Delaware-based Dogfish Head
is a nationally known and respected company, but according to founder Sam Calagione, its success in brewing, distilling, innkeeping and more wouldn’t be possible without first focusing on its local market. That’s just part of the message Calagione will deliver in his keynote address—Off-Centered Brand Building from Zero to 102 Proof—at ACSA’s Distillers’ Convention and Vendor Trade Show on Dec. 5 in Louisville, Kentucky.
In a recent conversation with senior editor Jon Page, Calagione previewed his address, shared insight on Dogfish Head’s growth, and revealed his most cathartic form of COVID-19 stress relief.
ACSA: You have really become quite the prolific author. Your latest, “The Dogfish Head Book: 26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures,” with co-authors Mariah Calagione and Andrew C. Greeley, is out now. For somebody in the craft distilling world, which of your books would you recommend to read first and what makes it a good read?
Sam Calagione: I would actually say this most recent book about Dogfish would be the best read for small distillers or distillers in general, and that’s actually why I’m gifting this book to all the attendees at the convention. It will be in their gift bags. It’s got a good chunk of content that chronologically tells the story of each of the off-centered, culinary-inspired distilled spirits that we’ve released, including full proof whiskeys, gins and rums, and also our long history with cocktails at our Chesapeake & Maine restaurant, which was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Bar Program. And then that led to our work of releasing canned cocktails.
Also, the book itself is really kind of designed for a look at growing a small, high-end brand, especially one that’s not located in one of the major metro markets. We were able to start as the smallest commercial brewery in America, and if not the smallest craft distillery, one of the smallest craft distilleries. We fabricated a pot still that we built ourselves out of scrap metal and welded together kegs to start our distillery 20 years ago. So it literally tells sort of a scrappy startup story of our evolution as a craft brand, not just in beer and spirits, but with our hotels, our restaurants, our collaborations with companies like New Balance and Woolrich and Patagonia, to the Grateful Dead. I think all of that stuff would be very useful to the average craft distiller in terms of scale.
You started dabbling with spirits back in 2002 and then expanded operations beyond Delaware in 2015. At what point did you really get serious about it?
Basically for 13 years it was a labor of love R&D project, very small scale, focused on selling in our own state distribution and in our own properties. And then around 2013 or 2014, we started seeing more guests entering our properties looking for craft cocktails in addition to craft beer and I was like, alright, I think we’ve got the right recipes and concepts. Let’s build a bigger distillery and start adding concentric states of distribution throughout the Mid-Atlantic and see where it goes from there.
For a distillery or brewery owner that’s looking to expand their business by adding beer or spirits, what advice do you offer them?
If you’re just getting into business and planning to invest capital, the goal is to figure out how small you can be to be successful instead of trying to figure out how big you can be to be successful. My recommendation is to build the most brand-centric, live experience of the liquid. In every state that it’s allowed, focus your initial efforts as a distillery around going as deep as possible with storytelling and brand immersion at your distillery. If you’re allowed to sell by the drink and do tours at your distillery, that’s the base, the best basic building block for brand amplification. It starts at home and your own facility. If you do it well there and create excitement, then you’ll get opportunities in three-tier distribution.
Out of your spirits and canned cocktails, what are you most enjoying now?
Full proof, I would say our Let’s Get Lost American Single Malt Whiskey. It just got a 92 score in Whiskey Advocate about four months ago and it’s my favorite [for], you know, sitting by a campfire. Or I’ll put it in a stemless wine glass and go for a hike in the woods and drink this while listening to a favorite album of mine on my ear phones. As for canned cocktails, I am drinking the heck out of our Blueberry Shrub Vodka Soda. It’s blended with a touch of balsamic vinegar for a bright tart kick. I’m proud to say it won best in show at the L.A. Spirits Awards.
Hiking with a whiskey named Let’s Get Lost raises the question: Have you actually gotten lost?
No, no. God bless modern phones. But I usually go on a route that I know where I’m going. Dogfish helped to underwrite these bike paths throughout coastal Delaware that connect our hotel to our locations in Rehoboth and Lewes. So I take a little stemless glass of whiskey on one of those bike paths and go for the length of a Bon Iver album or a Miles Davis album and just turn around halfway through the album and not think about how many miles it was. Going for an album-length walk with a glass of whiskey has been a big COVID stress reliever for me.
And I mentioned our Blueberry Shrub Vodka Soda, where we use this balsamic vinegar in the recipe that we originally built for a mignonette sauce for oysters at one of our restaurants. Even our culinary recipes in our restaurants can influence our cocktail recipes. I’m looking forward to sharing that story from the stage as part of the keynote, as well.
Beyond what you’ve already mentioned about starting small, can you hint at anything else you plan to cover in your keynote?
I’ll talk a little bit about the holy trinity of being hyper-focused on world-class quality, world-class consistency and world-class points of differentiation. There’s so many SKUs in the marketplace right now that unless you’re hitting on all three of those cylinders, I don’t think it’s worth expanding your distribution outside of your own state or your tasting room. Because then you’re really doing a disservice to the community of craft distillers if your products are inconsistent or erratic in quality, or they’re just samey, derivative products of something that’s a bestseller out there. That’s not doing any of us a service.
What does Dogfish Head look like 26 years from now?
Well, that’s an existential question. I would say we’re going to keep putting the ‘mental’ in experimental and the ‘where’ in Delaware. Probably by then at least our canned cocktails will be in all 50 states. I’m guessing we’ll have had to build yet another bigger distillery and a bigger barrel room by then. But not thinking so much about physical scale, I hope we still stand for experimentation. And I hope we still stand for a brand that celebrates the sweet spot between culinary inspiration for our liquid recipes and just world-class quality and distinction. Not being the fast follower model, which is a valid business model, but taking the risks of being more of the pioneering model than the fast follower model. That’s how, in 26 years, I’ll feel like we stayed true to our brand tenants.
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