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In the face of global uncertainty, the need to “pivot” and “adapt” became a necessary survival skill for many all over the world. For people like Russell Fletcher, the ability to shift gears with excellence is nothing new.
Having launched his first business at the tender age of 17 years old, today he is the first Black distillery owner in the United States with his company located in Pennsylvania. Fletcher’s one-of-a-kind journey has perfectly positioned him for this chapter in his life and to serve as a trailblazer for other African Americans to follow. The college dropout followed his passion and instinct to develop a career in entertainment as a touring manager for top rap acts. In this capacity, he took a front row seat to music and nightlife, which revealed to him the influence alcohol has within various settings.
Fletcher made note of every time he or his associates enjoyed wine over dinner meetings, bottle service at nightclubs, riders in celebrities’ greenrooms and even unprecedented ventures like JAY-Z and Dame Dash’s 2002 move to buy Armadale vodka. Fletcher sets a shining example of reinvention.
How did you first become interested in the spirits industry?
I came from a touring background. I left college to go on my first tour. I used to go to Virginia State, and Wu-Tang landed on my campus to do shows. I was already familiar with them. I legitimately left school to go with them for a bunch of tour stops. That kind of started just the interaction with that and just kind of watching people and seeing exactly how people react to alcohol. Alcohol was always a mainstay within every aspect of having fun.
The connectivity for me, I started to realize that there was an opportunity probably within my second tour, when I did the “Hard Knock Life Tour” helping Method Man. I started to realize how the spirits industry works — JAY-Z and them, they had Armadale, and I started to kind of see the transition of African Americans basically within an alcohol space. That kind of excited me. Ten years later, to be exact, I had started my own multimedia company and we were grinding on the multimedia side of it... I was doing a partnership with a buddy who had a wine and I just started to really kind of look at the landscape as an open market, especially for entrepreneurs and smaller craft adult beverages. That kind of just incentivized me to go into wine making. From there, it was an open market...I started it as basically like a hobby and it was also a stress relief — the wine making aspect of it.
What has been your experience as a Black man in this industry?
I mean, even right now, to be completely on the table, we’re still having a difficult time with gaining distribution. This was said just about the industry as a whole and African Americans as a whole. It kind of set off a green light for me to just press harder. I had heard this maybe about seven to eight years ago when I was just coming into the business. The statement was, “When it comes down to an African-American brand, you don’t expect for the best quality to be there.”
Someone said that to you?
No, someone said that in a conversation. It blew my mind. They were really referring to me because they couldn’t understand, realistically, how is it that you came up with this product? Because all of the products that we do, whether it be hand sanitizer or whether it be spirits, they won’t leave my location without them being premium consistency and premium content. So, my aim has always been to bring forward something that would overshadow the fact that we’re a Black company, but we’re just a premium production company.
For a good amount of time, I didn’t even want my face to be associated with the forefront of the product actually fledgling and heading out because I was more concerned with those types of statements and how they would be perceived. Fortunately, within the last X amount of years and the climate raising with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s allowed me to take some of that guard down and take the forefront, and actually do some PR and actually come into the space and basically, wanting to carve out and help carve out a founding space.
As we’ve done the research, I own the oldest master distillers license held by an African-American in the United States. With that being said, I have a duty, I have a job to do. Right now, we’re attempting to press the PLCB, the Pennsylvania Liquor Board, because they’re the largest government body that controls the alcohol space. We’re pressing on them for more diversity, more services.
Did you have any mentorship or anyone that you could turn to, to help you navigate this space?
No. In the beginning, it was kind of like all reading, even as I transferred over. I’m self-taught from the wine aspect. Then, I became self-taught in distilling...but then as I started to navigate through the space, I did meet several people. I met a gentleman named Julius Grant. He was, at the time, the senior vice president of Bacardi and literally is still probably one of the most prominent African-American males, I’m going to say, because then you have Dea who’s like right there as far as when it comes to Julius at this point. Julius had gave me some advice, he said, “Listen, make your product as excellent as you possibly can, so that it can travel throughout the room when you’re not able to represent it.”
That was something that I always embodied within anything that I’ve done even from starting my first business at 17 years old. I’ve always wanted to make sure that I put out quality and that stuck with me also... And then something that really accelerated my appetite for the spirits industry was that I learned about a gentleman named Raphael Yakobi, who created Hpnotiq and also Nuvo. He created Hpnotiq in his parents’ garage. So, that inspired me that I didn’t need a million dollar setup in order to be able to formulate. I just needed the passion and be able to have the taste profile to be able to create something that was different.
