Innovator Interviews: Uncle Nearest’s Kate Jerkens

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Independent whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, which launched in July 2017, has since earned its name as one of the best whiskeys in the world winning prizes and accolades across the globe. The Black-owned, female-owned company has maintained this momentum even with shuttered bars. Brand Innovators caught up with Kate Jerkens, SVP, Global Sales & Marketing at Uncle Nearest, to discuss how the brand has pivoted this year.

Independent whiskey brand Uncle Nearest launched in July 2017, and has since earned its name as one of the best whiskeys in the world winning prizes and accolades across the globe.

The brand was founded by CEO Fawn Weaver, who was inspired by the first African American master distiller on record in the US, Nearest Green. Nearest was known for perfecting the Lincoln County Process, a signature process for distilling Tennessee Whiskey, and is often thought of as the godfather of Tennessee Whiskey.

Uncle Nearest Premium is still making whiskey the way Nearest did. The company’s  line includes several products –its core 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey ($60); Nearest Green 1820, a single barrel whiskey ($119); and the 1884 Premium Small Batch Whiskey. These bottles honor Nearest’s legacy, and each batch is curated and signed by one of Nearest Green’s descendants. The first batches were curated by Victoria Eady Butler, great-great-granddaughter of Nearest.

Since Weaver brought the whiskey to market, the company has been growing exponentially. The brand is currently available in 15,000 stores, bars and restaurants in all 50 states, as well as in 12 countries, with shipping available to 148 countries.

“We are the fastest growing independent whisky company in history right now,” says Kate Jerkens, SVP, Global Sales & Marketing at Uncle Nearest. “Factoring out anything happening this year, we were on a very fast trajectory: In less than three years, we rolled out 12 countries including the United Kingdom, Japan, South Africa and we are currently rolling out in Canada right now. 2020 has definitely been an interesting year, thankfully and gratefully we were on an upward trajectory.”,

The brand has won more than 100 awards, including being named "World's Best" at Whisky Magazine's 2019 and 2020 World Whiskies Awards.Brand Innovators caught up with Jerkens, a veteran marketer who has also held senior roles at Yas Fitness Centers, W Hotels and JRK Hotel Group, from her home in Los Angeles, to discuss Uncle Nearest. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has Uncle Nearest been adapting to the massive consumer upheavals of 2020?

Obviously with COVID, people’s drinking habits started to change. We did see a rise in ecommerce. We have always done ecommerce from the very beginning because we knew it was important to get products into people’s hands especially because our brand launched right after an amazing New York Times article in 2017. The social justice movement and things that have gone on this year have definitely contributed to our success, but we were already seeing that trajectory over the last year.

To be a Black-owned, female-owned company and selling a premium whiskey is very unique in this country so there definitely have been some people that have reached out to us that really want to support this movement and move us along.

On the flip side, our company has always had an element of philanthropy. We are our brother’s keeper, so we’ve really taken an opportunity to do a couple of things. One is when COVID struck we were seeing that COVID is affecting people of Color, communities of Color in a strong way compared to other communities. So we started the Operation Brother's Keeper initiative and started making sure that people in African American communities were equipped with masks and information on how they could protect themselves.

We were also reaching into those communities and making sure that hospitals had PPE and the things that they needed to continue to fight this virus. As the year moved on, after May and June we aligned with the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, something we did alongside Jack Daniels. We really started to address the need for more diversity in the spirits industry and in the whiskey industry, in particular.

You mentioned ecommerce has risen this year. How has the channel helped you connect with consumers as stores have closed?

One of the things that may have made us successful this year is we identified ecommerce when there were no problems, when there was no COVID. We already had those established relationships so that was extremely helpful for us. We watched as certain companies like Drizly began to catapult because the demand was huge and luckily we were able to get on those trains as well, and really work on all of the tools that they were giving us.

We also kept our entire team throughout the country fully employed during COVID and we kept them motivated and excited and working based on what they could do, based on their market and what kind of restrictions there were. One of the keys to success with online retail is to ensure that your product is available in all of these stores that are actually doing the delivering and the actual selling. We  were able to ensure that all of these stores were properly stocked and had our product properly available to be as successful in ecommerce.

With bars and restaurants closing up, people have been drinking more at home. How have you adapted your marketing to meet this shift?  

The team members that we have on the ground in all major metro markets, have been working with the bar and restaurants. We really do believe that we are building this brand on-premise through bars and getting cocktail features and we have been extremely successful with that. With some of those bars and restaurants shut down, there was an opportunity for us to pivot and work with the stores. What we figured out quickly with bars and restaurants was that they needed our help. They needed to figure out how to make money during COVID. The whole evolution of a to-go cocktail, how fun is that?

Many of these bars did not know if they had the tools to make that happen. So we came out with tools to make them be able to do to-go cocktails. You have probably seen them now because everyone is doing different things. Like a cocktail pouch that almost looks kind of like an adult Capri Sun or a really beautiful mason jar. We would brainstorm with these partners on cocktail kits and that kind of thing. We still have a focus on on-premise by helping them and supporting them.  

We did have to do some pivoting and put some intention into the retail stores as well, really to make sure that we were properly stocked and that we had placement that was front and center to make sure that people had that brief moment to walk into a store and see our bottles front and center.

How are you reaching consumers?

We just did a commercial on cable, and we did CTV, as well. Some of the places we have been most successful is focusing on earned media. Focusing on public relations and telling our story. Our social media strategy is second to none.

Our growth on Instagram has been huge over the last couple of years. We had this really engaged whiskey family that follows us on Instagram that tags us and supports us, which is a really big element of our marketing. Then we have done a lot of grassroots marketing. We really invest in people on our teams, our market managers in all of these major metro markets. We spend so much time, effort and money on them attending events, tasting and being out and telling our story.

Bartenders must play a key role for your brand. How have you been adapting this year as many bars have shut down?

We still have many people who work for us who have been very successful in mixology and are very well-connected in the bartending community. We just ran an online bartender competition. You could make a drink and win the competition and the 12 winning cocktails will go in our cocktail calendar for 2021. That was a really fun way to engage with the bartending community. They could play with Uncle Nearest and submit a unique cocktail to us and we asked people to share the story of the cocktail and the meaning of why Uncle Nearest is so special to them. We just announced the winners and they will get to see their cocktails replicated in our calendar. And we’ll use that next year for various marketing initiatives.  

Have you done any influencer marketing?

We haven’t done any paid influencer marketing, but we are lucky to have people who are invested in the brand or are friends of the brand who happen to be influencers and they happen to put a bottle on Instagram. We have gotten some great focus from that, but we haven’t done any purposeful influencer marketing at this point. It has all been happenstance of people who want to support the brand.

What are your marketing plans for the upcoming holidays?

Our brand is so story driven and we have been telling that story for so many years and we have had incredible earned media. But this year, we rolled out a new campaign and we will carry it through the holidays. It is called “The Most Awarded American Whiskey or Bourbon” of 2019 and actually we are adding 2020 now to it. It is pretty bold, It is very different from what we had been doing before. It is an all-black background, really focused on the bottle, so that we are getting that brand and label recognition and then surrounded by awards.

That is another piece that has been an incredible strategy of ours. From Day 1 we entered competitions and got these bottles in as many people’s hands as possible, getting the scores and all of the accolades and the awards, because that matters. If a brand is new and you can see it on a shelf surrounded by awards, you might say, “I really need to know what that is.” Focusing on being award winning has been a big piece of our strategy this year.

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