Wolf Spirit Distillery is an independent, premium liquor company committed to disrupting the marketplace with new and unique spirit brands. “I was born in Italy, schooled in the UK, started my career in France and then entered Monaco’s spirits industry with Campari,”says Umberto Luchini, Founder of Wolf Spirit Distillery. “In 2003, I was transferred to the US, and by 2007 I became an American citizen. By the time I started my own company, I had worked in marketing for about 25 years. For the first 24 years of my career, I had marketed products produced by others. Then, in the 25th year, I decided to launch my own brand: Wolf Spirit Distillery.”
While Luchini was still in Campari’s marketing department, he had been tasked to create and launch a tequila brand for the company and Espolòn Tequila came to be. “I am proud to say it is often called ‘the Tito’s of Tequila’ for its rapid growth, and this success gave me the itch to create my own brands,” explains Luchini. He tried to do this within Campari, presenting many models to show how this could work, but they could not come to an agreement. So, in his late 40s, Luchini walked away to launch Wolf Spirit Distillery,with the mission to live courageously with great purpose.
Every entrepreneur faces challenges while setting up a business, and setting up a distillery is particularly challenging because beverage alcohol is so highly regulated. Getting through the many steps, controls,safeguards, and approvals takes determination, patience and motivation. “It also requires the confidence to move forward without selling a bottle,” adds Luchini, “which is daunting. Money is going out, and no money is coming in during this time.”
Luchini wanted to create a delicious vodka people would love. “In 2017, I created the Blood x Sweat x Tears Vodka brand, and asked my master distiller, Ben Green, to create the vodka,” he says. Getting “the juice” right took a year. Wolf Spirit started off aiming to create a potato-based vodka: the distillery co-founder Brian Kirschenmann is one of the biggest potato farmers in the United States, which gave them access to very affordable potatoes. However, the quality was not satisfactory; Luchini and Green wanted to create a vodka with enough character to stand alone, either on the rocks or in a classic martini. So, they switched to using wheat as the base ingredient. It took more than 12 months and 3,000 liters of vodka literally down the drain for Umberto, Ben, and their team to arrive at a vodka they all loved.
Next up was the packaging, from the bottle to the boxes in which the vodka is delivered to stores. Wolf Spirit relied upon the team’s many decades of experience and deep industry connections to access talented designers and artists, all of whom loved and lived the company’s mission: with their help, the packaging was designed within six months. Similar access to manufacturing partners sped up that process. Yet, the main challenge remained: again as similar among start-ups, the challenge was to afford the top ingredients, materials, and talent despite limited funds. Personal connections and the team’s will to be part of the entrepreneurial journey were crucial.
The next major milestone was gaining federal approval of the label, which was rejected twice. The first rejection was due to the original label portraying an “anatomical” heart; this was considered “deceiving” as it could have led consumers to believe the vodka had health benefits. The second rejection was because the back label included the word “flavor”: at that time, federal law defined vodka as “colorless, odorless, and flavorless,” so the word flavor could not be included. However, overall, Wolf Spirit was able to move forward with very few changes to the original design.
The last start-up hurdle was to sell the vodka; Luchini learned the hard way that that he was great at marketing, but not so great at sales. This was solved by recruiting three top-notch salespersons: one focused on distribution, one focused on stores, and one focused on restaurants. This “dream team” was also given ownership stakes in the company.
Since its launch, Wolf Spirit Distillery has been recognized as one of the 50 Innovative Companies to Watch. “I keep my focus on short and long-term goals for the business, as well as short- and long-term goals for myself,” said Luchini.“The short game for both is to maintain focus, keep motivation strong, and of course survive: as often said of entrepreneurial ventures, this is a marathon, not a sprint.” For the business, the long-term goal is to develop and grow a portfolio with brands that are the envy of the industry. Luchini specifies: “Each of our brands will be a craft in nature, national in distribution, authentic in its story, profitable, and – ultimately – alluring to investors.”
“Wolf Spirit Distillery’s mission to develop and launch craft lifestyle brands at a national level at an affordable price is well underway”
Blood x Sweat x Tears Vodka was created for misfits: those pursuing their own dreams and own paths on their own terms, made possible by the Wolf Spirit team of in Luchini’s words “resilient team of crazy yet professional misfits” who are inspired by what they are creating. The first imported product they added to their portfolio was Tom of Finland Organic Vodka, named for the artist who revolutionized the way the world perceives gay men: rather than being seen as furtive and afraid, Tom portrayed his men as proud and loving. The next product Wolf Spirit developed and launched, during the pandemic, was Puncher’s Chance™ Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which sold out after only six months.
Speaking of the pandemic, Wolf Spirit of course faced unprecedented uncertainty last year. COVID-19 forced Luchini and his team to become comfortable taking business step-by-step and day-by-day, rather than according to their customary 18-month planning calendars. Yet, rather than feeling sorry for themselves, they chose to help others: when they lost almost all of their restaurant business overnight, they took advantage of the temporary drop in demand to manufacture hand sanitizer, which they gave away locally as well as to grocery workers in several states.
Charity is a way of life at Wolf Spirit: nearly since its inception Blood x Sweat x Tears Vodka has partnered with Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization working to save all homeless pets; they do this in honor of Green’s rescue pit bull, Mr. Pickles, who can even be seen on the bottle. Tom of Finland Organic Vodka donates a full 5% of sales back to Tom of Finland Foundation, an LA-based non-profit which promotes and preserves the work of Tom of Finland, promoting tolerance for all.
Wolf Spirit Distillery’s mission to develop and launch craft lifestyle brands at a national level at an affordable price is well underway. In closing,Luchini says: “I hope you will continue to watch us! Our next brand will be out by the summer.”