Feb 26, 2021 • 21M

A Conversation with Helena Price Hambrecht

Listen now | Talking transparency in booze with the founder of Haus.

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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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When I heard about the informational website KnowYourAlcohol.com, which launched early this year, I wanted to hear from who’s behind it. As I wrote about in “On Booze,” I’m pretty fascinated by how spirits are made and the culture around them. The very fashionably designed site provides really simple explanations for how the spirits industry works, and who is working against the conglomerate ownership, lack of transparency about ingredients and sourcing, and how bigger brands are now adopting “indie” aesthetics to trick the eye.

The site was developed by Haus in partnership with Good Liquorworks (the folks behind Good Vodka). Haus, a line of apértifs developed by Helena Price Hambrecht and her husband, Woody, was made out of a desire to capture botanicals with the grapes they were growing on their California farm. Now they sell them direct to consumers across the United States. We discussed how she got into this business, how they developed the brand, and why it’s important to her to bring transparency to booze. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Helena. Thank you so much for coming on to chat today.

Helena: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Helena: I grew up in a food desert in rural North Carolina, which may be surprising because I live on an organic farm now. But I, you know, I was raised in a small town, it was the 90s when organic produce hadn't quite made its way across America yet.

And, you know, I had a mom who made $11 an hour and we ate a lot of processed food. I was pretty much made of processed food until I was in my twenties and moved to California.

Alicia: Why did you move to California?

Helena: I knew that I needed to get out of North Carolina. I'm the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant. So I'm this, you know, I'm this interesting mix right of Southern and Scandinavian. And I just, I knew there was a bigger world out there and I needed to go find it and in the south wasn't quite for me. So as soon as I graduated college, I kind of picked a place on a map, and moved to Cali with $40 and knew that I wanted to work on the internet.

Alicia: Wow. And yeah, you had a creative studio. So how did you move from, you know, having a creative studio to launching house your beverage line?

Helena: I have a very strange but useful career for building Haus. I got my start doing PR for startups. So I got my degree in public relations. And I liked the internet. So I wanted to go do PR for the internet. And that's what I ended up doing. I worked my way in the door, ended up running comms and biz dev for startups in my early twenties. And then, very long story short, I saw an opportunity to, to do branding work in Silicon Valley.

I've been a creative since I was a small kid, and I could tell that Silicon Valley was starting to shift from kind of an engineering culture to a more designing, you know, creative culture. And long story short, I ended up building a creative studio that served a bunch of different startups and a bunch of the big guys too, like Facebook and Google and Twitter and Uber and Airbnb. It was a very, it was a really good run. My twenties were great for my career. But then I ended up marrying a booze guy. Haus happened because a techie married a booze guy.

Alicia: How did you launch this line of amaros with all these different kinds of botanicals? What was your husband doing in booze that kind of made this the right fit for you guys?

Helena: Yeah, so, you know, when I moved up here, I started immersing myself in the alcohol industry, because it was interesting to me, actually. You know, I worked in bars for many years from like, 18 to 22, so I knew that side of alcohol, but I didn't know the industry side. And really quickly, I noticed that it seemed to be a bit behind. You know, it hadn't embraced the internet. I learned that they hadn't because it's actually almost impossible to. There's this three-tier system; it's been around since Prohibition, and, if you make alcohol, you've got to go through it. You've got to go through a distributor who ends up selling you to retailers and restaurants, and that's what my husband was doing when I met him. 

He was making beautiful wine and beautiful apertivo. He was, you know, farming on his family's farm, and he was doing everything right by the traditional industry standards. Like, he got the cool-kid distributor; he got in all the best bars and restaurants in America. But when you have to go through that many gatekeepers, you kind of lose control over your product and how it lives in the world. So these aperitifs that he made to be drunk on the rocks like they are in Europe, they ended up just being a sprinkle in like a super-boozy, ten-ingredient cocktail. So you know, his product wasn't being served in the right way. Customers had no idea who he was; they didn't even know they were drinking it. 

