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Interview: John Esposito On Plans For High West Distillery

December 10, 2015

With 40 years of industry experience leading such companies as Schieffelin & Somerset, Bacardi North America, Moët Hennessy USA and most recently Stoli Group USA, John Esposito joined Park City, Utah-based High West Distillery as chief commercial officer in October 2015. High West was founded in 2004 by David Perkins, and its first craft spirits hit the market in 2007 with the release of Rendezvous rye, comprised of whiskey sourced from Indiana-based MGP Ingredients. Over the last eight years, High West has released several additional labels sourced from outside distilleries while also making its own spirits, such as OMG Pure rye unaged whiskey. In late 2014, the company opened a new distillery at the Blue Sky Ranch just outside Park City, which will eventually have a 200,000-case capacity. SND’s Susannah Skiver Barton recently spoke with Esposito about his new role and the company’s future plans.

SND: What attracted you to High West?

ESPOSITO: Over the course of my career, I’ve gained great appreciation for building and caring for brands. About four years ago I was introduced to David Perkins, who was looking to expand High West’s board and bring in people with industry experience. I looked at the brands and this passion for making great whiskies, and saw something very cool. After I joined the board, we discussed what it would take to get the company to the next level—maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit while bringing in business disciplines that I’ve known all my professional life. I agreed to become chief commercial officer and help with those things—so David can spend his time making whiskey and being the face of High West.

SND: What are the short-term and long-term goals for High West, and how will you achieve them?

ESPOSITO: The short-term goal is to strengthen the sales organization so we can manage our partnerships with distributors and expand into the appropriate accounts. One of many things David has done extremely well is packaging—it truly stands out. Now the goal is to make High West more of a household name, while never losing our craft feel. Longer term, the strategy is two-fold. First is to focus on brands that will carry us into the future. We’ve established a core four: Double Rye, American Prairie Bourbon, Campfire whiskey and our flagship Rendezvous rye. The second element is to continue driving innovation with three or four limited releases a year. These will be very unique, like our Midwinter’s Night’s Dram or Yippee-Ki-Yay, for example.

SND: And clearly the goal is to expand the footprint?

ESPOSITO: Our goal certainly is to increase our visibility across the country with a more aggressive approach. We’ve been a discovery brand, and that’s fantastic—the team has done a phenomenal job. But now we’ve got to do more from a traditional business perspective to raise our profile. Our saloon in Park City and new state-of-the-art distillery give us a unique opportunity to convert consumers into missionaries—to give people the chance to experience our products and understand what High West is all about. By next year, we’ll have over 300,000 visitors coming through those two facilities. We’ve also brought in vice president of marketing Justin Lew, who’s already made a significant impact. And we have a head of sales, Tom Schlachtenhaufen, who ’s been driving some traditional disciplines into the sales organization.

SND: High West has built its reputation on blending sourced whiskey, but it’s now starting to release some of its own products. How will the company achieve a balance between those two sides of the business?

ESPOSITO: We have great working relationships with our whiskey sources. David and master distiller Brendan Coyle have done a phenomenal job of barreling those whiskies and blending them in a skilled way to make very delicious whiskey, and we’ll continue to do that. But our consumers are anxiously waiting to taste what we’ll produce on our own, and we’re tapping into that anticipation by doing some very unique things. While our main focus has been rye, Brendan is also developing a wheat whiskey that’s based on recipes first made in Utah by the Mormons. We’re also looking at developing our own malt whiskey.

A full profile of High West Distillery will appear in the March 2016 issue of Market Watch. For all the latest drinks trends in the on-premise and at retail, check out marketwatchmag.com.

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