Best friends and whisky wizzes.

If entering the spirits industry—as rookies, no less—were easy, everyone would do it. Childhood best friends JD Recobs and Chris Buglisi are tackling this challenge head on with a unique product: whiskey for everyone.

We just wanted to figure out what was going to be the whiskey for everyone.

JD Recobs and Christopher Buglisi Co-Founders of Misunderstood Whiskey

Transcription

The Most Unpretentious Whiskey Brand Ever Made with JD Recobs and Chris Buglisi

 

Katie Hankinson (00:02):

Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.

 

Mickey Cloud (00:03):

And I’m Mickey Cloud. Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient, and navigate ever-changing skies.

 

Mickey Cloud (00:21):

JD and Chris, welcome to Building While Flying. Great to connect with you, guys.

 

JD (00:25):

Thanks for having us, man. This is awesome.

 

Chris (00:27):

Yeah, man. Excited to be here.

 

Mickey Cloud (00:30):

JD and Chris are childhood best friends who had a dream to create a whiskey that can be enjoyed by everyone, and the end result is the award-winning Misunderstood ginger-spiced whiskey. You guys are super open about being industry rookies, which I definitely want to dive into today. But, I guess, to start, could you tell us about the business and the brand and where you guys are today?

 

JD (00:51):

Sure. Well, Mickey, we actually started Misunderstood as a passion project. We were working full-time jobs in Manhattan. Chris, much smarter than I, was in finance, and I was in the startup world. I was in fintech. We basically just would rush home and start infusing everything known to man into whiskey. We were getting into whiskeys. Our buddies were not, didn’t matter how old it was. It did not matter if it was aged 10 years, 12 years, 30 years, it kind of tasted like gasoline to them. So our job, we took it upon ourselves, getting home at midnight and staying up till 3:00 in the morning, to mellow out whiskey naturally.

 

JD (01:35):

I’ll be the first to tell you that avocado and whiskey does not mix. We can speak from experience. But ginger was pretty amazing, where it kind of naturally mellowed out that typical whiskey burn and turned it to a heat. It took us about five years to develop that, but we eventually scrapped all the cash we could find and linked up with some great people out in Bardstown, and we were able to have … What was it, just over 300 cases, right, Chris, pretty much?

 

Chris (02:03):

342 cases. It’s a number I’ll never forget.

 

JD (02:06):

342, magic number, man.

 

Mickey Cloud (02:07):

But who’s counting?

 

JD (02:08):

Who’s counting? Man, we just quit our jobs, we were super excited, and started pushing Misunderstood around Hoboken and Jersey City and Montclair, New Jersey on our bicycles. Lo and behold, we basically sold out in the first two months, and we were like, “Oh, man, what do we do now?” Got some distribution, and you fast forward a few years, and we recently got a national partnership to take this thing nationwide-

 

Mickey Cloud (02:40):

Amazing.

 

JD (02:41):

… with a pretty big brand. So labor of love is pretty much what it was. As you mentioned, very much rookies in the beginning. We know a little bit more now, but, yeah, it’s been awesome. So that’s kind of-

 

Chris (02:55):

There are a lot of stories that go into it. JD gave you really the one-pager, but we could tell you some wild stories.

 

Mickey Cloud (03:02):

Well, actually, that’s what I want to dive into. I think I want to talk about that five-year window where you were both working corporate jobs or had other things going on in your nine to tens or whatever it was and then at night you were playing with these infusions. I guess, maybe for the audience, talk about why infusions. I know a little bit about launching new brands into this space. If you’re going to launch a whiskey, the thing about whiskey is you got to barrel it for a really long time, so I think it’s interesting you guys came at it from the infusion approach. I guess, talk about that decision and just that process, what you learned.

 

JD (03:44):

Go ahead, Chris. Jump in, buddy.

 

Chris (03:46):

Yeah, so we were … I’ll definitely preface this with we were 23 years old at the time when we thought it was a great idea to start the whiskey company, which we’ll never look back. We’re happy that we went for. But there was certainly times within that four-to-five-year period when we launched that we were like, “Oh, man, we’re down on” … You go through every rollercoaster of emotion that you could possibly imagine, right? What we saw in the market and where Misunderstood sits in the market is definitely in between … We wanted to create the whiskey that was for everyone. That was the goal, but it wasn’t like we said, “Hey, ginger’s cool. Let’s do that.” It was very much you had your typical infused spirits on one side and you had your craft bourbons on the other side. One person leans one way or the other. It’s a very divided industry. We wanted to create something that both drinkers could like, and that was the point of Misunderstood in the beginning.

