Hyper-Local Liquor: Tobacco Branding Pioneer Finds Redemption (Video)

steven grasse business model image

Image credit: PSFK/Steven Grasse

With a business model that combines sex, drugs and rock n roll with, quote, "cool shit", you'd expect a talk by branding pioneer Steven Grasse to be provocative. But with a professional background in branding cigarettes and sneakers, you might not expect it to be particularly note worthy for TreeHuggers. However, you'd be wrong.

Because what do you do once you've made a fortune selling tobacco? Why, you move on to booze of course. But this is no ordinary booze. In fact, by combining ultra-local (and I do mean ultra-local!), sustainable agriculture with a love for cultural exploration and serious fun, I would argue that it is a beautiful example of where business should be headed. This presentation is worth checking out, whether you drink or not. I already wrote about Grasse's Root Liquor, which is a revival of a pre-prohibition recipe that eventually became root beer. But organic is just the start of where Grasse wants to go in terms of sustainability. Convinced that we are losing our "aura" through a culture of mass-reproduction, Grasse is looking for different ways to make money. And this path involves cultural creativity, environmental sustainability and a whole bunch of flavor and fun.

Grasse has closed his original branding agency, instead concentrating on building brands he has complete ownership of. He's bought an early 20th Century farm in Pensylvania, complete with bowling alley. He's restoring the fields. He's getting certified to raise organic grains to use in his liquors. And he has set up a distillery that will eventually make drinks only from grains grown within a ten mile radius of the distillery. (He's also building a print studio, restoring the local General Store as a lyceum, and is looking to revive the American transcendental movement.)

Now I hate to anticipate negative comments before they role in, but somehow I suspect there will be those who dismiss this kind of project as little more than hipster hobby farming, or an indulgence of the very rich. But that kind of cynicism misses the point. To me it represents an incredibly positive cultural shift.

As my friend and colleague Jerry Stifelman—who, in the interests of transparency, I should note does some work with Grasse—and I wrote in our Manifesto for Slow Business, it is high time that our culture rediscovered the art of doing things because they make us truly, genuinely happy and engaged. And Grasse seems to be doing just that.

Sure, not everyone can go out and buy a 70-acre farm and build their own artisan liquor brand. But I for one am mighty glad that we are living in a culture that increasingly encourages people to do just that. There was a time when the rich would display their wealth by buying mega-yachts, and many still do. Reviving organic agriculture and the local economy seems like a much more worthy thing to do.

As Grass says in the video below, "Talk about redemption. I went from the guy who branded cigarettes, to this."

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