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New brandy taps into old story

Brand aims to stir memories of 1890s Bentonville distillery by John Magsam | January 19, 2020 at 1:44 a.m.
Kyle Alexander (left) and Matt Poe (right), owners of Bentonville-based RG Macon & Carson Apple Brandy, show pressroom restaurant bartender Eddie Arechiga an early 1900s map of Bentonville on Wednesday at the business. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

A new brandy brand calling Northwest Arkansas home is linking its identity to a day when the area was one of the nation's top apple producers and when distilleries were at the heart of a regional business boom.

Matt Poe and Kyle Alexander are the owners of Bentonville-based RG Macon & Carson Apple Brandy, which is distilled in nearby Huntsville. The partners say they wanted to revive the old brand with its strong links to the region's past.

Historically, the Macon and Carson Brandy Distillery began in Bentonville in the early 1890s and at one time was the largest fruit distilling operation west of the Mississippi River -- at its peak it produced more than 215,000 gallons of fruit spirits annually, Alexander said. In 1914, the distillery closed and was sold to a company that made vinegar and apple cider. A year later, the Arkansas General Assembly passed the Newberry Act, effectively banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the state, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website.

Today, RG Macon & Carson use locally sourced apples from orchards in north-central Arkansas and south-central Missouri. The company works directly with Falling Rock Distillery in Huntsville, one of a handful of the state's distilleries, to produce the apple brandy, and the product is aged in white oak casks made by Gibbs Brothers Cooperage in Hot Springs.

The pair stumbled on the rich history of the region as it applies to apples and brandy back in 2014 after a local resident gave them an impromptu history lesson. In 2015, they kicked the idea around and eventually decided it had to be used to brand and market a high-end craft distilled spirit for today's marketplace.

"The history of the area started the whole idea," Alexander said.

After extensive product development, Macon & Carson's pilot release of 400 bottles of apple brandy began in October and was restricted to Northwest Arkansas. Its next run will begin in March, with a 1,200-bottle release of the apple brandy, and the company plans for annual expansion going forward. RG Macon & Carson also offers a fig vodka.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, in 2018 spirit sales and volumes were up for a ninth-straight year. Sales were up $1.3 billion to $27.5 billion, with volume up 2.2%. For the year spirits also gained market share over beer and made up 37.4% of the beverage alcohol market.

In 2018, the brandy/cognac market saw revenue of $2.7 billion, up from $2.3 billion in 2017. Since 2002, sales in the segment were up 53% with sales in the super premium category up 478%, according to the council.

The American Craft Spirits Association reports in 2017 volume of craft spirits were 7.2 million cases, up nearly 24% from 5.8 million the year earlier. A case is made up 12, 750-milliliter bottles or a total of 9 liters of spirits. The association notes in 2018 that there were 1,835 active craft distillers, up 15% from 1,589 in 2017. The association classifies craft distillers as, among other things, producing 750,000 gallons a year or less, marketing its products as craft and not openly controlled by a large supplier.

RG Macon & Carson Apple Brandy is available in select bars and restaurants in the Bentonville area, and can be found in certain retail outlets in Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and Pea Ridge. A 750-milliliter bottle retails in the $40 to $50 range.

Tom Vytlacil who owns No. 1 Liquor in Bentonville and sits on the board of the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas said he was intrigued when Poe, a friend and former employee, approached him with the idea for the brandy. Vytlacil recommended a distributor and sells RG Macon & Carson apple brandy in his store.

He called the apple brandy a boutique product with a unique, delicate profile that's more similar to bourbon than a typical brandy. Vytlacil said the branding and marketing of the product, with its association with the area's history, along with its production by local makers with regionally sourced natural ingredients seem to be a big part of the product's success.

"It makes it easy to sell," Vytlacil said.

Martin Thoma, a principal at Little Rock-based Thoma Thoma, a brand leadership firm, and author of Branding Like the Big Boys, called branding the connective tissue between a product and its users. He said branding is about story, and the owners of RG Macon & Carson are clever to establish a brand that is not only attached to Northwest Arkansas' history, but to a time of past glory.

"We know in branding that story is vital," Thoma said in a phone interview. "This story ties the brand to a regional product but it's a story that would resonate nationally as well."

He said for a high-end product like RG Macon & Carson's apple brandy to appeal to customers it clearly had to taste great and be mixable, but beyond that, it has to resonate with buyers, and playing on a sense of history and provenance is a good way to do that.

"It has a lot of nuance and interest -- we're going to bring back something traditional to this area," Thoma said.

The partners said they take pride in their product and its connection to the region's legacy of entrepreneurship -- big trucking, to big chicken and big-box retail.

"But first, there was big brandy," Alexander said.

Business on 01/19/2020

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