of Royal Penguin Family. His name “Macaroni” dates back to the 18th-century term for high style, as in, “... stuck a feather in his cap and called it “Macaroni.”
Our Yankee Doodle’s raised yellow eyebrows say it all. Our Surly Penguin is surly not because he’s grouchy, but because he’s a true citizen of the world, highly social, the most discriminating in what and who he likes: penguins, people, food and drink.
Our penguin loves to be the best, to share the best, be merry and party with the best people who savor luxury.
We strongly believe that just because something is luxurious doesn’t mean that it has to be stuffy and serious. Luxury can be fun.
You have started with cordials and liqueurs. Why that choice?
The inspiration to create Surly Penguin happened by accident.
One Valentine’s Day, my wife Kristy asked me to buy her essential oil to use for aromatherapy. Instead of buying her a bottle, I told her if she bought me a steam distillation set, I would make it for her. By accident, instead of making essential oil, I made 96 percent alcohol infused with essential oil.
In the summer of 2014, while still experimenting, I thought it would be a good idea to infuse the alcohol with raspberries from the thousands of bushed that grow on our property in Southern Lancaster in Pennsylvania. The resulting product was incredibly smooth. The taste is better than we could have ever imagined. This inspired us to ask the question, "What other local fruits, herbs and spices could be transformed into cordials or liqueurs?" We quickly realized almost anything.
We assumed there had to be a competitive product or products in the market. If fact, there were none.
The rest is history. When life gave us raspberries, we made cordials and liqueurs.
So how do you run the Surly Penguin? Who does the picking, distilling, processing, bottling, labeling and other operational stuff?
We like to think of ourselves at outliers: The little distillery that could. Fast and feisty. Quick to experiment. Quick to improve. Quick to market.
There is an expression I love that the founder of the Luxury Marketing Council uses when people ask him about his role: “chief, cook and bottle washer.” That absolutely describes Kristy and me. We do it all. Pick the fruit. Juice the fruit by hand. Distill the liquor. Infuse the liquor. Design and print the labels. Wash and fill the bottles. Label the bottles. Wax dip the bottles. Handle the sales. Do the samplings/pourings. Design and run the Facebook page and Web site. Design all the advertisements. Take all the photos. Everything.
While it can be overwhelming sometimes, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It allows us to guarantee perfection.
Craft beers were a rage a few years ago and then the liquor giants jumped in. Is there a trend in the area in which you operate?
People more than ever want and appreciate authentic products. They want to know that what they are buying is real and being made in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
Mass brands are rarely handcrafted. Once they expand beyond a certain volume, they lose the ability to be artisanal.
For the most sophisticated buyers, there is a certain, very special something in knowing that a product is made by hand.
If you compare a great home-cooked meal and fast food, mom’s home cooking always wins.
How do you get the word out on your product? Does the Web play a role as well?
We promote our brand through social media and have our Web site www.surlypenguin.com, but the real promotion is by word of mouth.
We do special tastings with special partners. For us recommendations from friends or coworkers go a long way.
Whenever people try our products, we inspire endorsements and advocates. Our ambassadors are our customers. There is no better advertising.
And what about the distribution and retail aspect?
We distribute in New York and Pennsylvania.
In New York, MHW is our distributor.
Hornblower Cruises, The Pierre Hotel, The Lambs Club and The Bay Street Theater, among others, serve Surly Penguin.
We are also available for retail purchase at Embassy Wines and Spirits, Diplomat Wines and Spirits, Ehrlich’s Wines and Spirits, and International Wines and Spirits.
As a commonwealth state, Pennsylvania’s regulations are very complex. We found it more efficient to handle selling and distribution ourselves.
How have you set your products' pricing?
Our strategy is premium price for premium products. Of course, in our markets, we compare competitive brands’ pricing.
If someone is willing to spend $40 on a bottle of artificially flavored cordials or liqueurs, we are confidant that once they sample ours – distilled naturally, tasting as nature made it – price is no object.
In addition to being handcrafted and locally sourced, all of our products are one-of-a-kind, seasonally driven by the cycles of nature.
Products like maple bacon can only be produced during a few weeks in late winter or raspberry that only ripens for a few weeks in late summer. And the same is true for the rest of our portfolio.
Who are your customers?
Our loyal customers range in age from college students to grandparents. Our products appeal to a universe of different palates.
Where are you looking to take the Surly Penguin?
We want to give a new, fresh, exciting twist to cordial and liqueur drinking, and build a loyal following who appreciate the luxury of natural products and natural flavors.
I'd love to see our brand carried by many more hotels, fine restaurants, clubs and top wine and spirit stores in New York and, ultimately, be available nationally.
We would like to win the attention of a multinational like Remy Cointreau, Pernod Ricard or Diageo, who would appreciate what we do and help us expand consistent with our commitment to producing uncompromising cordials and liqueurs.