 

Chris (04:47):

For us, there was a couple things we knew. We loved whiskey. We knew there was a lot of opportunity there. It was a very exciting time because whiskey at that time wasn’t just coming from Kentucky and Tennessee. Whiskey was now starting to pop up in Brooklyn. It was starting to pop up in upstate New York. It was starting to pop up everywhere, Colorado. It was definitely a big movement in the industry. So we figured that we wanted to create something that created an experience for people. It wasn’t just an in your face kind of flavor. It was something that took you for an experience, and it had to be inviting. We would tinker. We lived with two of our best friends at the time, and they would come in and open the fridge, and there would be 45 different mason jars and a few [inaudible 00:05:46] were gross and they’d be labeled with little tape, like masking tape. It’d be like A1, A2, A3, A4. We had our notepad, and we spat out most of the stuff. It was pretty gross. A lot of the stuff was gross.

 

Chris (06:00):

But ginger was one of the flavors that we started experimenting with. But then you start digging yourself into a deeper hole of how do you infuse a deep ginger. There’s tons of varieties of ginger out there, right? Some add different notes. Then, also, at the time, we were literally buying bottles of our favorite whiskeys and infusing those. We would try bourbons, we would try corn whiskey, we would try ryes, we would try everything, really to understand how the mash bill would work with the infusion because ginger, as you know, you’ve probably had a good ginger shot before or ginger juice, it’s powerful, man. It takes over your senses. It’s peppery. So we were refining both at the same time, understanding how we were going to infuse it and also understanding the mash bill.

 

Chris (06:49):

At the end of the day, we had this kitchen recipe, we narrowed it down, and it ended up being … It’s a high corn mash bill, in which that … We were talking about the experience of Misunderstood. It had to be inviting on the front, have a little bit on the back that mellows the whiskey out, and it had to be really balanced. That’s what we’re going for. So have you tried it yet?

 

Mickey Cloud (07:14):

I have not had the chance. I’ve-

 

Chris (07:15):

Oh, man. This would be going a lot better if we were having a glass.

 

Mickey Cloud (07:18):

Well, now that you’re launching in Nashville … So I’m in Chattanooga-

 

Chris (07:20):

Oh, nice.

 

Mickey Cloud (07:21):

… so I’ll be able to soon.

 

JD (07:23):

We’ll be in Chattanooga soon, yeah.

 

Chris (07:24):

Yeah.

 

Mickey Cloud (07:26):

Yeah. I think it’s interesting the way you talk about folks that have whiskey-phobia. It’s either a really aged bourbon or a whiskey that people can get a little snooty about, or it’s people are maybe used to maybe the infusion sides and you guys are looking at how to create that thing for everyone. Do you imagine building the brand around that kind of lane, or do you see yourself barreling your own whiskey going across that spectrum? Where’s the opportunity from here?

 

JD (08:02):

We always envisioned Misunderstood as being an umbrella brand, and it’s certainly an experimental spirits company. This is our first shot, and we happened to get lucky with this one, and people seem to like it. But with that said, I think Chris and I are itching to create some new things down the pipe. I think we’ve always wanted to do something a little bit different. There are plenty of four-grain bourbons out there, and they do a really good job at that. First of all, we were big fans. We still are big fans. I think, sometimes, after we sell a bottle of Misunderstood at tasting, we’re selling about three other things that we like, too. We’re just passionate about it, and we love it so much. But I think our goal, too, is to welcome new unconventional ideas to a typical very old category, and that was the whole point of Misunderstood, is to kind of shed a new light on a traditionally old category and have a lot of fun doing it.

 

JD (09:06):

If you can’t tell by now or anyone that’s listening, we’re pretty much the most unpretentious whiskey company there is. But our whole goal was to not sacrifice quality for flavor. We wanted to make sure it was at proof where mixologists and bars could really appreciate it and our dads could really appreciate it, too, because if it was under 80 proof, man, we’d probably be in trouble and not talking to you right now, right? We wanted to make sure that it was truly the whiskey for everyone. So, to answer your question, yes, we want to stay in our lane. Everything we’ve come out with, we want to make sure it fits the brand and also fits our consumer and keep bringing new people into the whiskey world and the spirits world and keep having fun with it. We have some ideas up our sleeves, but we got to stay focused right now, especially with this expansion.

 

Chris (09:52):

Yeah. And, Mickey, I think one thing with that is it’s taken us a lot to be patient in this industry, and a lot of people aren’t because they think, obviously, it’s … When it comes down to it, people just want to sell more product, so they automatically think, “I’m going to release three new SKUs this year. One of them might be good, but I’m going to release it because we want more shelf placement. We want more everything.” For us, it’s been equally as hard to resist that and just focus on what we want to do. I think that’s kind of an unconventional approach to the industry. I think a lot of people, they always look at new product innovation as a way to grow. For us, it’s been saying, “How many things can we do with this product,” and that’s getting to know your customer really well and your product really well, and that’s been a learning experience for us since the beginning.