I like that. So, you basically found your own mentors.
Sometimes they’re not given to you. Sometimes you have to seek them out and you have to search for them. I’m always a helping hand as far as for entrepreneurs coming in and I’ve always been. I’m the guy that if you’re starting a business, I’m going to hold and sit on the phone with you for the first two hours while you brainstorm, and then you can take it. I always give the person the right direction, but I’ve been thankful enough to be able to have those conversations happen with me and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to have a clear enough mind to make sure that I listen to them and I take what is needed out of the conversation.
Let’s talk about the distillery. How did you come to acquire it?
Backstory from the distillery side, for me, it’s always about keeping it simple. A person with a million dollars can go in and they can start a distillery. Anybody can start a distillery, you can start a distillery with a quarter million dollars. You just have to have the time, you have to have the patience just to be able to do it. Creating a brand is a whole different ball game because with brand recognition that builds customer loyalty, and with the taste that’s built behind that customer loyalty and the brand, that’s where your sustainability is.
So, starting out from the wine side of it, my mom owned a building in a Lansford for Pennsylvania way up in Coal Country. It was a beautiful building but she didn’t really have anything to do with it. So, we opened it up and we started a winery in it. From there, again, as I gave you the backstory of how the wine kind of phased out, I wanted to do spirits. She didn’t particularly want to do spirits. She thought that we should have stuck with wine, so I fled out on my own. I really just started shopping for used equipment. Once I found the used equipment, I found roughly about $15,000 worth of used equipment, started doing small batches.
I just started out with novice equipment. I encourage everybody if you’re going to start a new business, whether it be a podcast or whatever...start off with what you can afford and then be able to have a proof of concept in order to be able to say, “I’m going to go to market with this” because you save yourself a lot of scrutiny, you save yourself a lot of money and you save yourself a lot of headaches.
Philadelphia has been discussing gentrification for years. How important is it for you to acquire land there and put Black-owned businesses in those communities?
That’s a very interesting conversation. Currently, with the landscape in New York, starting a distillery wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to kind of leave my home state [and] go somewhere that was close enough with friendly distilling laws that would be able to help someone in a small capacity such as myself. That’s what landed me in Pennsylvania. Starting the business here on the other side, which is an Allentown of Philadelphia, I wanted to start it here because of the fact that it’s close enough to New York, it is close to all the major arteries and within itself, it gave me like a plethora of mixed nationalities and mixed people just to be able to develop the business model, too.
My main thing was to be able to capture Philadelphia. If we were going to put a case together and look at a proof of concept, you got to go to the nearest large city. For me, when I look at New York, the nearest largest city is always Philadelphia. Anytime we did a tour stop, it was always about Philadelphia. You get Philadelphia, you get Atlantic City, you can kind of back into New Jersey. So, the proof of concept when we first launched the product, the first place we went was Philly. The reception that we got community-wise in Philadelphia was so overwhelming. It was bigger than what I thought it would actually be. That’s what made me fall in love with Philadelphia.
How does vodka process in the body? Some drink it and want to fight, it makes others cry.
Our vodka gives you the absolute reverse of wanting to fight or do any bodily harm to anyone else or any property. I think most vodkas especially when you go into the flavored aspect of it, nine times out of 10, it’s going to be the compounded sugar that is going to be added into the vodka. When you think about flavored products, 90% of the time from my experience, 70% of the product is alcohol, the other 30% is additives that they put to be able to make it taste good. On top of that, to be able to make it taste good, you get the compounded sugars. The compounded sugars take so long to break down and that’s where dehydration settles in.
So, what it does is it causes your body to really act the way you don’t want it to act. We’ve won spirits competitions — we’ve won the World Spirits Competition gold and silver.
I created Mishka honey to take the place of something that I’ve drank for years...It is sort of dark, but it works in well on the mixed side. So, I wanted to be able to replicate something that was similar in order to be able to say, “Now, you can drink this.” If you’re a scotch drinker, you can drink it straight. If you’re a Hennessy drink or a DeLeón drinker, you can actually go ahead and you can say, “I could also try this and I might just need maybe a little [of] juice on top of it to bring it down.” One thing that we pride ourselves on is no compounded sugar. As long as you balance out water with drinking any type of alcohol, you shouldn’t have a headache. If you are still having a headache the next day, that is a problem. It’s not a problem with you, it’s probably a problem in the formulation in any sense.
How has the pandemic impacted your business, if at all?
