Much as ESPN revolutionized the TV sports-watching experience in the 1980s and Food Network turned the United States into a culinary-obsessed nation in the ‘90s, the face of a one-of-a-kind streaming entertainment network devoted to drinking spirits anticipates the new endeavor will change the way we buy and understand alcoholic beverages for generations to come. Fred Minnick, one of the country’s best-known liquor writers, expects that once Spirits Network launches any day now, it will take a “sledgehammer to the old system and will reveal just how many drinks enthusiasts there are in this world.”
Spirits Network will run as on-demand video programming for paid subscribers with content ranging from original historical documentaries and reviews and how-to’s — presented by hosts like Minnick — to rebroadcasted interviews with celebrities dishing on their favorite drinks. Although it’ll be unique for the subject of spirits (Scottish craft brewery BrewDog recently launched a beer network), that’s not what makes the concept so singular. For the first time, a network will fully integrate instant online shopping opportunities into original shows by making it possible to buy what you’re seeing as you’re seeing it. This differs from home shopping channels in that Spirits Network produces its own edutainment rather than simply showcasing products.
“Imagine seeing somebody build an awesome cocktail, you’re craving it as you watch it and you can buy all the ingredients right then and there vs. writing it down, going to the store, etc. It’s entertainment with convenience,” emails Minnick, who, along with acclaimed Manhattan bar owner Flavien Desoblin, will curate the offerings available for sale based on a viewer’s detailed online profile and liquor laws in her state and eventually country.
The idea emerged from the minds of father-and-son team Mike and Nick Buzzell. Buzzell Sr. developed the technology after a 30-year career in the software field at companies like Lockheed Martin. The younger Buzzell worked at NBC and HULU before creating Spirits Network’s parent company, NBTV. Investors include Mark Bezos, brother to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and John Esposito, chairman of WhistlePig Whiskey, former CEO of High West Distillery, Bacardi North America and Moet Hennessy USA, and former president of Stoli Group USA.
“We were surprised at the analog nature of how the spirits industry markets,” says Nick Buzzell. “It’s very, very event driven, with one-to-one sales. You could set up a tasting but (your customers) couldn’t buy (your product) in many places. I do think this type of technology can help solve that.”
Minnick hopes the company’s own challenges can educate the public about the innards of alcohol policy. He and Buzzell say they’ve had trouble convincing potential subscribers and others that their model doesn’t violate the federal government’s Prohibition-era three-tier system that prevents almost everyone but producers and retailers from selling alcohol to consumers. In reality, network employees don’t buy, store or distribute the items their customers order. In states that allow direct residential shipping of alcohol (meaning no “control states,” where the government owns the spirits trade), orders get directed to a buyer’s local package store then delivered directly through services like Minibar that specialize in handling remote liquor transactions.
The network is starting sales on Apple devices in 50 cities across 15 non-control states, expanding to Android phones in the fall and Europe in the first quarter of next year. Members, as they’re called, can choose between three monthly subscription levels that range from $9.99 to $149, with the top two tiers receiving an assortment of full bottles, glasses, bar tools and members-only events every month.
Buzzell says thanks to discounted bulk-ordering, some of the products retail for more than their members will pay for them. Otherwise, prices match those in a buyer’s local stores, and delivery is free. He says subscriptions comprise the bulk of revenues, followed by payments for brand integration. Least is a per-transaction seller fee.
Minnick, a longtime journalist and author who hosts a show called “Frontier Films” that pairs spirits to movies in addition to cultivating the recommendations and retail items, says despite partnering with spirits producers on sales and editorial integration, he’ll never compromise his independent voice for the sake of selling or appeasing corporate partners.
Buzzell calls the network “brand agnostic.”
He says, “No brand can own a category… we are maintaining editorial control.”
Though bartenders and industry veterans host some of the 60 existing hours of shows, others come from the journalism world. For example, Tara Fougner, who hosts the “Tales from the Cask” series about spirits from around the globe, co-founded the beverage site Thirstymag.com, which was nominated for the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication this year.
“Being part of the production of “Tales from the Cask” was truly a remarkable experience. The quality and message of the production has tremendous potential to deeply connect to audiences,” she says.
Buzzell likens the network’s production values to those of HBO and Netflix and hopes his average 8-18 minute programs that explore aspects of the industry such as science, history, diversity and entrepreneurship will connect with his targeted 28-to-48-year-old spirits enthusiast demographic.
He says, “There’s an excitement and a sense of pride in identifying new spirits and sharing those with friends.”
Minnick says he’s confident Spirits Network will attract an audience thirsty for “real programming about a good drink.”
“The bourbon and spirits world are booming and mainstream TV pushes beverage content so intolerable that bartenders would rather pour hot sand in their eyes than watch it,” he says, noting that Spirits Network shows are written to appeal to beginner learners to professional connoisseurs. “When you have something that is meant to appeal to the masses, TV executives water it down so badly that it’s intolerable for high-level enthusiasts. Because we are choosing to focus on an important core niche we don’t have to worry about a Nielsen rating. We will get people who care about a good drink.”