A Big Showcase for Small Brands

courtesy Dave Schmier
courtesy Dave Schmier

Independence has its advantages, but it also has its challenges. Making spirits is already hard work, and as an independent spirits brand, independence often means that every job, including promotion, is conducted by a very small staff, or more often than not, a single entity. Sometimes you need a little help from your friends to get the word out.

Enter Dave Schmier. As the founder of Orange V Vodka and Redemption Rye, Dave knows those challenges all too well. A few years ago, he decided to set up a showcase for spirits brands like his, who weren’t part of the corporate machine or a popular go-to brand, but were made with love - brands that wanted a chance to show off their hard work to increase their exposure to consumers, media and other parts of the trade. Thus, the Indie Spirits Expo, which began in New York and now takes place in different cities around the US, was born.

Now in its ninth year, the Expo is bigger than ever, with participating brands and portfolios such as Hudson Whiskey, Fidencio Mezcal, Haus Alpenz, FEW Spirits, Bootlegger 21 Vodka, Hillrock Estate Whiskey, Deau Cognac, Chairmen’s Reserve Rum, Cockspur Rum, Novo Fogo Cachaça and many others. Some of these spirits have gone on to win medals in competitions such as the NY International Spirits Competition, while others are just finding their place in the industry.

photo by Marnie Ann Joyce
photo by Marnie Ann Joyce

I interviewed Dave Schmier about the history of the Indie Spirits Expo, the current climate of the industry and its future in the constantly evolving landscape of small spirits production.

Amanda Schuster: How did Indie Spirits get started?

Davie Schmier: It started nine years ago, and it was a very different world than it is today in terms of bringing a small spirits brand to market - it’s still challenging - I was sitting around with a few brands and importers. Dave Catania [a.k.a. the Artist Formerly Known as “Cachaça Dave”, now Spirits Manager at Burke Distributing Corp.] and I got the word out about what we do. We somehow came up with the idea of the Indie Spirits expo. The first one, there were just three of us, myself, Dave with his cachaça [Mae de Ouro] and then Ben [Jones] from Rhum Clement. We got some publicity from Thrillist, people pay attention to that, and more than 200 people showed up interested in the spirits and interested in the notion of people creating their own spirits. Then for the next one we grew to 20 brands and then when we went to Chicago we had 200.

Nahmias et Fils Mahia displaying their NYISC medal, photo by Marnie Ann Joyce
Nahmias et Fils Mahia displaying their NYISC medal, photo by Marnie Ann Joyce

People think about the growth of micro-distilleries, but it’s also about people pouring the stuff they found on their travels [that they now import], people coming up with the concept to try and live their dream. The idea is to make it reasonably priced so most brands can afford to pay and participate, and we have it on weeknights so we can get more of the trade attending, but we also make this a ticketed event so consumers can also attend.

AS: What do you think constitutes an Indie Spirit these days?

DS: [Chuckles] I try not to answer that question. Let’s just say we haven’t had to turn away a company, in my opinion, that was just a big multinational. But one of my favorite brands that’s participating is Tito’s. The reason is, controversy aside, he didn’t start off much different than a lot of the other people. Just a guy with a dream and an idea and he went out and did it, and learned along the way, shoe-stringed himself along with credit cards, and now he’s a million plus case brand. I think it’s great they still support the event.

AS: Do you think there are certain categories that are missing at Indie Spirits? Is there a type of spirit that you’d like to see have more representation?

DS: It’s interesting, there have been ebbs and flows. One of the things I’ve noticed is - I’m actually thankful for this - I’m no longer the only game in town. A few years ago, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to share your product. You were either with a big distributor and you’d get lost in their big trade shows, and now you’ve got the NY craft-specific events going on for example… there was a time period not that long ago the smaller distributors didn’t have the firepower to do their own show that was relevant that a lot of people go to. There just wasn’t enough there. So I think as a result I don’t have as many small craft distilleries as I had in the past. Plenty of other people taking their place.

AS: Indie Spirits has traditionally been the closing event for MCC [Manhattan Cocktail Classic]. Interesting things seem to be in the works this year when it was learned it was canceled under the new management. Do you care to comment about how the brands came together and planned to put their own show on anyway?

photo by Marnie Ann Joyce
photo by Marnie Ann Joyce

DS: Well, there are a couple of things at play there. One, some bigger brands who had stuff budgeted were going to do something anyway. But the more interesting component is the smaller more grassroots things that are happening. It speaks a lot about the passion the people have for the business on its own, and that’s what makes these cocktail events interesting. MCC is a great event, it’s a very different event, and it had a couple of phases. One phase was the big consumer party, the gala, and there was also the educational component, but what really always made it interesting was the people and the passion. So no surprise that a lot of people pushed their events forward no matter what.

As far as Indie Spirits goes, we existed for five years or so prior to MCC. We enjoyed the connection - the bond - that made it more trade focused.

AS: Do you see Indie Spirits expanding into something like MCC that would include seminars or satellite events?

DS: We’ve done it in Chicago, which has turned into the flagship, this is now the fifth year. We have an industry roundtable every year there and talk about what’s going on. It’s great to see the evolution of the business and the success people have. And we’re trying to focus on bringing in sponsors that can set up seminars.

photo by Marnie Ann Joyce
photo by Marnie Ann Joyce

AS: Is there something you’d like to see at Indie Spirits that isn’t taking place yet?

DS: Truth be told, the next step in the evolution is perhaps to step out of just being Indie Spirits. I see that the craft, or however you want to describe ‘small’, has become mainstream now. I think the question you asked before about what defines an Indie Spirit - generally we’ve had some brands people consider to be ‘bigger’ - we’ve had Pierre Ferrand, not tiny, but they’re an independent, family owned company. Brands like them, as big as they are, when they come here, most often they’re still a small part of any distributor’s portfolio. So they kind of get what’s like to be independent. The interesting thing now is you just have a lot of people passionate about spirits and rather than putting them into their individual boxes, I think there’s ways to bring them all together.

AS: That’s kinda all you need, right?

DS: All I need is time.

The Indie Spirits Expo

Tuesday, May 19

5 - 7 or 7 - 9

Penn Club of New York

30 W 44th St, New York, New York 10036

Purchase tickets here and enter discount code “prof” to receive $10 off.