 

Mickey Cloud (10:42):

You guys also mentioned that you’re … JD, I think you said, “We’re trying to get new people into the category, into spirits, into whiskey.” Was that always the inspiration beyond … Because I’ve seen data out there that says that flavored whiskeys are now 30% of the US whiskey category and growing, and it’s the flavors that are bringing in these new consumers. So did you think of, “All right, we just want to get new people into the category,” and then flavors were the way in, or were you just out to make something unique and see who it would resonate with?

 

JD (11:17):

When we started this, Mickey, we weren’t smart enough to come up with that hypothesis. We just wanted to create something unique and figure out what was going to be, as Chris mentioned, the whiskey for everyone. We weren’t just going after the new consumer. It’s a bold statement, right? We’re the most versatile whiskey in the world. We want to be the whiskey for everyone. That is a very bold statement, but we’ve been going after that. That was the idea from day one. But, yes, when we were mentioning that Chris and I were getting into the craft bourbons and the higher-end stuff and spending a little bit more money when we had it for some of the nicer stuff, 10 years, 12 years, whatever it is, a lot of our buddies, a lot of our friends, they had no interest. They didn’t care. They didn’t care about the craftsmanship. They didn’t care that some of these distillers and these barrelers and these cooperages, they wouldn’t live to see that whiskey come out of the barrel. Think about it, right? They’re putting their lives into this stuff. That’s why whiskey is so amazing. They may not live to see the end result, the end bottle, because it’s so many years old or whatever.

 

JD (12:23):

Anyway, we really were passionate about that, and we just wanted to be a part of it, but we felt that there was room to welcome new folks into this, again, older, historic, but still awesome category. So how do you create something that’s a new wave of whiskey customer without completely disrespecting the tradition and honoring that? We had to be very careful with that, so when we said, “We want to split this down the middle and create something for the existing connoisseur but also the rookie,” that’s exactly what we set out to do. Chris talked about patience. There’s so many things we want to do, man. It’s crazy. But there’s also so much cashflow, right? So you got to be super-focused. But, yeah, that was always the focus, man, is just to bring new folks into the category but also appease that connoisseur, and that’s certainly translated over to the bar, for sure, as well.

 

Mickey Cloud (13:20):

I wanted to talk about that next and how you guys mentioned you’ve had a bit of an aha moment where bartenders were gravitating towards using Misunderstood in cocktails that are conventionally meant for gin or vodka. Was that something that you suggested to them, or did they come up with it as they were playing with your recipe? I guess, how did that impact how you position the brand?

 

JD (13:44):

Well, I’ll start this off, and then, Chris, I don’t want to take up the whole podcast, man, so you jump in here. As with any startup, we were supposed to launch fall 2016, right? As you know, we launched in spring 2017. So things didn’t necessarily go as planned, but, hey, when the whiskey’s not ready, we’re not going to launch it. We wanted to make sure it was perfect. So, all of a sudden, we find ourselves launching a ginger-spiced whiskey pretty much going into summer when everybody’s starting to do fruity drinks and coladas and stuff. Of course, Chris and I look at each other, and we’re kind of like, “Oh, man. This might be a little rough.” But, hey, look, look at our brand name. It’s called Misunderstood Whiskey, right? So that was the perfect scenario.

 

JD (14:32):

Thank God that we launched in spring because we might’ve been labeled as holiday drink, not that we don’t crush it in Q4 with every other dark spirit, but in summer we really thrive, and it really launched the brand. You couldn’t have a more perfect launch. So that’s when we started going after, “The strawberry basil smashes, why is that only with vodka? Why is that only with gin? Why can’t we add make it better with ginger hashtag, right, and why can’t we throw some whiskey in there?” That’s what really launched us to become this whiskey. As we start presenting these drinks and these bartenders started messing around with it, it just started to become a roaring fire after that and people started getting really excited about it. Right, Chris? We started doing ginger coladas, right? It’s so good.

 

Chris (15:29):

Misunderstood margaritas is to die for, man. That’s a good one.

 

JD (15:34):

Yeah. And the bartenders are having a blast, too, because it’s literally a Misunderstood mojito because you thought rum was in there. Well, let us tell you, right? There’s no rum in that. It’s just ginger whiskey. Or a Misunderstood margarita. Anyway, right off the bat, people were just having a lot of fun, and the quality and the flavor profile was there along with … When we created this, we wanted to make it accessible to people, so what does that mean? That means it’s accessible with the flavor profile, the qualities there. The branding has to be accessible.

