'The spirits world is run by a bunch of old timers': Creator of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Steven Grasse

Steven Grasse, is a serial creator of brands: besides Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Grasse has created Hendricks Gin for William Grant, launched a wine (Spodee), relaunched a beer (Narragansett), and launched a spirit that deliberately defies all the conventions of spirits (Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Grasse's company, Quaker City Mercantile, was originally an advertising agency working for other clients. A natural entrepreneurialism, coupled with a frustration about how little of their advice his clients would follow, led Grasse to launching his own brands, in which conventional advertising has a very small role, even when selling hundreds of thousands of cases.

Had you always wanted to start a business?

My dad started his own business when he was 23. He started a commercial printing firm and I always had to work for him after school. When kids went on spring break in college I had to go home and work. He would always tell me the only way you make money is if you own your own business. So I always thought about that. I started the company (GYRO Worldwide) when I was 23 and I always just wrote letters to people and we got work. The first client we ever had was MTV. I wrote a letter to Abby Terkuhle who was Head of Creative at MTV at the time and I guess it was a good letter because he had me come up and we had them for eight years as a client.

Who has inspired you?

My whole life was about music and bands. Growing up that’s all I cared about. It occurred to me that bands do a really good job of marketing themselves and creating passion and that a 'band' is really a 'brand.' People would get a tattoo of AC/DC on their arm or they’d scribble 'Yes' on their notebook, but they didn’t have that passion for brands. My hero growing up was British visual artist Malcolm McLaren. Creator of The Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow. I studied that guy, I thought he was awesome how he created drama and excitement around manufactured bands and I thought that’s what I want to do with brands and marketing.

What made you different from other agencies?

Being so young no one would hire us because we lacked experience and didn’t look like we knew what we were doing. But I read 'Generation X' by Douglas Coupland and had this aha moment. I decided to turn this the idea that I'm a kid into a positive. I started telling clients they didn’t understand Generation X because they weren't part of it - but we understood. That really helped us. We finally had an angle or a reason why. We became well known for doing crazy work which got us clients like Puma, Camel and Coca-Cola through Creative Artists Agency.

What led you to start creating your own products?

I got very frustrated because the clients we had were so driven by process and formula versus anything intuitive and passion driven. We actually had a chart we created as a way of mocking and making fun of process driven corporations who had a chart for everything. It was a triangle with 'cool shit' in the middle and that was our business plan. I wanted to get clients that excited me and they tended to be in fashion and tobacco was kind of fun. We then had this idea to create our own case study. That way we could do everything on the brand the way we wanted and use that as proof that we know what we're doing. That's how Sailor Jerry Spiced rum started.

GYRO Worldwide’s Business Plan.

GYRO Worldwide’s Business Plan.

Where did the idea for Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum come from?

Sailor Jerry actually started as a clothing company. I was thinking it might be interesting to start a clothing company, not knowing a thing about it. So I acquired the rights to the artwork and name of tattooist Norman Sailor Jerry Collins for $5000 and started making t-shirts and whatever. They sold reasonably well. But at the same time we had William Grant and Sons as a client and they told us they had a hole in their portfolio for a rum, come up with something. I thought it would be cool to have a rum as part of the Sailor Jerry brand because I thought it would help me sell clothes but low and behold the clothing helped sell the rum, more than the other way round. It grew very organically, almost by accident because on every level it defied logic. There hadn't been a complete lifestyle brand in the spirits world before. It's run by a bunch of old timers and so things haven't really changed since prohibition. The families that were doing it then are still doing it now. So there’s very rigid segmentation, like 'this is a rum, this is a whisky, this is a gin' and I found it very easy to go in and just mess with that because no one had. Rums were supposed to behave a certain way but we didn’t know any better so we made our rum behave more like Jack Daniels. It wasn't researched. I just thought that would be cool.

What three bits of advice do you have for coming up with new product ideas?

One, live in a city like Philadelphia where nothing happens, you won’t be distracted. Two, turn off the TV and read books, old books, because if you’re reading old books no one else will have the same idea. And three, if it’s something to do with food or spirits make sure it tastes good, but don’t sweat the details. I always go with the term close enough for jazz.