Brad Whiting & Seth O’Malley Of Wilderton Botanical Distillates: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand
Be patient. The gap between a genius idea and a successful packaged product and a brand that resonates with consumers is longer than you think!
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Whiting and Seth O’Malley of Wilderton Botanical Distillates, the visionary small-batch non-alcoholic spirit rooted in raw botanicals and crafted by hand in the Pacific Northwest since 2021.
Co-Founder & CEO
For more than two decades, Brad has called the Pacific Northwest his
home, his playground, and the source of his inspiration for living a life
that blends family and adventure. Growing up on the East Coast, his
parents instilled an early love of the outdoors and a passion for
working with his hands. A healthy dose of wanderlust always
suggested that a life journey Westward might be in the cards.
After graduating from Dartmouth college, he set out to craft a life that
balanced a career with his outdoor passions. The journey spanned six
states across the U.S. while working in sales, marketing, and
operations roles within the sports industry until a fateful visit to Hood
River, Oregon in 1996, which he immediately called home.
A thirst for learning led Brad back to graduate school for an MBA
and an unexpected career change that would shape his future.
In 2004, he entered the drinks industry working for the oldest and
largest distilled spirits company in the Pacific Northwest, Hood River
Distillers (HRD). There, he began an ever-expanding fascination
with the art, science, and business of spirits. Overseeing procurement
and distilling operations, Brad travelled extensively, meeting with
producers around the world to learn about their products, processes
and history. During his time with HRD, he also oversaw two Pacific
Northwest craft distilleries deeply vested in the Pacific Northwest
spirits scene: Clear Creek Distillery and Big Gin.
In 2018, Brad struck out on his own to begin work on a project to
celebrate the greatest parts of the drinks industry while providing
options that supported a healthier lifestyle. Over the next two years,
that vision became Wilderton, which launches October, 2020.
Brad lives in Hood River with his wife, two daughters, and dog, Willy.
When not at his desk or on the road in their RV, you will likely find
on a bike, surfboard, or skis.
Some of Seth O’Malley’s earliest sensory memories are of pulling
corks off of spice jars to experience their generous aromas.
Eventually, he memorized their names and would quiz himself on
spice identification. As he entered his teens, he took up tea drinking
as a hobby and became the first person to try all 126 offerings of his
hometown tea shop in Bend, Oregon. Armed with a tattered menu
covered with notes and ratings, Seth created a curriculum and began
conducting regular tea classes with the public.
Seth’s infatuation with aromatic plants only grew from there, as didhis desire to understand their characteristics, functions, and historical
relationships with humans. First exploring the use of botanicals in
beer and mead, then homemade liqueurs, he developed a peculiar
expertise that he deployed when he took up the role Head Distiller at
Townshend’s Distillery at the age of 23. There, he formulated and
created an award-winning line of botanical spirits ranging from gin
to amari to herbal liqueurs, always drawing on botany and
perfumery in an effort to challenge conventions and imagine new
ways of drinking.
When approached about formulating Wilderton, Seth couldn’t say
yes quickly enough. He recognized the opportunity to use his
botanical knowledge and distillation experience to forge a new
beverage tradition, one that is unbound by narrow spirits categories
and instead rooted in flavor exploration and the freedom to have a
great distilled spirit without alcohol. Paired with Co-Founder and
CEO Brad Whiting’s extensive spirits background and resolute vision
for the product, he knew that Wilderton had the makings of a
singular and beautiful non-alcoholic spirit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in New England with a love for the outdoors and sports. Following college in New Hampshire these passions plus a heavy dose of wanderlust led me on a journey back and forth across the country chasing snow and wind, eventually landing in Hood River, OR in 1998. A stint in the sporting goods industry led to business school and a chance meeting that changed my career path into the beverage world forever. Finding a balance of challenging work, in an outdoor playground, with an awesome family has been a huge gift.
I grew up in the high desert of Central Oregon, surrounded by ponderosa pines, juniper, and sagebrush. Since moving to the temperate rainforests of Western Oregon, I’ve taken up foraging of plants and wild mushrooms. I’m humbled by this place and consistently inspired by the natural beauty of this place, both in its visual grandeur and its olfactory richness. I found work in a tea shop as a teenager and developed an obsession with teas, herbs, and spices from around the world, which felt like an extension of my infatuation with the fragrances that surround me here.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food or beverage brand you are leading?
I worked in the traditional distilled spirits industry for 14 years, and during that time I had the great fortune to travel extensively, visiting distilleries around the world and subsequentially managing two of the Pacific Northwest’s finest micro distilleries. The passion that each had for its unique process and product really inspired me.
When I left that business in 2018 I knew that I wanted to start my own brand. Initially that was going to be a whiskey brand, but a combination of market opportunity and personal desire to moderate my alcohol consumption led me to found Wilderton, to bring the same level of passion, craftsmanship and creativity to non-alcoholic spirits that I had experienced with traditional spirits.
When Brad approached me, I knew that it was possible and was energized by the undertaking: to develop a spirit with depth, complexity, and intensity without the use of alcohol. The “aha” came when I distilled the first prototype — a random smattering of flowers and spices that, while disjointed, told me we were on to something.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Whether it is funny or telling, or both…When I went looking for production partners to help develop Wilderton I spoke to many past distillery contacts who all looked at me like I had three heads when I asked if they would help develop a non-alcoholic spirit. They said they made alcohol so why talk to them? My answer was that you use the art and science of distilling to extract and concentrate flavors and aromas, and it only happens to be that your configuration also involves alcohol. The lesson, that I am still learning today, is that the traditional spirits world can have a very narrow view of the drinks industry. This crosses from manufacturers to distributors to retailers. This view is just now beginning to break down as the category momentum grows and consumers are demanding these products. So good reminder to take off your blinders, keep an eye on parallel industries, and never forget that the customer need will prevail.
