Excerpt used with permission fromBranding: Distilled by Cynthia Sterling , Sterling Creativeworks , Published by White Mule Press

CASE STUDY

FOUNDERS: Scott Hanson & Chris, Brandon, Darren and Alanna Hanson

ESTABLISHED: 2013

SPIRITS: Vodka

LOCATION: Sonoma, California

Editor’s note: Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka is distributed by Youngs Market in California.


Family-owned and -operated Hanson of Sonoma is located in the heart of California’s wine country, and uses wine grapes to make their organic vodkas. Having leased space to produce and launch their product, the family opened its own distillery facility in the spring of 2014.


What inspired you to start a distillery?

Two of our sons were watching the growth of small batch brewers and saw that there was an opportunity for craft distilling to grow in the same way. They approached my wife and me about supporting the project. At first we were hesitant, but the boys did the legwork to prove the viability of the idea to us. Now the whole family is working together in the business.

Tell us about your brand name.

Hanson is our family name. Using the family name is traditional for wine, but not for vodka. We saw this as a way to distinguish ourselves, taking more of a wine approach to vodka that is made in the wine country. Family ownership and production is an important part of our story. We make our vodka from scratch. Our name conveys who we are and where we are.

Tell us about your journey from the idea of launching a spirits brand to the actual launch. How long did it take to get product ready for sale?

We spent a year and a half trying 155 different formulas using different grape varietals, different distilling processes and different filtering processes before we were happy with the product. We used space in another distillery to do our research and development, and have since built our own distillery. We wanted to prove we had a product the market wanted before we invested in our own equipment. We live in Marin, California, and had spent a lot of time in the wine country surrounded by world-class grapes. We wanted to do something unique that used this local resource. Because the grapes we use for our base are seasonal, we have to plan our production for the coming year each harvest. We distill only from organically certified grapes and organic bulk wine, so availability is limited.

“We also felt it was really important that the label show that we make our vodka by hand. The handcrafted look helps to tell our story, and our story is an important part of promoting our brand.”

How did you find a designer to help with branding and packaging design?

We did a lot of research in the market, picking up craft and mainstream packages we really liked, finding out who designed them and then looking at their portfolios. We developed our brand identity and packaging very slowly over a period of time.

Walk us through the branding and package design process. How did you get from the initial briefing to the finished design?

The design process was very educational. We had a strong idea of what we wanted. We used to live in a house built in 1886, and when we opened up the walls to remodel we found some old medicine bottles. The old medicine bottles inspired us. We also felt it was very important that the label show that we make our vodka by hand. The handcrafted look helps to tell our story, and our story is an important part of promoting our brand.

The first couple of firms showed us their design drafts, and we felt they weren’t quite getting there. They did help us move forward, but we are rarely satisfied with the first thing we see. We spent a lot of time exploring different options, trying to get it just right. We were actively involved in tweaking and refining with our focus and attention on the details to obtain our design concept.

How did you find the packaging suppliers you work with—closures, labels, glass, etc.?

We researched the top suppliers in each category and met with them to see their offerings. We asked lots of questions—my business background taught me to be very thorough. Then we got pricing, and looked for the best combination of quality and price. We couldn’t afford a custom bottle, but we found a great stock bottle at Saverglass and had a custom cork made for our design concept.

What has the feedback from retailers and on-premise accounts been?

The response has been extraordinary. We come from outside the industry, and the response from distributors has been very positive because we bring something unique and different that stands out.

How did you find a distributor?

Our vodka won some big awards in both the U.S. and Europe. After that, distributors started paying attention to us. We talked to a number of them, including the largest distributor in the U.S., and chose one for our home state of California that was a little smaller based on how we fit into their portfolio, how we felt about their people, and their approach to a small producer. Not every distributor will give much focus to building a new brand. To find one is critical. We are now fortunate enough to have the choice of the best distributors in each state and abroad.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered and how did you overcome that challenge?

Managing the sales process. It’s very time-consuming, taking at least one of us out into the field with our distributors every day. We had no idea how much time we’d spend working the sales and distribution side.

What advice do you have for other distillers starting out?

Take your time and get it right. We’ve tried not to rush our decisions because we’re building a brand and a business we want to last a long time. This new category can feel like the Wild West. You have to make your own way because there isn’t really a model you can follow.