A Chat with Joel Fraser of Seven Tails Brandy
We recently sat down with our friend Joel Fraser, owner of Seven Tails Brandy, to talk humble beginnings, the story behind Seven Tails, and the unique challenges for the hospitality industry posed by COVID-19.
Let’s get down to it. So, first up would you like to introduce yourself for those that maybe don’t know you?
Happily. I’m Joel Fraser and I’m the co-owner of Seven Tails Brandy, that’s what I’m currently up to. Prior to that I owned and operated a couple of bars in Singapore, which I did for eight or so years. I ran one called The Cufflink Club, which was a really high volume, very successful bar. It was a good exit when we sold that business. Then another one called Vasco which was a Latin-American cocktail basement sort of thing, just tequila, cachaca, pisco. No gin, no vodka. We ended up selling that as well after three years of operating. I took that money and flew back to the UK, – because I’m English – moved to London, and started Seven Tails with my business partner.
Can you tell us a bit more about before that? What drew you to the drinks industry initially? Was there anything in particular?
It’s all a bit unromantic, really. I mean, I’ve been in the drinks business since I was 16. Like a lot of people, I started out collecting glasses in the local pub. Not a glamorous job – I think I was on £3.10 an hour or something – it really was a minimum wage job. Then, at 18, I graduated to the bar and I was pouring pints in a pub. It was a really old school pub complete with optics for a gin and tonic – Gordons, the big bottles upside down with the labels, you know? And one night I served this gentleman in the pub, gave him a little bit of cheek, a little bit of hospitality, and he said to me; “you’re quite lippy, you’ve got a little bit of energy.” Eventually, he asked me whether I wanted to come and interview for a role at a cocktail bar in Alderley Edge.
So, Alderley Edge is this rich suburb of Cheshire. It’s where the Beckhams lived at the time, for example. It was mad because I’d gone from this pub next to a train station to the sort of glitzy glamour of Alderley Edge. Now, I quickly realised everyone in Alderley Edge had two things; everyone’s got an arsehole and everyone’s got a Bentley. [laughs] And I mean that. It was like, Bentley, Bentley, Bentley. The bad cars were Porsches! You get the idea, it was full of money. So, there I was, studying an art foundation course at college, and I was sort of enamoured with this idea of wealth. I was getting so much money in tips from the Alderly Edge crowd that I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to drop out of university and I’m going to be a millionaire being a bartender.’ And that was where the story started really.
Let’s bridge this gap, and set out to make the world’s most aspirational brandy. We’ll proudly be a brandy. We’ll wear that badge with pride.
We do love a good rags-to-riches tale. Just to segue, could you tell us a bit about the story behind your brand, Seven Tails? What was it that you were trying to get across and achieve with it?
Right so my business partner, like I mentioned, is a guy called Arnaud de Trabuc, a master blender with a glittering CV who set up a rum brand called Banks, which he sold to Bacardi in 2015. He’d been a friend of mine for about a decade; I met him in Singapore, I served him in Singapore, and we remained close after that. He was kind of a mentor, if you like. So, once I sold The Cufflink Club I had a bit of time and a bit of money and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to start a Banks. I’m going to start a rum.’ I had lived in Asia for a long time, where there was a Filipino rum doing very well, and I also remembered that in Indonesia they make rum, so all that played into the idea.
Weren’t we meant to be talking about a brandy here?
Well, soon afterwards I flew to Geneva to meet Arnaud, we sat in Arnaud’s lake house smoking cigars and I said, “I’m going to do a rum, can you help me?” and Arnaud said, “Sure, I’d love to help you but I’m actually going to look into getting another brand started. It won’t be a rum, though. I’m looking at a brandy.” At this point I did that thing where I sort of lied, “no actually forget rum, I’m not actually that interested in rum!” [laughs] But, in a way, that was partly because I was open to different options – I thought, ‘I could always have my own brandy as well’. So, I said to Arnaud; “well, talk to me, talk to me about brandy,” and off he went. He told me about an idea he had about plugging the gap between what we’d call ‘unsophisticated’ brandies, – you know, the brandies that your grandmother puts on her Christmas pud – and then entry-level cognacs like some of those on the shelves here [in our liquor store]. Anyway, Arnaud said; “Well let’s bridge this gap, and set out to make the world’s most aspirational brandy. We’ll proudly be a brandy. We’ll wear that badge with pride and bring to the brandy category something that people can support and sort of feel good about when they drink.” And so, we set out to embark on that journey.
Quite the origin story! So tell us a little bit more about the actual process of getting that liquid into those bottles.