 

JD (16:05):

If we want to be the whiskey for everyone and welcome new folks in the category, we have to do our job on the [inaudible 00:16:10]. So if you look at our label, you look at our branding, our brand positioning, it’s kind of addressed there as being lighter, more welcoming, and then also the price, right? We couldn’t charge $60 a bottle, like Chris and I were kind of going for earlier on. We wanted to make sure it was affordable for folks, especially those who want to try something new. So the bartenders and the bars and the restaurants certainly appreciated that.

 

Chris (16:35):

So, yeah, Mickey, that was something that also JD and I, we had no experience in this, meaning we never actually had a shift behind the bar either, so there was a lot of times, a lot of late nights, when we had Misunderstood, of us spending way too much time, but eventually it worked out well, coming up with recipes. For us, it was listening to our customers, like what are they doing with it, and that took a completely … We didn’t launch in 2017 and be like, “We’re going to be the most versatile whiskey. This is what we’re going to be.” It came over time, and it was more about getting it into the professionals’ hands and having them … What are they using it for, and how are they marketed to the end consumer? We just listened. We listened, and we evolved from there, so that was big for us.

 

Mickey Cloud (17:26):

I also want to talk about … Now, you’ve got several years’ experience doing this and you mentioned the distribution national deal that you got from there. But you also mentioned having the patience to build this singular brand around and the business around the base of the ginger-spiced whiskey. I guess, talk to me about what kind of tension that causes for you guys as founders who have big ambitions but know that you’ve got to stay the course to at least get this off the ground before you can start exploring the other opportunities.

 

Chris (18:08):

I’ll start this one off. It’s an internal struggle every single day. So-

 

JD (18:14):

We can’t sleep, Mickey. We don’t sleep, man. Chris calls me at 3:00 in the morning and tells me his ideas for the next six months out.

 

Chris (18:23):

It is an internal struggle. But, at the same time, if you just think about it, we’ve had success in the markets that we were in and now we’re growing our market sixfold this year. If you have a fan base and you have a customer base, which is our most important … We want to create a community around Misunderstood. We want to create a fan base. That’s our whole goal here, is to have devoted customers. I think that’s what every brand’s looking for, right? We have one thing that works. Why not replicate that success in different markets first and then come out with that sequel that people are looking for? Although we’re having our hands tied behind our back a little bit in terms of, “We want to do this and this and this and this and this,” it’s just more … Like I said, patience is something that sometimes can really prove in success in the long run.

 

Chris (19:18):

Listen, if we came out, we would think that our next product would be a success, hopefully, as well, but if you came out with two products and it was a 50/50 shot of someone liking it and grabbing the right bottle and they say, “You know what? I’ve had Misunderstood before. I had whatever the product was. I’m not into it.” Then people have to say, “Well, have you tried their ginger-spiced whiskey?” They’d be like, “No, but I already have my first impression with the brand.” It’s a first impression with a brand, just like a first impression here, and we want to make sure we have a good first impression with all of these markets and build that customer base before growing to the next product.

 

Mickey Cloud (19:55):

I think it shows a lot of discipline, but it also shows the … To, JD, what you were saying earlier, it’s also a cashflow. You got to make these strategic decisions on how you’re going to grow. Obviously, national distribution is going to take you guys to a new level. So I want to talk about preparing for that growth and how you guys have built the brand to date.

 

Mickey Cloud (20:14):

I’ve checked out a lot of the content you guys have put out on social and had literally laughed out loud at some of the videos you guys have put out on your Instagram and TikTok accounts, whether it was the Halloween is a little off series you did or the Stood and Soda infomercial or even just the watermelon recipe, where the guy’s in a Speedo. It seems like you’re having fun with that content. What it seemed like to me, coming from the agency advertising side, is it seemed like these things were just concepts you guys made up with your friends, shot on your iPhone, and just put it out in the market. Did you work with an agency, or was this literally you guys just coming up with content to support the brand?

 

JD (21:03):

Oh, man, we don’t have an agency yet. So if you couldn’t tell, we have a lot of fun. Look, one of our slogans is, “Made by friends, enjoyed by friends,” and that couldn’t be more true. Pretty much almost everything that you see in our videos, either they’re a buddy or they’re an awesome bartender or a restaurant staff that comes in like, “Oh, I want to be in the next one.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, sure. Come on in. Let’s do it.” It’s usually these ideas happen with a couple Misunderstoods, after a couple of cocktails, and we go, “Yo, how cool would it be if we did this or this?” I think just being genuine and hopefully shedding the good vibes, if we could put a smile on someone’s face, that’s branding, right? That’s what we want people to take away from Misunderstood, is we don’t have a crazy amount of funding where we’re going out and just hiring all these people to do it for us. It’s very much so a grassroots approach.

