James France on what makes a great spirit brand, and how new brands can succeed

James France’s Vanguard Luxury Brands is well-known for spotting great spirits before they become popular.

James France on what makes a great spirit brand, and how new brands can succeed

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If you’ve ever thought about starting up a distillery or launching your own drinks brand, this week’s episode of Drinks At Work answers the question: what makes a good drinks brand?

James France has been influential within the Australian drinks industry over the last decade, and is responsible for importing some of the best and most respected craft spirit brands through his company Vanguard Luxury Brands.

He also has a knack for recognising and breaking small brands in the Australian market, brands that then go on to get picked up by the big players in the drinks world: Ketel One, St Germain, Hudson Whiskey and Four Pillars are just a few that come to mind.

In this week’s podcast, I asked James about what he thinks makes a good brand, what new brands need to succeed in today’s marketplace, what the difficulties are in getting a business like Vanguard  going — particularly in Australia — and a whole lot more. He’s a super smart guy, and has built arguably the most respected craft spirits portfolio in the country — one that drinks giant Lion liked so much, they bought him out. I've got some lightly edited takeaways from the chat below, but it's worth a listen in full.

This episode is sponsored by Australian Cocktail Month, a great initiative to get people back into the bars, taking place this May. One ticket gets you access to exclusive cocktail menus in 144 bars across 12 cities for the entire month of May — you can learn more about Australian Cocktail Month at australiancocktailmonth.com.au. Tickets go on sale soon.

“Network in a good way.”

You’ve heard the saying, it’s to what you know it who you know, right? James is quick to point out where others have helped him along the way. When he had left his job to start Vanguard Luxury Brands by pitching for Patron Tequila — a pitch that he says went over well, but they were wary of a working with a start up company — he was left with no brands to distribute.

But he got in touch with bartenders and with respected US-based Australian expat Naren Young, who was able to offer him some advice on which brands were set to blow up and become popular with bartenders.

It goes to show how important it is to know the right people and cultivate relationships with them. They can’t be one-sided relationships — there’s always got to be a good back and forth — but it’s relationships that have helped James France grow Vanguard from essentially nothing in 2007, to where it is today.

“Have a strategy and stick to it.”

Ask any bartender who is familiar with the Vanguard Luxury Brands portfolio to choose just one product to work with, and they’ll need to take their time — there’s a lot of quality liquid in there.

That is a direct result of the strategy that James employed when he first began the business.

“I racked my brain [for a strategy], and I had a business advisor in the early days,” he says. “I arrived at [this]: Vanguard is the best brands for the best bars.”

“If a brand crossed my radar, and it wasn’t one that rang the bells for the bartenders, then I wouldn’t add it to the portfolio. Everything was driven by that particular focus.”

“I didn’t want to sell my house if the company failed.”

I asked James about which of his personal qualities he thinks were the ones useful for starting a business like Vanguard Luxury Brands, and that’s what he said: he had mortgaged his house to execute this business idea and if it all went south, he’d have to sell the family home. Those are high stakes.

There’s clearly some, if not an appetite for, then an acceptance of risk there, something which anyone going into business for themselves needs to appreciate. It’s a common theme in interviews I’ve done before, as well: Sven Almenning, whose Speakeasy Group has venues in Sydney and Melbourne and has won multiple awards, is fond of saying that when you start a business, you need to be prepared to live on two minute noodles for a long time — the business will take over your life, and it’s not for everybody.

But for James France, he was able to get Vanguard to a place where he found reward and enjoyment from walking into bars and talking to bartenders who knew what he was trying to do and liked it.

“I just loved walking into venues, even now, and people say, ‘Oh you’re Vanguard, great — come on in, because you’ve got a great portfolio and good people,’” he says.

“The things that kept me going, were just the enjoyment of providing our bartender friends and the retail trade with all sorts of brands that they were interested in.”

“You know it when you see it.”

So what makes a good spirits brand? James believes there are a number of factors — and a good deal of X factor about it all — but the starting point is what’s in the bottle.

“A premium, excellent quality liquid is the price of admission,” says James. “If you haven’t got that, don’t even start.”

There’s just no room any more for a spirit that is of average quality — you’re going to want gold-medalling, trophy-winning, bartender-pleasing juice in that bottle.

Once you have that, however, the bottle you put it in needs to stand out. “Good packaging is incredibly important,” James says.

And when James is considering whether or not to add a brand to the portfolio, the quality of the brand owner themselves is a crucial component in the decision-making mix. “You need to have a good brand owner that knows what they’re talking about,” he says, “I’ll be very reluctant to take on a brand that is from somebody who has a lot of money, but from outside the industry, right? They need to know the industry and the nuances.”

Thanks for listening to Drinks At Work and for reading Boothby. If you like the episode or enjoy this email, please send it on to a friend who might like it, too — after all, we're a small start up brand and can always use the help to spread the word. And you can let me know what you think about this week’s episode, and  who you'd like to hear from on the podcast by replying to this email.

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