It was devastating then, but funny in retrospect. We developed a product over months (and dozens of iterations) based around a single beautiful botanical ingredient. Labels, marketing materials, and liquid were ready to go. The evening after the first production-scaled batch came off the still, I encountered an obscure piece of regulatory fine print saying the ingredient had only been approved for alcoholic beverages, sending us back to the drawing board when we thought we were 95% ready to bring the product to market. It’s a cautionary tale that harrows me to this day!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Understand the various routes to market and focus on one or two. You can’t do them all well from the start, and likely there are embedded reasons based on your product proposition/life cycle/funding constraints that some will be better than others out of the gate. With that said, don’t be afraid to shift channel priorities based on early results.
Don’t rush the launch timeline! A lot of products come to market with technical issues that I know the founders didn’t anticipate. It’s important to recognize your strengths and work with specialists when you don’t know something. The process takes time and patience, especially if you’re working in a new category.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
That really depends on whether they have direct experience in the space. If they do, then sense check your idea amongst your industry peers. If you do not, get some basic help from a local university or trade group to start understanding what resources it will take to get the product developed, produced and to market.
If you can make prototypes, start there. Make dozens of iterations until you have something you sort of like; now your idea is tangible, not just speculative. Then, find a mentor in the category who can help you refine your idea and navigate the challenges of scaling and commercialization. Too often, people go it alone and miss out on all of the learnings of their peers. Most of the most critical things I’ve learned in my distilling career (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are nowhere to be found in books or online. There’s no substitute for the knowledge of someone who’s been there.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
This is a huge hurdle, and one I faced as well. Sometimes necessity is the bump required. Quitting or losing a comfortable job is a jolt that can help reassess priorities and goals.
If you’re anything like me, you’re really good at talking yourself out of making big risky decisions. Talk to other entrepreneurs and you’ll realize most of them went through a similar emotional process and are glad they pushed through it. The timing may never feel exactly right, but that doesn’t mean you’re not onto something.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I have no direct experience here, so cannot comment fully. But I would say it is likely a balance. While consultants can bring experience and connections, it is important to learn and fail or your own as well. Don’t be insulated from any of the details in the early days or this will come back to bite you.
Be intentional about the balance between a DIY approach and working with a consultant. If you’re inexperienced and too cavalier, you’ll end up with a product that doesn’t match your original vision. Likewise, if you outsource too much of the creative or ideation work to a consultant, it may end up generic or lacking in personality.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
This is purely situational and there is no one universal answer. The grass can always look greener on the other side of the fence. I do think a lot depends on your industry and timeline you are willing to live through to see your vision come to life. There are also a lot of other funding mechanisms besides self-funded and venture to explore.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
All these needs at the end of the day require great relationships. Contracts are pieces of paper that rarely get pulled out of the file cabinet and when they do it’s too late. Things will go wrong sooner or later in every business relationship, and it is almost always personal history that can pull you through. Meet with partners in person, learn about their families.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Great packaging — Great packaging sells your first bottle. Whether it is to a retailer/wholesaler or an end consumer you must stand out on the shelf.
- Great liquid — Great liquid sells every successive bottle.
- Effectively communicating what consumer need/problem your product is solving and how your product can become an integral part of their lives
- Know your costs and channel pricing structure. You can’t have a successful brand if you can’t make the numbers work. Many start-ups in the beverage space are putting all of their eggs into a DTC channel strategy with the hopes of capturing the highest margin possible. When they inevitably need to expand into wholesale and retail channels, they often have not built those two significant margin considerations into their modeling.
- Patience and self-confidence. Everything takes longer than you plan or want. R&D, Production, shipping, and often growth of sales. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” If today was a tough day, it’s OK. It’s usually not your fault, but even when it is, that’s OK.
- Love the category you’re working in. Not only will your passion and enthusiasm be evident in the product itself, but it will sustain you through the inevitable challenges of starting to launch a brand.
- Differentiate yourself. The beverage market is inundated with new brands and products; make sure yours answers the consumer question of, why should I choose this and not that?
- Familiarize yourself with all the technical and regulatory matters well in advance of launch. Digging into the tedium is crucial to success, but usually not top-of-mind for entrepreneurs with exciting product ideas.
- Be clear about how to use the product: presenting the right serves and occasions will build brand equity and drive depletions.
- Be patient. The gap between a genius idea and a successful packaged product and a brand that resonates with consumers is longer than you think!
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Just because you love it, doesn’t mean other people will. It needs to solve a consumer problem in an elegant and compelling way for a large number of people. Find those people. Engage with those people. Champion those people as they discover and love your product! They will be your best salespeople.
Similar to what Brad said, be receptive to consumer feedback and understand why your product resonates with people. The way that people relate to and use your product will probably differ from your original expectations. Be open to all types of enthusiasm and build on it wherever you see it.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place? You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I am proud to be making products that can support healthy choices and good times for everyone. Consuming alcohol is a choice for most people, but not an option for others. However, everyone deserves the flavors and experience of an amazing cocktail. Cheers!
For me, the low- and no-alcohol movement is about inclusivity. Everyone deserves a seat at the bar, and everyone at the bar deserves a great drink. When we work to meet the desires of people who have been left out or unseen, we are taking a step, however small it may feel, toward a better, more hospitable society.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.