 

JD (22:11):

This year, we had to actually, for the off-premise … And for those who don’t know what off-premise is, it’s retailers and your liquor stores and things like that. We were building these crates, these displays in our basement. That’s how we started. When we found out that that wasn’t sustainable anymore and we actually had to get someone professional to do it, we were like, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?” But we were looking at all these designs, man … And I’m going to get back on track in a second, but I didn’t share this with you, is we stuck with our crate display. Someone else is making it, but the vibe is still there, that homegrown, still out of the garage type thing. So we would never change that. People just really appreciate that nowadays, being authentic.

 

JD (22:54):

You’re talking about a TikTok strategy. We can’t even make the same professional, quote-unquote, videos we do on Instagram because they don’t work on TikTok, right? You have to now take your phone and go not as amazing quality, and so it’s amazing how times are changing. We certainly appreciate that because that just allows us to turn on the phone and, hey, make that idea become a reality. So there’s no agency. Chris and I and our buddy, Zach, who does our content, shout-out to the backyard studio, he helps us out. We’re able to quickly pivot and quickly make things and turn around very fast based on what the idea is. Of course, there’s some planning involved. I think a lot of people, as you mentioned, they see the effort and the passion behind it, and it’s real.

 

Mickey Cloud (23:48):

Yeah, no, that’s awesome. I mean, it’s also, I think, you’re taking advantage of inherently learnable platforms, right, like creating content for Instagram, TikTok, whatever. Why shouldn’t you guys do it? It’s not just about, oh, we don’t have a ton of money to spend on it, but it’s also building the brand in an authentic way, so-

 

JD (24:10):

Real quick, with that watermelon video, a big thing about that was that’s going to be a Fourth of July special for us going forward, by the way. We have him under contract, so we only met … Just kidding. He’s a dear friend. That was also educational because a lot of people started making watermelon ginger mules in the summer with Misunderstood, so that was part of the piece of educating that end consumer of, “Yeah, you’re laughing, you’re having a great time.” We were laughing. By the way, that watermelon slice was one take, man. I thought we were going to have to cut and then do another one. Boom, done. It was amazing. But with the Stood and Soda informational, with the watermelon mule, it’s teaching that end consumer how to use Misunderstood in ways that they might’ve not thought of and they’re not hard, especially for the summer. So there’s always this backend educational piece with that while making people have a good time.

 

Mickey Cloud (25:05):

Also, let’s tie in the fact that what comes across in your content is that you guys are … And you’ve mentioned made by friends, meant to be enjoyed by friends. What has building the business done for your friendship?

 

Chris (25:19):

This is turning into Dr. Phil.

 

JD (25:20):

I’m so glad you asked that. Chris?

 

Chris (25:23):

I’m at four years of pent-up just anger. No, no, [inaudible 00:25:26]-

 

JD (25:27):

I hate that you cut your hair. [inaudible 00:25:29].

 

Chris (25:32):

Yeah. The thing is it’s really hard to go … And I’m not saying this from this experience but from what we know. It’s hard to do business with friends. JD and I have been extremely lucky because we are wildly good at different things. I was listening to some of your podcasts, and I think it was the same sentiment. It’s like you might get lucky and your skills might actually compliment each other. There’s a high probability that might not happen, right? That’s it. So you’ve got to think, we’ve been working together now for eight years. It’s almost our whole professional life.

 

JD (26:12):

That long? Holy smokes.

 

Chris (26:13):

It’s been a long time, dude. J, do you agree that I think our friendship is stronger than ever? You can just lay it all on the line right now.

 

JD (26:22):

Mickey and I are going to have a podcast after this which I’m just going to share my feelings.

 

Chris (26:24):

An hour venting session?

 

JD (26:24):

Yeah, yeah. No, I-

 

Chris (26:29):

No, but JD, he’s a creative, he’s a branding and marketing … He’s really, really, really, really good at that. I’m a numbers guy. As long as you can build the trust around that, which happens over time, it’s like a friendship. It’s like, “Hey, dude, what’s going on with the operations? Okay, great. And then what’s going on with the digital advertising and the promo? Okay, great.” There’s so much trust now that there’s never any conflict, right, like that.

 

JD (27:02):

You need someone like that, and, yeah, we’re super lucky. We’ve known each other since we were in elementary school, right, so we’re very blessed to have that and then to turn this into a working relationship. You can’t get much luckier than that, right? It’s fantastic. But I always say this, too. You really need to go into business with someone that you trust. That’s probably the more important thing, is, yes, we have the skills that are … Chris, he’s very humble, but he’s a CFA-level [inaudible 00:27:35]. He makes sure that we’re in a business. You’re talking about cashflow. I just threw out cashflow there, he’s making sure-

 

Mickey Cloud (27:40):

Because you’ve heard the term before.