Ironically, in January, the restrictions started hitting for us here in Pennsylvania because we started to notice that there was a little bit of a decline with people going out and January is already a tough month, as far as when it comes down to the spirits business because people are still hung over from last year from celebrating and then people start to look at their bills a little bit, and actualize what they actually have to spend and what they have to go out with.
So, we already look for a decline in January...but then as February crept in, we started to look at the news and then compare it with the numbers that were coming in. We started to realize that less people were buying.
Then one night, at some point while the baby was throwing food — I’ve got a 2-year-old at home and a news broadcast had come on and it was CNN, and they had spoken about a gentleman from Pennsylvania who owned a distillery, that’s roughly about 12 miles from us and he was speaking about the presidential order to be able to convert into a hand sanitizer. I mean, once I got that, literally the next day, I had composed the hand sanitizer formula. The day after that, I locked the Lehigh Valley postal service — the USPS and had a contract with them for 30,000 hand sanitizer bottles. Then, after that, I reached back into the EMSDC, I love those folks over there, they hooked me in with Comcast. From Comcast, I was able to reach out to a couple other contacts that I had, and be able to get on West Coast Airlines, which is a military airline group and then we just started serving to FedEx freight. I just started using all of my contacts. 2020 was actually the best business year that we’ve ever had. We did roughly 10x from hand sanitizer, which allowed us to be able to not look for seed capital anymore, for the investment side of it, and be able to feed ourselves...We’ve been able to provide our own investment capital. So, 2020 was huge for us.
What do you think you’ve learned about yourself and the spirits business in the last three years?
In 2018, I almost lost the business. I went into roughly about $110,000-$115,000 in debt. My partner no longer wanted to do the business. I needed to be able to make a step forward. What I learned prior to that was I rushed into a lot of decisions. My son was born in 2018, taking it back roughly three years ago — being a baby — he taught me patience.
In the last three years, about myself, I’ve learned that I have an excellent amount of patience. That translated into the spirits industry. Right now, I’m waiting for calls back from a larger distributor in the nation. People who are partners with me on the deal that we’re awaiting that reaction from, they would like for me to press on them, to be able to give me an answer. But, something’s telling me that I need to just give them the amount of time because if I don’t press on them, I know they haven’t forgotten about me, but I know that they might be crafting something that might be better than what it is that I even could see. I think that learning patience has been really, really key.
The biggest thing has been don’t be afraid to pivot. I haven’t been.
How has your exposure to the JAY-Zs and the Method Mans in the world influenced your hustle?
I was 18 years old when I left school to go on tour. My family owned a number of barber shops for 25 years in New York. They started out and I was managing barbershops in Staten Island, which drew the Wu-Tang members to the barbershop, and Method became an automatic confidant. When I look at his hustle, one thing that he’s always told me was the hustle is where it is, you don’t want to stop. I left school to go and basically hang posters, but I was the best poster hanger that you could possibly find. I would hit a city with a team and it was easy for me to be able to land, tie up every single angle, every route that we were going to be hitting and that was my relentless hustle aspect of it. So, I’ve always been a hustler in every way. Meeting people like Method and those guys, and even just being able to, from a far, look [at] what Diddy and what JAY have added to the industry, and [that] contributed to how I govern myself. I remember the first poster that Puff had right there across from Madison Square Garden in New York when he was sitting like on a throne and it was like the King of Surat and the King of alcohol. To see him in that position — even though I know that it was a brand that partnered with him — but to have him being the prominent figurehead, it let me know that I didn’t have to be afraid to be an African American in the industry.
So, once I got into spirits, I always paid attention to what numbers those guys were doing. Obviously they fully overshadow what it is that I’m currently doing, but it always gave me the gust of why not because, I mean, if you look at JAY’s background and then you look at Puff’s background, they’re both from New York, they both started out in specific ways and they came from “broken homes” to a certain degree — they came from impoverished neighborhoods. If those guys can actually do it, who am I to sit around and say that I can’t do something?
Is there anything else you might want to mention? I think this was an excellent interview.
No, I just appreciate when anybody takes the time out to give me time. I’m always willing to give my time and I’m always willing to answer questions. Again, I’m really not the person to be the figurehead in any sense, I’m normally the guy who’s closing the deal and kind of ushering in what the plan is going to be. But, this new space that I’m in currently, I’m not complaining. I’m very thankful to be able to tell a story of success in any side of it because in the news, nine times out of 10, all the stories are marred with death, anger and then some, especially in this climate now.
It’s a blessing for someone to be able to extend the platform and be able to give me the opportunity to be able to tell my story. I thank REVOLT for the platform, but I also thank REVOLT for taking the time out.