Pinhook Whiskey releases whiskeys in “crops” each year, so you never get the same whiskey twice. It’s released when it is deemed ready, and one of the revolutionary ways the brand has found to connect with its fanbase is a text-to-buy option. We recently caught up with CEO Alice Peterson to learn more about the brand and her role in its operations.
BW: How did your group of friends come up with the idea of starting a whiskey brand?
AP: Pinhook was born in 2010 as the aspiration of three friends with complementary skills, all of whom shared a passion for bourbon and a curiosity about what it would take to contribute to the category. The founders include Sean Josephs, an experienced sommelier and award-winning whiskey restauranteur, who leads our tasting and blending; Charles Fulford, a career creative director, who spearheads all of Pinhooks’ branding and design; and my husband, Jay Peterson, who was the businessperson in the bunch.
Also integral to the DNA of our brand is our relationship to horse racing through our dear friend Jamie Hill, cofounder of bloodstock agency McMahon & Hill and a premier pinhooker. For those who are unfamiliar, “pinhooking” is the process of purchasing young thoroughbreds with the intention of selling them when they have matured and are ready to run.
After saving up a bit of money and landing on a brand philosophy, Jay, Sean, and Charles purchased 20 barrels of bourbon from Midwest Grain Products (MGP) and got to work. It was Jay’s idea to link our whiskey’s brand to horse racing, as a tribute to Kentucky, and the name Pinhook seemed perfect since we would be purchasing young barrels and reselling once mature, as one would with thoroughbreds. To further embrace this synergy, every Pinhook vintage honors a different thoroughbred from McMahon & Hill’s Bourbon Lane Stable, and our packaging is inspired by the bright colors and bold geometry of jockeys’ silks.
In 2014, we released our very first – albeit small – expression of bourbon, and by 2017, each small batch released would sell out pretty much instantly in Kentucky, New York, and Louisiana, the three states where we had distribution. The team was ready to make a bigger play, with more inventory, more states, and a rye launch, and the founders asked me to come on board and lead the charge.
BW: How does having a business background help when you are building a whiskey brand?
AP: Like any other business, a whiskey company requires a strong brand identity, seamless operations, relationships with talented and accountable partners, understanding of the market space that it’s inhabiting. A huge part of Pinhook’s success is due to our team’s diversity in career backgrounds and skills – everyone brings their expertise to the table and generates new ideas to explore. While Sean excels at preparing a high-quality spirit, and Charles a standout design and brand ethos, it is my responsibility to lead strategy and operations. While my management background plays an important role in keeping our smaller company organized and focused, a lot of what I do is help us decide where to take risks and how to measure whether and how they pay off, all with the goal of scaling Pinhook to reach consumers nationwide.
We did quite a bit of this during the pandemic, launching a text-to-buy service called Breeze, which allows consumers to shop for Pinhook at retailers nationwide via SMS. This program came at a time where an online presence and ease of purchase meant everything and ended up being a strong play.
Although it seemed crazy to launch in a new state during a moment when we couldn’t travel, retailers couldn’t taste, and restaurants were closed, we also had the attention and dedication of our new distributor and decided to enter Georgia at the end of April 2020, resulting in over 200 new retailers in a single month. We push ourselves to ask why not and do things differently than traditional brands. The resulting decisions help bolster the Pinhook brand name.
BW: For people who aren’t familiar with the concept of contract distilling, how would you describe your partnership with Castle & Key?
AP: In the simplest terms, contract distilling is when a brand, typically one without a distillery of its own, hires another company to produce spirits on its behalf. Because Pinhook is based on the philosophy of bringing out the best of each crop of barrels, rather than a specific ingredient or established flavor profile, the location where it is produced is secondary to an emphasis on exploration and experimentation. We started with barrels from MGP and continue to “pinhook” barrels from other distilleries.
With that said, most of our barrels, and the basis for our flagship bourbon and rye, are from Castle & Key, which has restored the esteemed and once-abandoned Colonel E.H. Taylor Distillery in Frankfort. Our founders had looked at the property when it was for sale, and when our friend Will Arvin purchased it shortly thereafter, we jumped at the chance to be among their first contract clients. Sean worked with their team to develop a proprietary mash bill – or recipe of grains and yeast – and four years later, we continue to lay down barrels produced from the site’s ground-fed, limestone-filtered spring water and non-GMO, locally sourced grains.
