I've pointed out that this will be a long interview indeed! Therefore, I’ve left a few days in between so that you could have enough time to process all the information, which is a lot! Philippe, I want to echo my appreciation because you haven't kept anything to yourself!
As previously mentioned, this is indeed my type of interview (if you did not had the chance to see the first part, it’s here). I just love long conversations with people that are way smarter than me. (this is one of the reasons in the first place why I’ve started a podcast) In times like this, you acknowledge, that you don’t know everything and that there is still a lot to be learned on this earth. This being said, I will leave you with the second part of the interview! Enjoy!
6. In order to make brazilian cocktails, you need to have good quality cachaça and here Novo Fogo comes into perspective. We know (most of us) about Dragoş and his passion regarding this spirit. We've had an interview with him a while ago. How about you? How did you guys met and how did you start working with this brand?
So, before working with Novo Fogo and working independently, as I have been doing for the last 3 years, I worked 10 years for Leblon Cachaça. Leblon was the first craft/Alembic Cachaça that focused on export markets and worked to build the category and the brand outside Brazil. I started with them in 2007 as ambassador/sales in Paris and ended up as their Brand & Export manager for Europe and Asia-Pacific.
I was looking after almost 30 countries from Europe to New Zealand. It was great times. In 2015-2016, Bacardi bought Leblon, the brand and the distillery we had in Minas Gerais. I stayed on until early 2017, but I felt it was time for a change and was already planning to go working on my own.
Knowing that, Steve Luttmann, Leblon founder, introduced me to Dragos back then. Dragos was looking to launch Novo Fogo in Europe and when Steve heard that, told him: ‘’listen, Philippe is leaving Leblon and he might be able to help you guys with Novo Fogo in Europe’’ ..... that is how we got connected 😊
7. In your opinion, what does NF different that other spirit brand that are out there? (not necessarly cachaça)
Compared to other Cachaça, what I really like about Novo Fogo is the focus on the aged expressions. Showcasing different styles of aging, different woods and so on. That is quite different from most Cachaça brands. Most of them focus on the Caipirinha, thus the unaged style only.
What I appreciate the most at Novo Fogo is their honesty and openness on what we do and how we do it. Of course, we are not the only ones, but there are not that many either. I also value a lot the fact that we manage the entire production, from the cane fields to the bottling. We are not only brand owners. First of all, we are farmers, and by doing it the right way, organic farmers. Following that, we are also distillers, blenders, sales persons, etc. I really appreciate this approach. It shows commitment, engagement to a long-term project. It is not simply an entrepreneur looking to jump on the next trend, trying to create a cool brand and a bottle that will be filled with liquid from a ‘’craft’’ distillery somewhere.
8. We see that besides cachaça, at Novo Fogo, you make canned caipirinhas. How did that happend and how was the process in creating these beverages?
The idea was to create a product to bring the average consumer to the category. Something easy to try, that tastes good and is consistent in a large quantity. Cachaça is still a very niche category and even if Caipirinha has some popularity, a lot of consumers might be afraid to try to make one. The muddling and all that. So, with the cans we’ve manage to introduce Caipirinhas and Cachaça to a lot of new consumers, that probably would never had tried our regular products otherwise.
The product is only available in the USA so far. Is a twist on the regular caipirinha, since it’s a fizzy RTD (ready to drink). We call it Sparkling Caipirinhas, it comes in 3 flavours: the classic lime caipirinha, but also Mango and Passion Fruit.
It is produced in Washington state, by a partner company, near Seattle, where the Novo Fogo HQ is based. For this, we bring some of our Silver Cachaça in bulk from our distillery in Morretes, Brazil, add natural fruit juices, a bit of sugar and carbonation to get the fizziness. It comes in 200 ml cans and have 8,2% ABV (Mango 8,5%) and its low calories: 128 and low carbs: 10 gr.
Imagine in big events, like music festivals, sports arenas, etc. Where volumes are HUGE, and service needs to be extremely fast. It can be a great alternative to beer!
9. NF it’s been in Romania starting with last year when the fine folks from Wayout/Drinkbox got it into their portfolio. That was when we first met and you had that nice presentation in Braşov. How was Romania for you?
Yes, that was exactly one year ago. I recently saw the reminders on my Facebook. It was actually my first time in Romania and lucky I managed to arrive the Friday before (the presentation was schedule for a Monday) and my wife joined me for the weekend. We had two days exploring Bucharest and did that touristy one-day trip to Peles and Bran Castle + Brasov.... it was a lot of rush, but great!! And on a personal note, during that weekend, my wife and I started suspecting we had a baby on the way, haha. By the way, we had the official confirmation the following weekend, when we were back home together. And he was born on Jan 11th 2020 😊
For Novo Fogo, Romania is a special place I must say. The founder and CEO, Dragoş Axinte is Romanian and grew up there. He moved with his family to USA when he was 18 years old, just after the iron curtain felt. So, we always chased an opportunity to launch the brand in Romania and we found the right partner with the guys from Drinkbox / Way Out and we started with that nice presentation at Aftăr Stube in Braşov that you helped us to organize it. MANY THANKS for that my friend (and for all the tips on where to go while in Bucharest 😉 )
On a more general view, I think the cocktail culture in Romania is starting. But I saw some very good places. Some extremely passionate professionals working at bars and restaurants! Romania being in Europe, closer to a lot of great cities, I think your cocktail culture will develop quite fast!
