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Penelope Bourbon Interview

There are few waymarks in anyone’s life as significant as the birth of a child. We often find ways to mark the event. Plant a tree. Buy a cask that will mature on their eighteenth birthday. Or maybe an investment bond as a future nest egg. Michael Paladini decided to go one better. Working for Silicon Valley tech start-ups, his relaxation technique involved a bourbon or two:

‘Nothing particularly esoteric, I wasn’t a super bourbon hunter. I went for Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, good, interesting brands that reflected the market at that time, five years ago,’ Mike told me.  ‘ I’d drink all sorts of whiskies not just bourbon – Scotch, Irish, Japanese and Australian brands. But with the bourbons I’d start going down an organic rabbit hole. Exploring the way that the oaks worked on the spirit to create something unique and intriguing.’ And then his daughter Penelope came along.

‘I just wanted to mark that moment. Do something, create something, that would be a marker. So, I spoke to my neighbour, Danny Polise, and we decided, let’s just do it. Let’s create a bourbon. And we did. Named for my daughter. ‘There was no business plan. And I don’t have long family history in the bourbon business – no grandfather’s recipe hidden away! It was like a hobby that got a bit out of hand.’

Two trading years on, Penelope the toddler is just great, and Penelope the bourbon brand is doing just fine too.‘We’ve just never had time to draw breath. It’s been 1000 mph. Even in the post-Christmas period, where you might think we are able to settle back a little and take stock, it’s been full on. I’m not complaining though. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re now trading in thirty states and shipping to the UK, Canada and Australia. Just as important, we’ve pulled a fantastic team together and we have lots of plans to develop the business.’

The core Penelope offer focusses on a Four Grain and a Barrel Strength Bourbon, with a number of limited edition runs. The company buys the spirit from MPG in Indiana and sources barrels via Speyside Cooperage. Suppliers are very much part of the team. The products have garnered fabulous reviews and the company has made an impact on the industry out of proportion to the youth of the enterprise. ‘We spent much of the first year just collecting the permits,’ says Mike. ‘So, we are pleased to have come so far, so fast. But there’s always a challenge round the corner.’

The first couple of years were very much a textbook, kitchen-table start-up. ‘We started with six barrels. We made our own labels. Drawn with crayons – almost. We got a quote from a professional agency. Wow! So, we didn’t have much option to do the design our-selves. Proper bootstrapping. The packaging was all done on Microsoft. ‘We did our own selling and distribution – sold out of the back of our car. Mainly to retailers. ‘Right at the start, when there were delays with our New Jersey permit to wholesale alcohol, we used our Federal permit and drove down to Washington DC. DC is not a state so the Federal document worked just fine there, and sold to our first retailer.  We were there taking photographs when the first customer took it off the shelf. ‘Once we were up and running we did go to a small start up boutique designer in Virginia – someone we’re still with – and got them to develop the branding and packaging. It gave us a chance to refresh and ensure we had a contemporary look to the brand.’

The look of the product is particularly strong. It has a wide, inclusive feel that takes bourbon away from its traditional, more masculine image.‘We don’t see the brand as being either masculine of feminine,’ Mike explains. ‘It’s more that as a family company we have a brans that appeals across the genders. It’s all cask strength, there’s no compromise there,  but we don’t want to exclude anyone from the products.’ It’s a business with a close-knit team. A team that includes the suppliers, vital for a producer buying in everything – glass, labels, spirits and barrels. Mike explains: ‘Every supplier, of the sprits, glass, barrels are part of the operation.  As we move to bigger batches we’ve also moved to new-fills. That takes a fair bit of planning ahead, and careful financing.  Ut its vital for us to maintain consistency. We still have comparatively small production runs but we have specific mash-bills and so we need a very close relationship with our partners.‘Our Rosé Cask Finish, for example, was due to Speyside Cooperage sourcing barrels from their French operation. Very few vineyards use casks for rosé,  so they’re very rare. We got hold of oak barrels that had held Grenache Rosé. It was perfect for our four-grain mash-bill with its lighter sweeter taste. It’s been a great success, but it starts from partnerships.’

Penelope Bourbon’s elegant distinctive bottles are likely to become more part of the drinks landscape over the next few years: ‘We’re very keen to look at export. There’s growing interest in Europe and South America. The UK has emerged very quickly as land or bourbon enthusiasts. If the UK was a state it would be in the top five in terms of social media and email enquires and contacts. It’s an interest we’d like to develop further.‘We’re also keen to do much more with the off-premises, bars and restaurants. There’s lots of scope for cocktails. We’ve worked with a few hospitality customers in New Jersey and New York, but we can take that further.’ Their bottles would, I believe, look spectacular on a gantry. But whether on the shelves of a whisky shop or a bar shelf, Penelope is definitely worth looking out for. It’s come from tiny beginnings, a family’s desire to make a mark for their daughter, but both Penelopes have got great futures to look forward to. 

Penelope Bourbon

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