To me, it seemed like, Man, this industry really isn't kind to independent makers, like they really don't have any control over their product. And it's almost impossible to get national distribution unless you're owned by a corporation who has that leverage to get you those placements. And at the same time, I was going through a drinking dilemma that you might be able to relate to, which is just part of being a, you know—like a hustler and a social person, and you're drinking all the time. Like, you know, there are definitely weeks when I'm drinking every day, whether it's a conference or business dinner or catching up with friends or just hanging out with [my husband] Woody like, alcohol is a big part of my life and most of my friends’ lives and it was really starting to get to us like the downsides. You know, like the hangovers were getting worse and we were having to like, work off the calories and our sleep was suffering and our joints were hurting. And I couldn't help but think like, why is there not a better way to drink? Like, why is this thing that we do really often causing us so much pain? 

And, you know, so I started looking into it, I couldn't help myself, I wanted to see like, what's going on with booze, like, what's going on with my generation? I have a hunch that we're looking for something better, because I've seen it happen in every other industry, right? Like, I worked in Silicon Valley for ten years; I saw all of these other industries have to shift to meet the higher standards of millennials who really care about quality and transparency and authenticity. And looking at alcohol, you know, I saw the opposite. I saw 96 percent of liquor is owned by a corporation. And that pretty much all, in North Carolina, where I came from, we only had access to corporate products. And if you're an indie brand, you're kind of stuck with your local market, maybe you're in a cool kid bottle shop, or you have to, like, you know, just have people visit your winery, or distillery. And all of this was kind of blowing my mind. 

I had a hunch that aperitifs were what our generation was maybe looking for. They checked all the boxes, you know: they were more sessionable; they were lower in alcohol, so you wouldn't accidentally get wasted and super hungover; and they are the original better-for-you-alcohol— they were made for medicinal purposes, centuries ago. They're botanical; they're sophisticated. They're really popular in the rest of the world, but not in America. Like, there are just all these signals like Man, this might be what this generation is looking for. And I talked to my husband about it. And I was like, Man, I wish we could build, you know, what I see in other industries. I wish we could go build the Glossier of alcohol and just sell to the drinker. But it was my understanding that you can't—you’re liquor, you have to go through three tier. And that's when my husband said, Oh, actually never thought about this, but the kind of aperitifs that we make, you can go direct to consumer, you can just sell it online, and I was like, dude, we got to go sell this online. Like we gotta go. We got to go build an alcohol company of the future.

For us, it wasn't just about aperitifs. It was about building a company that put the drinker first instead of the distributor, or the bartender, or like the corporate buyer, like, let's go make the booze that this generation wants. And like, let's go check all the boxes of what they're looking for, from like, the quality, the authenticity, the transparency, make it easy to buy, deliver it to their door, like give them a direct line to the makers, like just do it totally differently than what's out there and see what happens. And that was, we had the idea. In 2018, we had a three-month-old baby, so it certainly wasn't good timing. But we launched a year later. And now we're a year and a half old, and it's going really well.

Alicia: And how did you kind of decide because you are going direct to consumer, you're not focused on being in the back bar at the cool places—even though that now that is irrelevant—but how are you marketing to folks? You know, I've seen I've seen the bottles on like, every cool person’s bar cart that I follow on Instagram.

Helena: I think our secret was we were the first brand to just go after the drinker. Right? Like, we didn't go after any of the traditional folks; we didn't even reach out to liquor writers or traditional food and beverage writers, like we were focused on the drinker. That really worked out for us. 

And because I think the drinker has kind of felt neglected for a long time, and they didn't even know it. So when they saw, you know, our story, or why we launched and, you know, kind of the problem that we were passionate about solving, they were like, Whoa, I have this problem. Like, I feel terrible, you know, after I drink, and I'm not satisfied with the options that I have. 