10. What are your future plans regarding NF in Romania and Europe as well?
With this COVID crisis we had to adapt. Recently we have been working to create a lot of content about Novo Fogo and Cachaça in general. Cachaça is an unknown category, so we still need to do a lot of education. And these last months, education is being pushed in online formats. So, we are helping bartenders doing cocktail videos, there are some virtual cocktail competitions we are supporting, we are also helping spirit writers with articles about Cachaca and Novo Fogo. We are doing virtual masterclasses and distillery tours to our distributors team and to bartenders. We organise this with our local distributors.
We created this Brazilian Zen sessions, which are Meditation and Yoga classes online, with our COO, Gabi Dalnekoff, who also happen to be a Power Yoga Certified Teacher. It is every Tuesday at 18h (CET) and Thursdays at 22h (CET), on Zoom and anyone can join. No worries if you are out of shape, you do what you can and want and nobody will watch or judge you. It is a nice touch, that fits well with the brand’s DNA and help our industry friends that very often have an unbalanced lifestyle, working till late hours, too much drink and smoking, etc. We are also helping shops and bars that are working somehow, talking about them on social media and pushing with some online ads. Promoting Novo Fogo, via their ongoing services, it is a win-win situation.
The future depends on the outcome of this crisis. Probably we will focus more on online activities for the time being. Even though, I am dying to get back on the road and visit markets. That is one of the main ideas for Romania. Trying to create some awareness around Cachaça through online material; from cocktail recipes to more insightful educational topics, like the Cachaça history, about Brazil, and of course the technical aspects: cane harvest, fermentation, distillation, and ageing. It is important that bartenders understand its similarities and differences to other kinds of sugar cane spirits. When one understands better what Cachaça is, they feel more comfortable to work with, and therefore push the boundaries.
11. What other brands do you have in your portfolio and are there any chances to see them soon in Romania?
I also work with the Distillery Merlet & Fils from the Cognac region in France, for their Cognac and Liqueurs range. They have been Cognac distillers since 1850, but mostly distilling to the big Cognac houses. Only in 2010, they launched their own Cognac brand, with the Merlet Brothers Blend. A beautiful blend of eau-de-vies from 4 to 10 years old, mostly from the fin bois area, where Merlet has their own vineyards. Since then, they develop a full range of Cognacs with their VS, VSOP, Brothers Blend, XO and some special limited releases like Sélection St. Sauvant and Esprit de Guy.
We also have an unaged Grape Eau de vie, that we can’t call it Cognac, it’s actually a blend of 75% eau de vie from Cognac and 25% eau de vie from Armagnac, we call it ‚ Eau de Vigne and we also have Pineau de Charentes, a typical aperitif from the Cognac region.
But Merlet as a brand is mostly known for their liqueurs and crème de fruits, mostly the Crème de Cassis de Saintonge, a specific Cassis appellation from the region. But not only, there are Raspberry liqueur, Peach, Pear, Strawberry, Blackberry, Cantaloupe Melon. We also have a beautiful Triple Sec, we call Trois Citrus, an Apricot and Cherry brandies, as well as a range of Cognac based liqueurs that we call C2, with three available flavours: Coffee, Cassis and Citron (Lemon). The beauty here is that all those liqueurs are basically the maceration of natural fruits in alcohol and sugar. No artificial flavouring, like a lot of mainstream brands does.
To complete my portfolio, I also work with SOTO Sake, which is a quite different product from spirits like Cachaça and Cognacs. It is more like the wine category. So, the approach to find distributors and promote it, is quite different. In Europe, we launched SOTO, early 2019 with its original Junmai Daiginjo expression. Where all the alcohol comes from the rice fermentation, no neutral alcohol added (Junmai = Pure Rice) and the rice has a polish rate of at least 50% of its original size (Daiginjo). It has been interesting, I have been learning a lot about Sake, I even took the WSET Sake Level 1 earlier this year. SOTO was originally launched in USA in 2015. There they recently launched a Junmai expression as well, which has a lower price point and can work very well for cocktail bars. We will bring that Europe at some point as well.
What I love about SOTO is that while the liquid is a traditional sake, brewery in the Niigata region in Japan, the packaging and marketing were designed for consumers anywhere in the world. It makes sake more approachable to an international audience. It breaks that barrier, that sometimes we see with those very traditional bottles, all written in Japanese and you need a specialist to understand what it is. Which I guess, keeps a lot of people away from the category. With SOTO the approach is different, so those keen in learning more about Sake feels encourage to take the first steps (or sips 😉 ).
Besides MERLET and SOTO, I also have good contacts with other producers and brands, but it is not officially on my portfolio. Is more about helping friends out.
And to answer your 2nd question, Merlet and Soto are not available in Romania yet. Is working in progress. 😊
12. We are at the end now. Do you have any message that you would like to send to the Romanian bartending community?
Well, what can I say? Stay safe, stay strong!! It is not easy times and I hope that sooner than we all think you will have your bars full again, with plenty of thirsty customers.
Also, hopefully you managed to get some support from government, that your jobs are safe. That you are taking this opportunity to study and learning all those things that we always complain we do not have time to do it. And if Novo Fogo can help further, if you have any suggestions, please let us know. We will hear and consider all realistic ways that a small business like ours can help.
And any questions or doubts about Novo Fogo, Cachaça in general, and broadly about Brazil, even some tourist tips, I can help 😉. Let me know, you can easily find me on Facebook, Instagram or just send me an email. (email@example.com)
All the best for this after-Covid!!
Thank you Philippe! Best regards to you and your newly-formed family! Congratulations! 😀