Another five months will pass before Copper & Kings American Brandy turns 2, yet its product line has diversified and expanded far beyond the small brandy and absinthe lineup co-founder Joe and Lesley Heron launched in 2014. Neither owner imagined some of its newest products back then, potent potables such as Cr&ftwerks, its beer-barrel aged brandy launched this week, or Butchertown Brandy, a bourbon-barrel and brandy-barrel aged brandy that’s become a hit sipper. Yet there they are on store shelves, new spirits added to an already impressive market offering.
And now there’s Butchertown Provisions, non-alcohol offshoots such as branded local honey and sorghum molasses, brandy-soaked and smoked peppercorns, and Butchertown Soda, which Joe Heron believes “has the potential to really get big.” Packaging is beautiful, professional and unmistakably Copper & Kings’: No trace of the slapdash, rush-to-market look some small companies create when too eager to convey an illusion of greater size.
Heron says his company’s ability to broaden its line so quickly is due to its bent toward creative ideas that extend its core brand, a team who acts quickly on those ideas and then brings them to market. Larger companies can’t be so fleet-footed, he says, because their size and risk aversion prohibits it.
“The risk is far higher and so large companies don’t let anyone take much risk,” Heron tells Insider. “I believe you allow people to screw up … and that failing forward is a joy because you let people do stuff.”
Sound like an interesting business philosophy? Read on for more. Sip and contemplate Heron’s business wisdom slowly, just like his brandy.
Insider Louisville: I can understand how the company added sodas, but molasses, honey and smoked pepper?
Joe Heron: Because we’re small, we have the agility to be able to do small batch things. And part of why we have so many things here is clearly from a restlessness and willingness we have to do stuff like deciding to age brandy in beer barrels 12 months. People first thought it nuts, but now 12 months later, they see it’s delicious.
To do all these things, you have to have that willingness to dive off the cliff. If you don’t, you’re never going to fly. You have to give yourself wings. That takes courage and stupidity to do that.
IL: Is that stupidity a recklessness or an ignorance of what might happen?
JH: Not really either. By stupidity I mean entrepreneurial stupidity that is unbounded. It’s a curiosity with a lack of over-analysis. It’s not being paralyzed by conjecture. It means the highest state of consciousness is the state of doing. Recklessness is dumb, it’s idiocy.
IL: Where does the creative process begin here?
JH: The first part of a strategy is to define where you’re going to play. The second part is to define how you’re going to win in that space. The strategy for us is to play in American brandy, and how we’re going to win is to take American brandy to places it’s never gone before, like beer barrel-aged brandies, over-proofed brandies and brandies done in a bourbon style.
IL: Are the ideas all from you or do staffers contribute?
JH: There is no single-parent good idea. And anyone who says there is (is full of it) in my view. Good ideas come from anywhere, and you distill them as vigorously as you can. Then you put action behind them; you do them instead of just talk about them. Our gift is making ideas real. When it comes to doing one of these products, it’s me, Lesley, Shane, Jenn, Curtis … everybody is involved. And I love swimming in that water, love floating down that stream. It’s warm and sunny and enthusiastic, a place where the sun shines on your face.
IL: What are some Copper & Kings examples of turning ideas into products?
JH: Butchertown Brandy came from when we were doing a bourbon salon, and Alan Bishop, one of our distillers at that time, was asked to bring a special bottle. We said those people were bourbon aficionados and that we should bring something that appeals to them. So Alan developed a blend that used 25 percent new American oak barrels versus 10 percent, which gave it that honey and caramel tone, and we did it over-proofed. It was so well received that we made it into a regular product. We can do that because we have agility and nimbleness.
Cr&ftwerks is another example that came from us asking how we could integrate more with craft brewers besides selling them barrels. We said we wanted to represent the spirit of craft brewing in brandy, so we aged our brandy in different beer barrels.
IL: You’ve said to me on several occasions that your big ideas are born of you and Lesley relaxing and drinking together. Talk about that creative process.
JH: We balance each other in many ways. Lesley is very practical, and I’m less so. We’re more of a Venn diagram than two separate things. Lesley is more focused on coherency; she likes the businesses to make sense. I’m focused on how we get to where we’re going. But it’s not a process; we don’t have a process. It’s innate in us and what we do. We understand what a good idea is and what a bad idea is.
We see an idea and make it bigger by snowballing those little ideas into big ideas. That’s the joy of it. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing those ideas in the flesh. It’s not a conversation anymore, it’s a product. It’s art!
Where we have a real strength is that we’re intensely curious and we read enormously. Reading is where you get good ideas, germs of ideas or even fertilization from reading ideas. If you don’t read, you’re locked in intellectually.
IL: How difficult is it to branch out into these new opportunities?
JH: Most people are like dogs who just bark at the stick in the water. They think, “I’d love to do chocolate” or whatever and it’s just woof-woof! But there are very few entrepreneurial dogs that actually go swimming. Most just stand at the edge and bark at the stick in the water. But when you go swimming, you’re in, and if you’re committed, you’re going to catch that stick and bring it back to shore.
Still, too, there are a lot of dogs who get confused by all the other sticks in the water. They get too many in their mouth and can’t bring them back to shore. They’re chasing after too many ideas rather than doing the one thing and bringing that stick to shore. To get the stick you’ve got to get into the water and swim like hell. Being paralyzed by conjecture is deadly; it’s soul destroying.
IL: Does your staff ever go a little crazy trying to bring all these ideas to market?
JH: They’re pretty focused on the brandy stick, though soda is coming on big now. What keeps it together is everything we do is inherently designed to support the distillery and the guest experience.
IL: How do you separate the good and bad ideas and face the risk of rejection?
JH: I like to use this analogy for that: You write music, and you want people to like your music. Some will like every song you write, and some others just a few songs. But you have to make the music. It’s what you do. It’s in you. You just want to find your tribe.