 

JD (27:42):

I heard the term before. It works.

 

Chris (27:45):

JD has a list of keywords on his notepad, so I’m going to have to watch cashflow this month.

 

JD (27:49):

Yeah, see, here it is. Cashflow, it’s right here on my notes. Mention cashflow. But it’s super important, and there’s so many things. We’re pretty much a two-person company still, so there’s a lot of things going on, like we’re still selling, we’re still doing things, and we still have to produce whiskey. At the same time, we have to come up with a marketing budget program, digital advertising. I mean, COVID happened last year. All of a sudden, we had to go to e-commerce, right, a little bit but still find a way to support our on-prem and off-prem accounts and not forget about them.

 

JD (28:26):

So there’s so much stuff going on, and it’s really important to have someone that has your back because no one’s more invested in this. We put our entire lives into this brand now, and so we have everything to lose, but we also have everything to gain. So somebody that you trust, someone that has skills, and I always say, and, of course, every other motivational book has this, but I like to surround myself with smarter people than I am, and I have that here at Misunderstood. I’m always learning and it’s incredible, so, yeah, it’s good.

 

Mickey Cloud (28:59):

Awesome.

 

JD (28:59):

And we’ve been doing all right so far, right? From starting from nothing, we’re not doing too bad.

 

Mickey Cloud (29:04):

Here we are.

 

JD (29:04):

Here we are talking to you.

 

Chris (29:06):

I think you have to have the same expectation on how you’re going to operate going forward. When JD was saying you’re doing everything, Mickey, I literally have a liquor store meeting right after this right down the street. You’re not an elitist. We’re not elitists at all, which differs from liquor company to liquor company and founder to founder, right? If you’re a celebrity, you have certain expectations of what you’re going to do. For us, we built this case by case, man, and we’re going to continue to do that. As long as you’re on the same wavelength with what you’re expected to do, that’s a big thing, too.

 

Mickey Cloud (29:39):

Could you touch on briefly just what is next for you guys? You mentioned national distribution and opportunity, but, I guess, what are you guys focusing on next?

 

JD (29:49):

Right now, with this national distribution, honestly, we’re focusing on making sure that everybody has that same Misunderstood experience that we’ve had in our core markets. That is our biggest one right now. We’re going from three to, what are we going to be, 18 or 17 markets this year?

 

Chris (30:05):

17, possibly 18 this year.

 

JD (30:08):

Yeah, 17, possibly 18. So that’s a huge, huge leap. Of course, operationally, making sure that we’re consistent with our product, consistent with our messaging, and all of that, but, also, we have all these people now to train and make sure that they’re giving the same Misunderstood story, brand vibes. Talking about consistency across the nation, that’s a big focus for us right now, at least through this next year. Then, also, constantly innovating and what does that mean, right, innovating across from your marketing to your advertising to also just new products, as we’re talking about. So ramping up has certainly been a big thing for us, but going to all these new states, like going to Colorado, right, Chris, like skiing and then all of a sudden go to a bar and you have some Misunderstood when you’re done. Holy smokes, man. We didn’t have that before. It’s pretty sweet. So, really, expanding, that’s what’s next, and then the big focus right now is getting more people to try Misunderstood, and growing this brand to be a household name has been the focus, for sure. What do you think, Chris?

 

Chris (31:19):

Yeah. Yeah, and the first impression thing because now we’re launching in a weird time. It’s a very weird time to launch. So everybody will tell you, you know this, you’ve been in the industry, is how do you get liquid to lips in a time where there’s a bunch of restrictions? That’s something that even last year to this year we’ve had to be creative in trying to do. The digital piece of it, which has skyrocketed for us, has been big in that. But, yeah, it’s creating trial, having a good first impression, not with just consumers but with retail stores, bars, accounts in a time that’s tricky to expand. It’s definitely on our mind.

 

Mickey Cloud (31:59):

Awesome. Well, final question. We love this building while flying kind of analogy for entrepreneurs because it speaks to the nimbleness, the flexibility, the foresight you guys are going to as you’re growing the business but also because pilots are renowned for their in-flight checklists and their training that keeps them calm under pressure. So I guess when you guys have to make a tough decision, when you guys have to determine something, what’s that internal checklist or process for you that helps you get through it?

 

JD (32:25):

That’s a good question. Because we were just talking about trust and having this small team and being nimble, I think that first and foremost, especially as we’re growing, now we have investors and things. So it’s not just going to affect … Chris and I were at 348 cases. That might’ve been different. Now, it affects a lot more people. So it’s like what’s going to be best for the brand? What are the pros and cons of each one? It doesn’t matter what it is, right? It could be a campaign for a specific day. What route are we going to go? Is this going to be speaking to the right consumer? How’s it going to make our consumer feel? How’s it going to bring more folks in there? That’s one.

