Since its launch less than two years ago, Blue Run Spirits has stood out like a fresh pair of vintage Air Jordans III’s on a crowded street. You can’t help but notice them amongst the other bottles, and their ability to capture bourbon drinkers’ attention is paying dividends. They are on pace to sell 50,000 cases this year and hit $15 million in sales, both mind-boggling numbers for a company launched during the pandemic by an unlikely group of bourbon lovers.
The key to their success is that none of the founders (a Nike designer, a Facebook veteran, a hospitality executive, a political advisor, and a philanthropist) had any experience in the alcohol industry. That allowed them to look beyond the traditional framework surrounding bourbon and instead model their business after an industry that knows how to capture the public’s attention, high-end sneakers.
“Nowadays, there is such a buzz around new premium tennis shoe drops. People stand in lines for hours and are so excited to score a pair. We thought, why not apply some of their principles to the bourbon industry and help it evolve,” says Mike Montgomery, the CEO and Co-Founder of Blue Run, he’s the political advisor. “It’s heavily designed around product drop strategies and theories that connect to a crowd that spans generations from the very young to the very old. We call it sneakerizing, which seems to work quite well.”
The first step they took was to make sure everything they dropped had credibility and stood out, like the first pair of Air Jordans, the shoe credited with launching the modern sneaker craze. For the whiskey, they partnered with bourbon legend Jim Rutledge, the former master distiller for Four Roses, to serve as their liquid advisor. Famed for crafting smooth full-flavored bourbons over his 50+ year career, his involvement quickly added authenticity to their product. He helps select the barrels they use and watches over the blending and proofing.
To make their bottles pop, they reached out to Devin McKinney, another co-founder and one of the head lifestyle designers at Nike. He created a unique bottle with clean lines anchored by their logo, a butterfly signaling their commitment to evolution and change, front and center.
The next step was to apply another lesson they gleaned from watching sneaker drops, creating a buzz around limited releases of products. Instead of releasing one or two mainline products year-round, they adopted a quarterly release schedule, along with holiday drops, that offered a one-time-only product. Once it sold out was gone. Taking it further, they change their butterfly logo color with every release. Just like each new pair of shoes, each release is different.
Their first release, a 14-year-old Kentucky Straight bourbon priced at $169, sold 2,600 bottles in two weeks. That was before it was named best bourbon at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. By offering consumers the chance to buy half the lot through their online site, they captured drinkers from across the country while still placing their bottles in select retailers that catered to luxury drinkers. Each release since then has followed the same plan. They announce an upcoming release date through their social media threads, put tranches of bottles online at set times, and close buying until the next window opens.
Their 13.5-year-old Single Barrel Bourbon, priced at $229, was offered in two-barrel lots over five weeks. Each one sold out faster than the others until it culminated in the final barrel selling online in less than ten seconds. Much like the Adidas YEEZY Foam Runners or the New Balance 550 “Conversations Amongst Us” that sell for several hundred dollars and are perennially out of stock Blue Run has crafted a run on their products.
“We wanted to create a product that drinkers would stand in line for and proudly show off to their friends,” says Montgomery. “Bourbon can be exciting; it doesn’t have to be so stuffy. That’s why we work so hard to connect with our fans.”
The last step that Blue Run took was to create relationships with its consumers. Montgomery has authored over 15,000 handwritten notes included with every purchase from their site. That’s on top of focusing on connecting with their fans on social media through directly answering all message they receive.
So far, their attempts at blazing a new path in an industry steeped in traditions seem to be working. According to Montgomery, they are three years ahead of their initial business plan, and their latest release, Reflection I, priced at $99.99 a bottle, is doing well. It’s their largest drop yet at 72,000 bottles and will soon be history, well before their second anniversary in October. Whatever they spring next, it will turn more heads again, just like a crisp white pair of sneakers do in a crowd.