Brent Hocking On Launching Virginia Black With Drake

Looking to launch his own spirit brand, hip-hop superstar Drake turned to Brent Hocking. And for good reason: Hocking is an influential industry veteran whose string of successful brands includes Deleon Tequila, which he sold to Diageo.

Hocking is known for his expertise in luxury spirits. But the new bourbon brand he created with Drake, Virginia Black, is geared towards the broader crowd, with a suggested retail price in the mid-$30s. We recently spoke with Hocking about Virginia Black, whiskey trends and the process of brand creation.

Cheers: Where does Virginia Black fit into the whiskey market?
Brent Hocking: I had Virginia Black in my head since 2011. I saw a hole in the whiskey market. There’s this idea now that the higher the proof of a bourbon, the better. You go on any whiskey website nowadays and you see that raising the proof has become a badge of honor. But after about 95 proof, there’s really not much more you can do.

So we made something at 80 proof, with concentration on the quality of the juice. I raised the rye content over 30%, which is high. It was my mission to find that sweet spot for the larger market for people who don’t normally drink whiskey.

CH: Why the high rye? Do you see that tapping into a current trend in bourbon?
BH: No, not really. I don’t think it’s a trend. Like with most things in alcohol, everything is cyclical.

Look at Pappy Van Winkle. Their secret ingredient is wheat. And there are great 100% ryes and 100% corn whiskeys out there. It’s all about getting the right flavor, the right blend. We’re trying to attract as many consumers as possible.

CH: Virginia Black’s bottle does not look like your typical bourbon packaging.
BH: I tend to design bottles geared towards women. My bottles tend to be more perfume-like.

I wanted to buck the system with what to expect. With most whiskey bottles there’s not a lot of glamor. They look like old jugs, or a sophisticated style that’s meant to tell you it’s whiskey inside. I didn’t want that. I wanted beauty. I wanted to engage the female consumer in an effort to be different. I wanted something that made you relax and think it’s nice whiskey, instead of making a big deal about it.

CH: You mention women a lot. Is this product as a whole geared towards female drinkers?
BH: No, I think of us more as trying to be entry level. Though I do like to say that if the women love it, the men will follow. But overall we were trying to create something available for the broader market.

CH: As an expert in luxury brands, do you see more price-point crossover? In other words, do you see a rise in products offering ‘affordable luxury’?
BH: You see people out in the bar who are frightened to try premium whiskeys. But then you go too low with a price point and they’re scared that the cheap whiskey might actually hurt them. So I thought that we should have good liquid at a good price and in a beautiful bottle. It’s anyone’s guess, of course, but I thought the mid-$30s was in line with what we’re tyring to do.

CH: How was working with Drake?
BH: He’s a great guy. When he first came to me and said he wanted to launch a spirit, I told him either he had to let me do it all on my own, or he had to commit totally to helping me in all aspects. It had to be one or the other. So we spent a few years becoming friends, because we have similar interests, and then eventually he was ready to jump in totally. And when he goes in on something, he goes all in. I can appreciate that. He’s very passionate about this product. It’s what he drinks.

CH: Would you consider this a premium urban product?
BH: No, I wouldn’t call us ‘urban’ at all. We’re trying to find the broader market. Though obviously there’s opportunity for us to take from that market space. We’re trying to be cross-cultural. We’ve already launched in 15 countries. All over the world: Ghana, Tanzania, UK, Canada, Iceland. We’re having a lot of success internationally.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cheers Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz.

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