 

JD (33:14):

Two, I think it’s just making sure, is it going to be positive overall for the brand? Is it going to help us take us to the next level, or is it going to keep us where we’re at? I think we’re looking to grow. We have a huge initiative over the next few years to grow the brand and just making sure that the communication is appropriate for, again, our end consumer and making sure that it’s going to be best for the brand and beneficial for our friends, family, and other people who have a significant stake in this now. There’s a lot of folks that believe in us. With more of that comes more pressure, so it’s really having an internal gut check and making sure that it speaks to our brand pillars and our brand and do what’s best for the company and how we’re perceived. So we’re brand first. Chris, what do you think?

 

Chris (34:08):

Yeah, I think you nailed it, dude. I think the first thing is, is it us? Is what we’re trying to do us? Knowing your brand DNA is huge for that. Can we test it without hurting the business if it goes wrong? How do you test it? If it goes right, how do you scale it? So that’s the point where we’re thinking now it’s not just three markets. Now, we’re going a lot. So if we test something, it goes right, how do we scale it? If it doesn’t, can we wash our hands and just walk away, be like, “Hey, you know what? That didn’t work. It’s fine. Let’s move on. Tomorrow’s the next day.” That’s a big thing for us.

 

JD (34:46):

The big thing. Mick, you know, man. You’ve been in the industry. It’s like there’s a lot of folks who have been in the industry who we get advice from, and a lot of it’s fantastic, but some of it’s like, “Well, that sounds like Goose did that 30 years ago,” right? It might’ve worked, but we’re now in 2021, and people are much more demanding. So is it us is a huge question, and then, again, can we actually make this happen for multiple levels? But especially as you guys are working with brands, things like that, is it in our identity and is it going to work and is it going to speak to our end consumer in the right way, or are we just going to slap another QR code and call it a day? What’s going to work? So, yeah, for sure, man, it’s a big deal.

 

Mickey Cloud (35:39):

Awesome. Awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time, guys, today. I’m very much looking forward to your expansion into Tennessee and being able to pick some up, Misunderstood [inaudible 00:35:47].

 

Chris (35:48):

We will have a drink in Tennessee when we’re there, all right?

 

Mickey Cloud (35:50):

Amazing. Yes, hit me up.

 

Chris (35:51):

It’ll happen soon. Thanks so much for having us.

 

Katie Hankinson (35:54):

Well, now that we’ve finished that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land, but before we do, Mickey and I caught up on some of the themes and the topics that stuck out to us.

 

Mickey Cloud (36:04):

Yes, we liken this to the post-game show, where we break down the key lessons we all can benefit from us, including us here at the Sasha Group. Here is the Sasha Sidebar.

 

Katie Hankinson (36:20):

Hey, Mickey, I just listened to this Misunderstood Whiskey guys.

 

Mickey Cloud (36:23):

So much fun.

 

Katie Hankinson (36:24):

So fun. I think you’re a whiskey guy yourself, aren’t you, so this must’ve been especially [inaudible 00:36:30] for you?

 

Mickey Cloud (36:31):

Yeah. When they teed this one up, I jumped at this one. I am in Tennessee so have gotten to know quite a few, actually, the people behind some of the brands that are down here in Tennessee, some clients that we work with like Ole Smoky but then others that are just friends of mine, the team behind Chattanooga Whiskey here and some others. So I’ve gotten to know the business side of it a lot more besides just being someone who likes the dark liquor.

 

Katie Hankinson (37:00):

Love it. Well, I’m also a fan of ginger. There’s a cocktail which I’m now completely blanking on the name of in the UK, which is a mixture of whiskey and ginger wine, Stone’s ginger wine, and it’s the best winter cocktail, so good. But I thought these guys were so interesting, a really fantastic complementary pair as they spoke to themselves, the numbers guy and the branding guy.

 

Mickey Cloud (37:26):

Yep. Best friends who have complementary skills. That seems to be a good formula.

 

Katie Hankinson (37:30):

It does, and a real theme in terms of working with friends and family that we’re discovering, too. I did really love … I personally think the name’s awesome, gets your imagination going, but, also, this real understanding of what their brand is at the core. The fact that they really spoke to the fact that this brand is about being the most versatile whiskey, I think, is super smart and super strategic from a brand strategy perspective. In a world where we speak regularly to clients who find it hard to get out of product benefit land, it could’ve been so easy for them to be the flavored whiskey people or the most interesting flavors and stayed in product benefit, but versatility takes them into a much, much richer space for the brand, I think.