In the beginning, you know, we didn't have any money to put into marketing, so we relied entirely on word of mouth. And I think the strategy that we had in the beginning was, let's make this the best thing that people have ever had. And not just the liquid, like my husband makes amazing booze. Like, I wasn't worried about that. But it was everything like let's make the packaging so beautiful that they're proud to share it on their mantle. Like let's make the unboxing experience feel really tailored and and premium. Let's ship it so fast that they're amazed at how quickly it arrives. Like let's do everything just miles and miles beyond what the industry standard is. So that people are so impressed that they tell all their friends, and all of our growth in the beginning was through word of mouth. 

Alicia: And, you know, I am from New York and had been living and writing there for a long time. And there is such a strong sense of New York alcohol, like from craft beer to wine to distilled spirits. That really  opened my mind to all these issues in alcohol and how we think of it and how it's so tied to these corporate brands. And these are all things that we wouldn't accept in food, but that we accept wholeheartedly in alcohol. 

I think maybe it's changing a little bit now that, you know, craft beer is obviously huge, that's already had its moment, but natural wine as well is having its moment. But for you in aperitifs, in spirits that time hasn't come yet. What are some of the issues that you're really trying to make your buyers, or your potential consumers aware of that makes you different from those brands? 

Helena: Yeah, I think a lot of people just didn't realize that it could be better, right? You know what I mean? I think, I think there is this assumption that like, Oh, it's alcohol, like, whatever, it's

a vice, I'll take what I can get, it's gonna make me feel bad. It's just part of the package. 

I think there is this assumption that your hangover is coming exclusively from the alcohol. And it's like, oh, man, if people only knew that it's coming from so many other things, too. It's like all of these kind of Frankenstein additives. It's the difference between eating McDonald's and eating a farm-to-table meal, you know? You feel worse when you eat McDonald's because it's made differently. And it's the same for alcohol. 

I think there's just been no conversation around it up until recently, and I think that's for a reason. It's industry knowledge, like all the insiders know, but I think there's been consequences to speaking out, or at least perceived consequences, because in alcohol, traditionally, you depend on the big guys, you depend on the distributors, you know, your only chance at selling your company would be to one of these big corporations, and you don't want to be the whistleblower; you don't want to be the person to call out an entire industry, because you're going to get blacklisted. And for us, I think we have a little bit of that extra freedom, because we aren't owned by a corporation, and we don't plan on being owned by a corporation. And we don't have to depend on distributors. So we have a little bit more freedom to spread these messages. 

I also think it's timing, right? It's like, there are movements, that where you can just sense that there's a groundswell happening, and that people are kind of ready to talk about this. And food really paved the way. For booze, I think just the transition from conventional to the growth of organic and farm-to-table eating. So I think people are finally ready to even receive this message. And we're happy to be the people to talk about it. I think there's a nuance like, we don't want to make people feel bad for their other choices, right? Like, what do you and I, we enjoy plenty of, you know, conventional snacks or beverages from time to time. It's more just about, like, we want to just arm people with information, so that they know how to make an informed buying decision. And if they are buying something conventional, at least they know. They know how to tell the difference between something that's made by a corporation and made by someone independent, because it's almost impossible to tell when you're just looking at the bottle.

Alicia: I's so fascinating, because, you know, as I said, I've been kind of following how this shift has been happening in alcohol, but it is such a slow shift. And it is such a difficult one to discuss. Because it's true people do think of alcohol as a vice and as something that will inevitably make them feel bad. And as something that, you know, comes from some faceless corporation. Gin is Beefeater and whiskey is Jameson and rum is Bacardi and people don't think about it that much beyond that.

But in launching knowyouralcohol.com, you kind of are calling for more transparency. So what are some other brands that you can suggest that are also kind of working in a sustainable way and in trying to change the public perception of alcohol?

Helena: Oh, man, there are so many, like that's another thing that many don't realize. We're not the only brand on earth that's, that's, you know, ethical. There are so many brands that came before us that are doing it right. You know, ethical winemakers, ethical distillers; they just don't get any national play because they can't get national distribution. So you can really only find them at cool kid bottle shops in Brooklyn or L.A. Or sometimes you literally have to go to the winery or distillery to try them. It's like such a problem, you know, with distribution. It boils down to that. 