We are proud of the product that we make with Castle & Key’s distillate and very transparent about the distillery’s role in our production. Pinhook’s focus is less on the distilling itself, but rather identifying the best attributes of each crop of mature barrels and shaping them into a flavor profile unique to that vintage. Just like scouting a young weanling to pinhook, we are meticulous in composing the perfect blend and proof for each expression each year.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to start a whiskey brand?
AP: Most of all, don’t think twice about being a woman. With curiosity, and the confidence that comes from asking questions and trusting your instincts, entering this category does not need to be daunting.
If you’re an outsider, like I was prior to joining the Pinhook team, don’t let that discourage you. This is an industry community of passionate people, and I’ve found an incredible amount of generosity – you simply have to ask people for their time, be honest about what you don’t know, and accept every invitation and opportunity you have to learn more. Chances are you can apply many of your existing skills and turn to your pre-existing mentors for help. Being transparent and honest about what you don’t know is a sign of strength, not weakness. And make choices about where to focus accordingly.
Finally, articulate what you are aspiring to do, and be, with your brand. We are still continuing to hone our story, as it is necessary to take the time to ensure that it’s authentic and unique. This is not a category that lacks players! As your team grows, these simple statements of what your brand does, and how, are critical to keeping everyone aligned, and a source of shared pride and energy for the hard work still to come.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in New York.
AP: In the past, my ideal whiskey weekend would have kicked off with a visit to Maysville, Sean’s shrine to American whiskey that opened in the Flatiron District in the fall of 2012. My husband’s 40th birthday dinner was the first meal served there, and it was like home to us from that point on. While Maysville is no longer with us, there are now endless options thanks to the bourbon and rye boom that ensued.
While I don’t typically associate American whiskey with international cuisine, Tia Pol – a beloved tapas bar – always has a terrific Pinhook cocktail on the menu that pairs perfectly with their charcuterie and cheeses. Not only is it delicious, but it’s the source of our friendship with Sean and his wife Mani, who opened the restaurant in 2004, down the street from our then apartment.
Another neighborhood go-to is a restaurant called Cookshop in West Chelsea, which makes a beautiful Pinhook Manhattan and serves a constantly changing menu of fresh, local food. They have expanded their outdoor seating significantly, so we can bring our dog along – she begs for biscuits there nightly, so has become even more of a regular than we are. They also do a wonderful weekend brunch.
For lunch the next day, I’d get a group of friends to meet at Pig Beach for copious shared plates of Shane McBride’s superlative South Carolina barbeque, washed down with Pinhook cocktails. It’s a lively, fun atmosphere in Gowanus – an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood – and they’ll let you bring over a pie from nearby Four & Twenty Blackbirds bakery, if you ask nicely. I love sipping our rye on the rocks with pretty much any dessert.
While in Brooklyn, I like to visit a couple of bourbon distilleries that have cropped up there, one being Kings County Distillery, where Pinhook co-founder Charles Fulford got married. I’d also pop over to & Sons Ham Bar in Prospect Lefferts Garden – we recently worked with owner and acclaimed sommelier André Mack on a special Pinhook bottling and the first in what we call our Collaboration Series.
Also on the dream itinerary is Brooklyn Wine Exchange, which is a wonderful store, with a terrific selection of whiskies (Pinhook, of course, but far beyond). Introduce yourself to Scott Henkle, the spirits buyer there, and he can help guide you.
Back in Manhattan, I’d stroll down to the West Village for dinner at The Waverly Inn. Sam at the bar would make his special Boulevardier, which I’d follow up with the divine chicken pot pie and chocolate pot de crème.
It would be hard to imagine a whiskey-fueled weekend without leading a Pinhook tasting for a group assembled by the winner of an auction benefitting a cause we care about. We’ve probably done the most of these for Sanctuary for Families, which works with survivors of domestic violence in the greater New York City area. One of these tastings would be the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon, thus closing out my perfect weekend.
Photos Courtesy of Eric Striffler and Charles Fulford