 

Mickey Cloud (38:24):

It does, and it keeps them focused on the … We talked a lot about the tension between them as entrepreneurs and creators wanting to make the next product launch or go onto the next idea, and, instead, they’re really honing in on, “Well, let’s just focus on the one SKU right now and growing that distribution and being sure it’s a really consistent, great experience in all these new markets that we’re scaling to, but it’s because we’re the most versatile whiskey in the world and it’s something for everyone,” that bold statement that is giving them that focus. But then, also, you can see long-term the amount of play room that they have to explore that.

 

Katie Hankinson (39:09):

Yeah. A brand that can really whittle it down and stand for one adjective is phenomenal. It’s a thing which many brands spend a lot of time and treasure trying to dig into, what it is that one word would be. So the fact that they’ve landed on that and, I totally agree, the fact that they’ve pushed against what is currently a big … Innovation as growth is such a trend in so many different sectors right now that that could’ve been the shiny object path they go down, but, instead, it’s about deepening their footprint with the current, really popular flavor bottle and go into all these new markets, like 16 to 18 markets, really build loyalty, build the brand story, then when people understand about the versatility, move from there.

 

Katie Hankinson (39:59):

I also think it’s super smart because they have made friends with the bartender, they’ve made friends with trade in a way that gives loads of room to experiment and bring the product to life. It’s funny, as well. They were so aware of the tension in the space of it being a very traditional space where flavored whiskey is going to be a shocking thing to certain purists. It’s quite a purist space.

 

Mickey Cloud (40:25):

Yep. I also love, at the end, just those three questions they ask themselves on the pilot’s checklist of is it us, can we test it without hurting the business, and if it works, how do we scale it? Because I think they know who their brand is, they know that brand DNA, a question asking themselves, “Is it us,” flows really naturally.

 

Katie Hankinson (40:52):

Yeah. At the moment, it’s easy for them to answer that because there’s two of them, but they’ve got such a good sense of what that brand DNA is that as it scales, they can continue to apply that logic.

 

Mickey Cloud (41:01):

Yeah.

 

Katie Hankinson (41:02):

The one other thing, which just is an extra one which just popped into my head, was I also thought the accidental success story about the fact that they had to launch in the summer instead of in the fall leading into the dark liquor months was a really good example of not always doing the expected being a really good way to pay off in terms of marketing and launch work. The fact they were a surprising alternative in summer with the … What was it, the Misunderstood mojito?

 

Mickey Cloud (41:35):

Mojitos, the margaritas, the ginger coladas, yeah. It was-

 

Katie Hankinson (41:38):

Loved it.

 

Mickey Cloud (41:39):

And just being able to say, “Why are some drinks only vodka or gin? Here’s a ginger whiskey to mix things up.”

 

Katie Hankinson (41:45):

Pushed them into being more creative and had much more stand out as a result. So in the spirit of being pushed to be creative, I think our question this episode should be around experimentation. The question out there is, do you have an example of something that perhaps started out as an experiment in business but ended up becoming your central product?

 

Mickey Cloud (42:12):

Becoming the business, yeah. Love it.

 

Katie Hankinson (42:14):

Let us know.

 

Mickey Cloud (42:16):

Thanks for joining us, gang, and for building while flying with the Sasha Group today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.

 

Mickey Cloud (42:27):

If you’d like to hear more about business owners and brands are navigating these times, tune into the next episode, and if you’re so kind, please rate and review us. Plus, we love feedback, so let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on Building While Flying across brands, businesses, marketing, and more.

 

Katie Hankinson (42:42):

Original music by Fulton Street Music Group.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

JD Recobs and Chris Buglisi are two of the most unpretentious whiskey guys you’ll ever meet.

They created Misunderstood Ginger Spiced Whiskey with one goal in mind: to make the whiskey for whiskey newbies, connoisseurs, and everyone in between. It began as a passion project that they worked on tirelessly after their corporate jobs, and has grown into a strong brand with big plans to keep growing. 

In their conversation with Mickey, Chris and JD talk about the early days of Misunderstood Whiskey: experimenting with blends and infusions late at night after working corporate jobs, and many not-great tastings. After landing on the right batch, they took it to market. They discuss the challenges of entering an old, traditional industry with lots of history, and how they discovered their ideal target audience. Mickey asks them about the tension between eagerness to grow and the need to stay patient (spoiler alert: it keeps them up at night). And lastly, Chris and JD give a sneak peek into what’s coming up next for Misunderstood Whiskey – including breaking into some new markets!

Other in-flight topics:

  • Passion projects
  • Entering the spirits industry as rookies
  • Breaking into a traditional industry with a new, unique product
  • Importance of knowing your audience and customers
  • Challenges of national distribution 
  • Tension between eagerness to grow and patience
  • Building and running a business with a friend

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Chattanooga, TN
Los Angeles, CA