Sake meets spirits in new locally-owned liquor brand

Written by on September 22, 2015 in Liquor - 1 Comment

karate cowboy mark

Combine sake, spirits and shots and you have what one local entrepreneur hopes is a winning combination behind the bar.

Mark Tinus, President and co-founder of locally headquartered Revolution Experiment, is a Central Ohio native and OSU grad with a myriad of experience in the beverage business, working first as a brew shift manager at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Columbus, later as a marketing consultant for brands like Bacardi, and, most recently, as a marketing manager for Heineken. About two years ago decided to launch his own brand and saw a market opportunity with sake.

“We started interviewing a bunch of people and there was good awareness of the [sake] category,” said Tinus. “People know what sake is, they know it’s associated with sushi, they ‘get’ sake bombs, they get all that, but then we said ‘name a brand’ and only six percent could. That’s huge – ninety percent of people know what this category is but only six percent can name a brand.”

Armed with that knowledge, Revolution Experiment began working on their first brand, Karate Cowboy, a blend of Japanese sake and American spirits which Tinus describes as “an American translation of sake, branded heavily as something fun and experiential with a name that people can recall.”

Tinus and his partner knew they wanted their sake spirit to have a sweet-and-spicy flavor profile after a bartender in New York posited that Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey’s popularity was based on its balance of “feminine sweet but masculine heat.” They scoured the New York culinary scene for inspiration, experimenting with fusions like ginger-and-mint and green tea-and-Sriracha before settling on the winning combination of honey-and-wasabi.

“It’s really confusing as a flavor profile if you just mix [wasabi and honey] together in your mouth,” said Tinus. “If you can create flavor profiles that allow you to separate those two out, you get this journey throughout the flavor profile, it can become less confusing.”

The resulting 28% alcohol spirit brings a blast of honey followed by the burn of wasabi, extremely sweet on the onset with no hint of heat, and then the honey vanishes and you’re left with a lingering fieriness. The product and promotion surrounding Karate Cowboy are all designed around the “shot experience”, including a massive Samurai sword shotski – with mounted selfie stick.

“Shots have taken a huge turn in the past 5-6 years with the resurgence of Fireball and the messaging that’s coming from Jager to where it’s not the dark, dank hole of some depressed guy taking a shot alone in the corner,” said Tinus. “Now it’s a whole social spark moment with folks looking for lower alcohol alternative to heavy shot experiences but that still give them their energy sparks and bring people together.”

karate cowboy

Though it was designed to be a standalone shot, in the two weeks that it’s been on the market some bartenders have begun to consider its use in cocktails.

“Now that we’re getting it out there and putting it in front of different accounts we’re seeing ourselves become a platform for different types of cocktails that want a spicy kick or that can play up ginger in a whole new way, like a different angle on a mule,” said Tinus.

The brand’s journey into new category territory presented challenges with the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Sake, a Japanese fermented rice beverage, is generally sold as a wine, though is legally classified as a beer, but is often treated like a spirit.

“Our supply chain got shut down because of the mixture of categories,” said Tinus. “We got into a tricky world back in 2013 when were were making our first test runs where we had all three [TTB] parties on the phone. The beer guys didn’t like us, the wine guys didn’t like us, and the spirits guys were like ‘what are you doing?!'”

While there are comparable sake-spirit mixtures on the market, none are manufactured in the United States. In order to get the O-K from TTB, the sake needed to be imported from Japan. The final flavoring and distillation is done in Louisville, though Tinus said they are currently looking for Ohio distilleries with capacity for co-packing Karate Cowboy. They have no immediate plans to launch a second spirit.

“We don’t really want a second flavor to start with because we’re trying to build a brand from nothing and we don’t want people saying ‘give me the green one’ or ‘give me the red one’, we want people to say ‘ give me Karate Cowboy,’ said Tinus. “If we need other flavors in the future, we can do that.”

Karate Cowboy is currently available at Too’s Spirits Under High, Oldfield’s North Fourth Tavern, Hampton on King and North High Brewing (sidenote: Jason from North High used to brew with Mark at Budweiser) as for retail at Grandview Yard Market District, Campus Liquor, Arena Wine & Spirits, Bexley Liquor Agency and Alum Creek Liquor Agency. With their local distribution partner, Southern Wine & Spirits, Tinus hopes to be in 30 Columbus accounts within the month.

“We’re American spirits but we’re Japanese sake; we’re karate and cowboy; we’re honey and wasabi,” said Tinus. “Everything is an east-west kind of fusion blur to what we’re doing and sweet and spicy seems to be resonating really well.”

About the Author

Cheryl Harrison. Editor of Drink Up Columbus. Co-Founder of the Columbus Ale Trail.

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