Podcast

Matt Sanger From Curatif

Matt Sanger talks about why Curatif classifies itself as a Ready-To-Serve, how their cocktails achieve balance and what you will soon be drinking our of a can

By: Tiff Christie|May 8,2020

If you hadn’t already noticed, there’s a wave of premixed cocktails on the market these days. And they’re not just put together by booze brands, like in the old days, these new offerings are coming from bartenders, spirits producers and people with a history of caring about the craft of drink making.

One such brand is Curatif, an Australian company that creates portable casual cocktails that are as good as you’ll find in any bar.

We talked to one of the founders, Matt Sanger about flavor, balance and why Curatif is not your grandma’s RTD.

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If you hadn't already noticed, there's a wave of premixed cocktails on the market these days. And they're not just put together by booze brands like in the old days, these new offerings are coming from bartenders, spirits producers and people with a history of caring about the craft of drink making. One such brand is Curatif, an Australian company that creates portable casual cocktails that are as good as you'll find in any bar. We talked to one of the founders, Matt Sanger about flavour, balance and why Curatif is not your grandma's RTD.

Thank you for joining us, Matt.doesn’

Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Now you've said that what you guys are creating is not really ready to drink RTDs and it's not exactly premium pre-mixes. Do you want to talk us through what you would define Curatif to actually be?

Yeah, for sure. I think you've hit the nail right on the head there. Traditionally RTD is low innovation, low alcohol, these are products that are designed to be consumed in large volumes. If you were to walk into any major liquor retailer at the moment, you would find Jack and Coke, captain Morgan and Coke, CC and dry. And all of those products, they're the 5% ABV, they might be 6% or 7% if they're going for the double serve. And what we see that is, that's not how you'd make a drink at home. If you're making an actual proper cocktail, you're making it with real spirits, you're making it with real liqueurs, you're making it was real aperitifs and real fresh ingredients and it doesn't end up at 5%. So when we set out to make real cocktails and make them convenient and make them super premium quality, then what we had to do is go, "Okay, well look, this isn't going to fit the mould of something that can go and sit on the shelf next to a can of Gordon's and tonic."
So where we see our category as being totally different is that this is a ready to serve cocktail. We look at that as probably anything that's in excess of 10% ABV. But for our products, because we make them to bar spec, our espresso martini's over 16% alcohol, our margarita is over 18% ABV and that's a really significant distinction. The important aspect of that for the retailers is that these products can't go and sit on the shelf next to an RTD. The big players, they've started to create a category of premium pre-mix. So that's your Tanqueray and tonic, your Kraken and Coke. But again, they're low ABV, in Australia, that's four for $24 or something like that, whereas a four pack of our Negroni or a four pack of our margarita, is $45 plus.
So that's where our products actually go and sit next to their partner brands in the spirit section. So that's where somebody comes in and they go, "Look, I love Four Pillars Gin and great, here's a really entry level way for me to have a ready to serve cocktail made for me. Perfect out of the can. I don't need to worry about mess or fuss or anything else." So I guess the main distinction there is that these aren't low ABV, high consumption products, these are super premium high ABV products.

How difficult has it been to talk that through with retailers?

It is challenging at the start because especially for a lot of the independent liquor retailers, they're out there in a marketplace that's pretty competitive. They're trying to compete with the big box liquor retailers who've got deep pockets and who can really go to town on margins. And when they see a box, that wholesale might be a couple of hundred dollars, for them, it's a really significant outlay per box. But the thing for them as well is because this is a premium product, it demands premium margins. Because this is a premium product it demands premium pricing. And the other thing for what we do and where we create value for the retailers, is our little cans with the cocktails in them, for somebody who's going into a bottle shop who's going to buy, for example, a six pack of beer or a bottle of wine or a bottle of whiskey, this doesn't replace that. This becomes an add on and it becomes an increase in basket size. And that's where we really create a lot of value for the retailers themselves.

How difficult, on the other side of the coin, has it been to communicate that to consumers?

Look, consumers aren't dumb, they recognise premium brand partnerships. Our espresso martini is made with Archie Rose original vodka, which is one of Australia's most awarded spirits. Our Negroni is made with Four Pillars spiced Negroni gin, twice voted world's best contemporary gin with the global gin masters. Our margarita is made with Tequila Tromba. These are really premium brand partners that we work with and consumers understand that. They understand that they might pay up to $95 for a bottle of spiced Negroni gin, across the counter. They might pay $70 for a bottle of Archie Rose original vodka. So they understand that what we're doing isn't generic off-brand ethanol, mixed with juices made from concentrate. These are real cocktails made with real ingredients.

Now you guys have been around for about 10 months. Starting with the espresso martini and the Negroni, which you've mentioned, now you've just released two new products. Why such a long time between releases?