Well, at the time there was no liquid, there was no brand name or story or anything like that. We shook hands right there and then at his home and then went into business. And moving forward, as I said, the idea was to bridge this gap between unsophisticated brandies and entry-level VS cognac. We knew it had to be French; Arnaud was French, and as we all know French is synonymous with luxury and they make some fantastic Eaux de vie. So, we sat down together and said, “okay, we need something with body but vibrancy, something that’s mixable, shareable, drinkable, spillable even, and at a great price point” We went to France countless times with new liquids to taste each time, based on our objectives. Now; you can taste them in the lab, you can go to our facility outside of Orly, just south of Paris and you can taste the brandy with the lab coat on, plastic goggles and stuff, however, we chose to taste them in a Parisian restaurant over a bottle of Rosé (or two) equipped with a cigar. We’d smoke and drink and then we’d taste the brandies – because that’s how people really drink, isn’t it?
Let’s be really disruptive. And if we’re going to do it let’s really do it – let’s blend cognac and Armagnac and French brandy.
So, we did that, and we said to ourselves after maybe 60 variations; “It’s all drinkable stuff, don’t get me wrong, you can drink it all day long, but there’s nothing really there that’s getting us excited, nothing for us to hang our hats (and reputations) on.” Arnaud made the point; “Well that’s why there’s no brandy that’s sold for more than €15 a bottle and Cognac starts at €40. Why don’t we add some Armagnac? Armagnac is a single distilled product from a period in time indicative of its terroir, it will add structure to our product.” And I said, “Okay, give it a good backbone and then these younger Eau de vies can play off it. Perfect, let’s try it.”
A couple of weeks later we go back to Paris. Our new samples were ready and it was just so much better. Really like, “okay, this is what we’re talking about—we’re still talking about that price point between entry-level cognac and brandy, but this really is something.” And then I had an idea. I said, “well listen, actually if we’re going to blend Armagnac with brandy, it gets a bit muddy because it’s like blending champagne with some sparkling white wine from a different region.” I said, “I really think the proposition then needs to be that we go all in—we’ve got to bring in some cognac as well. Let’s be really disruptive. And if we’re going to do it let’s really do it – let’s blend cognac and Armagnac and French brandy. It’s never been done before, let’s go out after that.” After many further iterations, now based on cognac, Armagnac and French brandy we created Seven Tails XO, a product bigger than the sum of its parts, and we said to each other, “we’ve cracked it, this is it, this is it. We’re signing off on this. This is the stuff for us to bring to market.”
Proof that practice makes perfect. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – what’s in the bottle? What’s the blend? What serves would you say it works best with?
Sure – what we have in that bottle is some 30-year-old Armagnac from 1988, some 20-year-old Armagnac from 1998, some 4-year-old Armagnac as well. We also have some 8 and 10-year-old cognac – really excellent cognac. And we have some younger Eau de vies ranging from 3 to 5 years. And those are entry-level brandies, which you need to make it playful, to make it enjoyable. Seven Tails is not necessarily to be revered. Listen, I drink it neat because I’m lazy and I own the brand. But it’s made to be mixed, it’s made to put with Coca-Cola, put it with ginger ale, mix it in your cocktails. It’s affordable and it’s fantastic value for money. And currently, we’ve launched in the UK before COVID to a great fan fair. It’s in the cocktail list at award-winning bars – Artesian, The Savoy, Soho House, London Cocktail Club, Discount Suit Company, The Sun Tavern, proudly now at TT Liquor after today. So really, really pleased with it. And if you can see it at the top, top places we can just let it trickle down from there. I really feel like we’ve done a great job with that.
My job as co-founder and co-owner naturally had to become a lot more varied, which is why I am here today putting up the window display!
It’s in all the top places because the guys that run those places understand that it’s a no-brainer, there really is no other option. You either pour entry-level cognac; two-year-old cognac, £40 a bottle or whatever it is. Or you pour Seven Tails XO: A better product, an older product and a more interesting product. We finished this in port casks because in cognac they can’t innovate – tradition and terroir dictate that they have to use new French oak. So, we thought let’s finish the whole thing in port casks because we can and they can’t. It’s about being disruptive and innovative, it’s about bringing to the category a talking point. No one’s done anything in the cognac or brandy category for many years.
Well, I guess this brings up to speed. Now, unfortunately, we must turn to current events. What was your experience, particularly as an independent business owner, tackling this huge challenge that was the coronavirus? The way it’s hit the hospitality industry has obviously been unprecedented. And we’d just like to know how you as an individual have dealt with it, and maybe how you’re seeing others deal with it as well?
Obviously quite a complicated question, but there’s only one short answer from my perspective, which is: it’s been fundamentally catastrophic. All that energy that you roll into a launch and all that goodwill that you garner from your network, going to places like The Savoy or Artesian, asking them for support. All that hard work that goes into them saying ‘let’s go for it’, for them just to close shop is very difficult for all concerned. The volume just dropped. But as a business owner, there’s more to it than just selling. So, my job as co-founder and co-owner naturally had to become a lot more varied, which is why I am here today putting up the window display! [laughs] I also work on legal licensing or trademarking or opening up new markets for distribution. There’s just so much to do in a day. So you just go, ‘okay, well, sales are sort of paused. So be it.’ It makes you look at other things you can do, like new SKUs, new labelling, or special editions. All that stuff you can do irrespective of COVID. So yes, our sales would have basically stopped because we only sold in the on-trade in London. And the on-trade in London just stopped. Paused. So we sold a handful of bottles through some good friends – [The Umbrella Project’s] Andy Kerr, for example, did me some great favours. He sold three or four cases over lockdown. But three or four cases isn’t going to keep me in business.
