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Interview: Robert Hall, CEO of Ole Smoky Distillery

January 10, 2022

Buoyed by the popularity of its flavored whiskies and moonshines, Impact “Hot Brand” and “Blue Chip” award-winner Ole Smoky Distillery has seen double-digit growth for several consecutive years and sells above a million cases in the U.S. annually. The spirits company has four distillery tasting room locations–two in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one in Pigeon Forge, and one in Nashville–which churn out new flavors every month. In addition, Ole Smoky entered the high-end American whiskey segment with James Ownby Reserve Tennessee Straight Bourbon, retailing at $40 a 750-ml., this past summer. CEO Robert Hall spoke with Shanken News Daily about Ole Smoky’s growth and its unique approach to innovation.

SND: How are Ole Smoky flavored whiskies performing?

Hall: Ole Smoky has been doing very well. We launched the flavored whiskey line in the fall of 2017 and it’s been growing non-stop since. One of the reasons we’ve done so well is we have a different model from any other spirits company because we have distilleries in popular destinations that are very highly visited. In fact, last year we had over 5.5 million visitors at our four distilleries. We find that after people have tasted the products, many continue buying them. Of course, during the pandemic people were looking for new things, so the marketing team put extra emphasis on simple cocktails that you can make easily at home. And while many businesses started declining last year as the pandemic eased, we have continued growing at a very rapid rate.

SND: In what regions does the brand do particularly well?

Hall: We ship outside of the United States, primarily to Canada, but the U.S. is by far our most important market and that’s where flavored whiskies are the biggest. The growth has been very broad-based across all 50 states due to Ole Smoky being viewed as a fun, happy brand and the quality of the products.

SND: What are the biggest selling flavors in the portfolio?

Hall: Peanut Butter and Salty Caramel are our top two flavored whiskey products. Other notable varieties would be Salty Watermelon and Mango Habanero. Our current strategy for innovating is we try to introduce at least a new flavor of moonshine or whiskey every month, and in each of the last three years, we did over 20. We’ve got the best test market in the world in our stores. So we can tell within a matter of days whether a product is successful or not. Then we take the most successful products and roll them out into wholesale.

SND: Is moonshine still the biggest portion of your volume?

Hall: Moonshine is still bigger in our portfolio than whiskey, but whiskey has been growing more rapidly. So it’s getting close to 50/50, but it’s not there yet. Whiskey was actually up over 70% in the 52 weeks ending in September, while moonshine was up around 40%.

SND: How has the last couple of years affected your sales?

Hall: Clearly there’s been a tremendous shift in the channels with Covid significantly impacting the on-premise, and there’s also been an impact on sampling at trade shows. So that probably hurt us a little bit too because we benefit from liquid to lips, but they’re starting to come back.

SND: What other new innovation have you launched this past year?

Hall: This past summer, we introduced a very high-end straight Tennessee Bourbon whiskey under the brand James Ownby Reserve, named for the fifth-generation great-grandfather of Ole Smoky founder Joe Baker. After serving in the Revolutionary War, Ownby and his family settled in the area of East Tennessee where the company operates. The whiskey is currently available in five states, and we’re continuing to develop that business and gain new distribution for it. We’ve also come out with 50-ml. whiskey minis in our most popular flavors, which we’re gaining distribution for as well.

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