Las Vegas Sun

May 27, 2018

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Hot new booze brands emerge at Wine & Spirits Wholesalers expo

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Courtesy Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America

From left, Barkley Stuart of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits and WSWA President & CEO Craig Wolf kick off the convention and expo with “Bar Rescue” star Jon Taffer.

What if entrepreneurial reality competition show “Shark Tank” was all about booze and set in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace? That actually happened last week. It’s called Brand Battle, and it was one of the most exciting parts of the 75th annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Convention & Expo.

As sharply produced as any TV show, Brand Battle went down on the final day of the expo on Thursday in Caesars’ Palace Ballroom, one of many convention spaces completely packed with more than 350 exhibit booths, mixology demonstrations and competitions and panels featuring industry experts. More than 2,700 suppliers, distributors, producers and importers were expected to attend the three-day show, which kicked off Tuesday with a ribbon cutting with “Bar Rescue” star Jon Taffer and a book signing and keynote address from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The lively Brand Battle featured six competitors, all-new products granted the chance to pitch their stuff to a panel of wholesaler and industry decision makers. The moderator was Tobin Ellis, owner of hospitality consulting firm BarMagic of Las Vegas, and among the judges was Charlie Merinoff, co-chairman of Vegas-based Breakthru Beverage Group.

Gray Whale Gin, made by Golden State Distillery in Manhattan Beach, California, dominated the competition to take the Brand Battle prize, not completely surprising considering the product’s co-founder and master distiller Marsh Mokhtari hosts a Food Network TV show called “Extreme Chef” and has been acting and hosting for a dozen years. Still, the judges noted Gray Whale’s story won them over: the small-batch gin is a celebration of the annual journey of the California Gray Whale, which migrates from Baja to the Arctic. Sold in a bright, ocean-blue bottle, Gray Whale Gin incorporates flavors and botanicals found along that coastal journey.

“Brand Battle is essential for new suppliers to learn what’s important as they’re looking for their niche in the marketplace,” said WSWA President and CEO Craig Wolf. “It’s a lot of fun but it’s serious business, and we try to keep the convention in tune with that philosophy and celebrate our industry.”

The WSWA has been holding the convention since its inception as an organization. Since the early 200s, Wolf said, it’s been visiting Las Vegas every other year.

“We’re a little different from other conventions since we are business to business, just wholesalers and suppliers, and not open to the public, but we are looking at that for the future, maybe having a day with special events,” he said. “This is the place where wholesalers get to identify new brands they want to take into broader distribution and determine their needs for the coming year. If you’re a small craft distiller or an existing supplier, this is the place to be, to create even better relationships.”

Other new brands to capture some buzz during WSWA include Brand Battle runner-up Rosé Piscine, a French rosé wine made for drinking on ice; Dallas-based infused spirit Kohler Dark Chocolate Brandy; the Chocolate SideCar, a garnishment that rests on all sorts of cocktail glasses and can be customized via branding and flavoring; and Obvious Wines of Venice, California, a collection of quality, sustainable wines packaged with simple and straight-forward labels describing taste and possible food pairings for wine drinkers looking for maximum convenience.