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May 3, 2014

Upstart distiller ties products to allure of Cooperstown

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — On Railroad Avenue here, a few hundred yards away from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the Cooperstown Distillery has been in business for less than nine months.

But its proprietor, restaurant industry veteran Gene Marra, said Friday that he is already getting strong indications that the products he conceived — and now produces in a still imported from Germany — are in demand, with orders escalating and plans to expand the business already in the works.

And the steady increase in production is not by accident, Marra said.

Marra, who often relies on metaphors to make a point, said, “I have been very diligent in paying attention to hoeing my field, and making sure that all the crops are going to come in appropriately.”

He said he has understood from the beginning that is in a highly competitive marketplace, and that it would take more than simply offering quality blends of bourbon, whiskey, vodka, gin and other distilled spirits to build his product.

Strategic marketing and clever packaging, he said, have been important accomplices in helping to get the Cooperstown Distillery line of spirits noticed.

And praised, too.

In recent weeks, the local distillery’s Abner Doubleday Vodka captured top awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Dallas International Spirits Competition. It also received honors in Denver for its unique baseball-shaped decanter.

Meanwhile, Fenimore Gin, another product from the local label, took home a gold medal in the “Fifty Best” International Gin Competition in New York City, while Glimmerglass Vodka was honored at the Denver competition.

Marra, 61, said it was his theory before he was even licensed to produce spirits that his products would have added appeal in the marketplace as a result of coming from a place called Cooperstown Distillery.

“There’s a reason why we’re not in Schenectady,” he said, noting Cooperstown is synonymous with the Baseball Hall of Fame and pointing out that baseball remains the national pastime.

“Our strategy has been to promote the mystique of the brand and what’s in the bottle,” Marra said. He noted he now has his sights on getting deals with concessionaires at a number of Major League Baseball stadiums.

Marra said he has struck a distribution arrangement with McCraith Beverages in New York Mills, and he hopes to eventually tap into the New York City market.

“New York City is like taking on five states,” Marra said. “That’s how much consumption there is in New York City. We’re positioning ourselves now for that moment. I think we’re almost there.”

Creative packaging that accentuates the origins of the product — such as the decanter for Abner Doubleday Double Play Vodka — has been a major selling point, he said, adding: “The vodka has been hotter than a firecracker.”

The business now has five employees, but given the growth curve, Marra said he expects to add more workers. He said he has already ordered another new still, which he plans to use exclusively for making whiskey.

The Bronx native said he appreciates the marketing genius behind successful products, such as Grey Goose vodka, which gained a huge following within a short time after the brand was conceived in 1996 by liquor baron Sidney Frank even before he had a product.

Frank cut a deal to have the vodka marketed in distinctive frosted bottles and had it produced from wheat in France. Eight years later, Frank sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for $2 billion.

“He took a new brand and within decades he was shipping millions of cases,” Marra said.

While the business keeps him very busy and often traveling, Marra said he finds none of the work stressful.

“Things are about ready to explode, he said. “But I’m having a lot of fun.”

Then he pitched more metaphors: “We’re hitting grand slams, not just home runs.”