What I can give you is training. I can bring you enthusiasm. I’m a brand owner. I live in London. So I’ll come in and keep it alive.
So, Arnaud and I, we just innovated. We looked at new SKUs. We’re working on a spiced version of Seven Tails; a spiced brandy to rival the spiced rum category. We put some liquid in a bourbon cask, which has now been there for seven months and is tasting really, really good. We’ve also launched now in the US, September 1st, so just a calendar month ago, and we’re already in seven states; California, Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois, New York, New Jersey—the ones you’d expect—Texas. So, Seven Tails is rocking there now. Singapore’s going really well. And my focus – like many others – was also trying to pivot onto off-trade, which meant getting that TT Liquor relationship working. Getting onto Amazon. Getting into Selfridges. Getting into Jerry’s in Soho. And it was actually quite tough because of course everyone wanted to pivot into off-trade, so all of a sudden it was like, ‘well, I’ve got about a hundred things to taste so sit tight and I’ll get to you.” So, it was definitely challenging, but I’m a solutions man. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I’m not into sitting at home thinking, “Oh, fuck. What will we do now?” It’s like, okay, pause that and work it out. And luckily for us, since the full lockdown was lifted on the 4th of July, we’re back into business selling stock and getting onto cocktail lists. The Artesian recently brought out a Brandy Alexander with Seven Tails. Erik Lorencz at Kwānt. And we’re not doing it with any fees. We’re not paying anyone. Honestly, we can’t afford to! [laughs] It’s like, go speak to Diageo about that. What I can give you is training. I can bring you enthusiasm. I’m a brand owner. I live in London. So I’ll come in and keep it alive. I’m not just some guy paying four grand and walking away. But yeah, it’s not easy and we’ll just have to see what the future holds. It’s half terrifying and half exciting, honestly.
So I guess, moving onto to talking about hopefully brighter futures, have you got any exciting plans at all in the pipeline? I mean, as far as you can plan anything in these strange times.
Well, I suppose launching in the USA was huge for us. We’re with Southern Glazers, which is the biggest distribution company in the states. They don’t normally play with the small guys because they don’t need to. They’re doing 40 billion and putting it to Diageo and Bacardi. But, because of Arnaud’s relationship with them through Seven Tails, we’re in a prime position with those guys, so that’s really exciting for us. We’ve got really good partners out there, and there’s now a hundred sales staff over the seven states working for Seven Tails which is great. And then I think the window here at TT Liquor’s really cool. Steven’s given us that for the month of October and, depending on what happens next, when we get into November, we’re really pleased to have something up there so we can take photographs and push people in here to sell. I think that’s exciting. Stock is on its way to China, so we’ll also be in China in late October. And that, again, it’s China-wide – it’s not just Shanghai or Beijing, it’s Shenzhen, it’s all your favourites, so that’s really cool.
That’s very exciting indeed. So, here’s the part of the interview where we ask you what your favourite serve is. And you can definitely include Seven Tails in this.
Well, in that case, I’ll do a Seven Tails drink because, of course, it’s a young brand. It’s growing so there’s no point in not promoting ours. I honestly think Seven Tails is at home with soda – a Seven Tails and soda is a great combination. Really simple. I wouldn’t say it’s healthy, but it’s healthier than a gin and tonic. And anyone can make it their own – I’ve seen people make it with slices of lemon, slices of orange, that kind of thing. I actually just go with no garnish, just 50mls of Seven Tails in the soda. Easy.
What about the shelves? What bottles catches your eye? No Seven Tails allowed here, I’m afraid.
Well, being a bartender and a bar owner, there’s only one thing I don’t really enjoy and that’s sherry. I actually really appreciate everything else for its moment. I’ve been to Peru and pisco sours are the best drinks on the planet while you’re there. I’ve been on Copacabana Beach drinking caipirinhas. All of a sudden you think, ‘wow! [laughs] these are the best things on the planet.’ But if you said to me, “Joel, take a bottle tonight to drink,” I’d probably go with a bourbon. I’m in the mood for a bourbon. Blanton’s. I’d go for that. Yeah. I really do enjoy bourbon actually. That’s one of the reasons we’re finishing the Seven Tails in this bourbon barrel because Arnaud and I both have quite a bit of bourbon in the same place. So, a good friend and a bottle of Blanton’s just going through a bottle in an evening. Yeah. Good night.