But, you know, if you go to Know Your Alcohol, we have a full list that you can start with. There are plenty more, but you know, it's like Empirical or Forthave Spirits in New York. I'm sure you know them. Good Vodka, obviously. Yeah, Hanson and Sonoma County, amazing winemakers like Martha Stoneman or Mountain Tides. There's a lot happening. But, you know, it's just hard to find them. And this is just the starting point.

Alicia: What are some of the challenges that smaller producers face in getting out there? Is it just distribution? Or, you know, is there a problem in media not communicating these sorts of ideas or not communicating that this is happening, and that this is a new movement in alcohol?

Helena: It's really, it's deep and systemic, right? Like, distribution is always going to be a problem. I think the reason why we're still the only DTC (direct to consumer) brand in the space and have no real competition in that way is because it's so hard and so expensive to become nationally compliant. And that's even if you are a wine or a vermouth, and you can go national in the first place. It's just prohibitively difficult. And so you do have to rely on distributors to make it easy, but distributors—they're not going to prioritize indie brands over corporations with millions of dollars to put into marketing. It's like having that risk set for a distributor. 

So corporations and distributors are always going to be working together to de-risk their own opportunities. I think the future is really in the internet starting to open up, like regulations are starting slowly but surely to open up. COVID helped so much with that. But I think it's also on the drinker to go seek better brands. It really is, it's as much on the maker as it is on the drinker to go and pursue well-made indie makers as much as they're pursuing the really convenient corporate brands. It's really just beginning. And I don't think that there's any clear solution yet. But a big part of it is going to be on the drinker to decide that they're going to change their buying habits and move their money from corporations to Indies.

Alicia: I mean, it's so difficult because these, these people have so much money. I'm here in San Juan, and Bacardi really owns the rum space, but they have zero transparency around their sourcing, where this molasses is coming from, and how those workers are being compensated, and then how it's being processed. It's just really difficult to make changes there, because they're just so big and so powerful and so deeply associated with the category. And I've written before about, you know, how labeling laws are an issue because you can have something like Good Vodka that tells you on the label, what it's made from, and when and where, but if you wanted to make that a big policy change, I think there would be a lot of blowback from very powerful people. But do you think that there are changes that could be made to labeling laws that would make the category better and better educate the consumer?

Helena: Oh, yeah, I mean, I think change is gonna come, but it's gonna take the drinker again, you know, helping push those changes. Drizly was just bought by Uber this morning for $1.1 billion, which is a steal, in my opinion, because they've totally put the power into the buyer, right? Now the buyer, instead of going to the grocery store and being like, okay, I only have these choices to choose from, they're able to look at every retailer in their metro area, and they're able to make a more informed choice about what they buy. And they're able to read more about the brands because they're on the internet instead of in the store. And it's really putting more power into the buyer, which is really exciting and brands like us who launched with the idea that we were going to make something that had the drinker in mind and we're growing faster than pretty much any alcohol brand ever. You know, I think we're showing slowly but surely corporations that it is important. 

And if companies like us and companies like Drizly continue to take market share from the big guys, it's going to show them they have to change. And it's going to be a process but it's gonna, I really think, it's going to take outsiders like Haus and Drizly to go and just show that if you put the customer first, you can win. Like, you can actually take meaningful market share and that is what is going to force these guys to change.

Alicia: And for you, is drinking a political act?

Helena: Oh man,it's all about accessibility. You know, it goes back to where I grew up in North Carolina and not having access to good food and certainly not good alcohol and, even still, if you go to the ABC store where my mom lives, there's no indie brands in that ABC store. It's 100 percent owned by corporations. And so one of my biggest motivators for building Haus is to make a brand that has indie values, but is accessible to people outside of cool kid bottle shops in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, that's accessible to people in North Carolina or anywhere in America. It's a really profound shift that, if we can be a pioneer of that, that's real impact, and it's really exciting to be a part of.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time.

Helena: Absolutely. Thanks for chatting.