Sure. Look, we had a really successful entry into market. It was the most successful independent Australian pre-mix launch of all time. In the first six weeks we went into ranging with two major retailers, we went national ranging with them. By Christmas, we had almost a thousand distributions nationally. We'd had 10 and a half million in PR coverage. We knew that this was a great product. We were confident that it would launch well. But we really were, I guess, surprised by how excited the industry got about this product, how much support there was from the retailers, how this went crazy into accommodation. We picked up ranging with all of the major premium hotel brands. We were about to launch on Qantas before the virus hit.
So I guess where we were at is we launched and we had these plans of launching new products by Christmas, but we were really struggling just to keep up with the demand of the marketplace. The other thing, and I guess the other aspect of why it took us 10 months to launch another product, is we've got these ideals around quality and integrity. And so we knew that the next product off the line was going to be the margarita and we knew that we wanted to make it perfect. There's RTD margarita's in the marketplace and they're made with acid compounds and they're made with flavourings and they're full of allergenic preservatives, your benzos and your sulphites and sulphates. And we said, "Look, we don't want to do that. We want to do with our margarita and with every other drink that we ever make and we ever release, we want it to be exactly the same as if you walked into your favourite cocktail bar and you ordered that drink across the bar."
So firstly we had to find a tequila and get the tequila into Australia. We really wanted to work with Tromba from the start, a couple of the founders are Aussies as well, so it really fit our niche of working with Australian craft distillers. And another part of that was getting this formulation right. When you're talking about putting a product into a can that you need to be shelf stable in excess of 12 months, there's a balancing act that you have to make in relation to the gas for example, nitrogen, there's a balancing act that you have to make to offset the flavour affects that nitrogen have. And there's also, there's all these other considerations to make these things work in a can and then to make them when you pour them out of the can, to be unbelievably good.

Both the margarita and the toreador both are juice based cocktails. How difficult has it been to ensure that that juice doesn't oxidise?

Really complicated. And this goes back to some of the learnings that we had in the espresso martini. When we launched the espresso martini, we thought, "Okay, well I mean how complicated could this be? You make a great cocktail, you put it in a can, that should be it." And unfortunately that wasn't it at all. Coffee, due to its pH levels, due to the alcohol profile of the finished product, you've got a highly volatile product that's volatile to oxidation. So we had to learn a lot of lessons about creating canning processes, about creating handling processes, so that we could then create a product that would create that shelf stability.

Now without the espresso martini for example, we just got our results back a couple of weeks ago. That product is shelf stable in excess of three years with no preservatives in it whatsoever. So we learned a lot through that process and we're able to take those learnings and apply that to the margarita and to the toreador. So I guess that was one of the advantages of climbing such a big mountain when we started, we were able to take those learnings and apply them to the new product as we release them.

How difficult though is it to be able to ensure that flavour and I suppose more specifically balance, are maintained over that extended shelf life period?

Yeah, so look, balance, I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but balance is the most important thing in a cocktail. And when you're talking around products that have high ABV, that need to be balanced through sweetness and then the effects there of nitrogen and how that affects your palate sensitivities, it is really challenging and that's why we've spent so much time in R&D. We probably could have released a margarita, in Q three last year, but had we done it at that time, we wouldn't have got the balance right. The other aspect of that is that when we originally released this margarita, we released it exclusively into a couple of our accommodation partners.
So we released it into Jackalope on the Mornington peninsula, Pink hotel in Coolangatta. And for those guys, this was a real summer drink that people could go and have by the pool or on the beach or on the rooftop. So that exclusivity was one aspect of why we didn't release this to market as a consumer product, until a couple of weeks ago. And the other aspect was making sure that we could scale our processes. So instead of it just being five or 10 or 20 cases for a couple of sites, we had to really scale our production, ensure that exactly as you've asked about there, is that the drink comes out balanced. The drink comes out the can, the first can in case one and the 24th can in case 500, taste exactly the same. That they're both shelf stable, that when they get pulled out of the can that they are a world class cocktail.

The toreador was, from what I understand, was a little bit of an unexpected release. Do you want to talk us through how it came about and a little bit about how you worked with Black Pearl?

Yeah, for sure. Look I mean our aspiration has always been to work with world-class bars and collaboration. Our background is we came from bars. We've got the utmost respect for the Titans of our industry and I don't think you're going to come across a Titan bigger than Black Pearl, named tales of the cocktails best international bar. It's been in the world best 50 bars last 13 years in a row, the best cocktail bar in Australia, so many times you can't count. Those guys know how to make a drink. And so we've been talking to them for a while and trying to find the right drink to release. Then when the lockdowns came and the shutdowns came due to the virus, we really wanted to put this into overdrive so that we could help them firstly by having a product that they could sell through their bottle shop and secondly, so that we could do what we can to go back to people in industry and help them through a trying time, to have a product available. So allow them to try and keep the lights on and pay the rent.
The advantage for us is that we already had the tequila in the country. We already had the processes in relation to the lime juice. And then we were able to very quickly turn around agreements with Joseph Cartron through Think Spirits and also with Illegal Mezcal through Vanguard. And that was really exciting because everybody, all of the brand owners and distributors have all been great to work with. They've pivoted really quickly. They understand that the industry needs as much assistance as it can get at the moment. And then when the conversation came around and we said, "Look, what about the toreador?" We made it to bar spec, it was unbelievable. We then tweaked it back a little bit to get that to work properly in a can. And then we launched it a couple of weeks ago and it took from when we agreed to do it, until when we had it on the shelves in Black Pearl, it took two weeks, which is really exciting.

Wow. That's impressive

Yeah look, because we've got all these processes and this research process tight now, we're working on collaborations that'll be launching in the next few weeks as well. We're working on a Trader Vic Mai Tai with Jacoby's Tiki Bar in Sydney. We're working on a pina colada for Jacoby's and Earl's as well. We're working on a potential collaboration with Caretaker in Auckland. We've got a bunch of new cocktails going through R&D at the moment, including aviation, we're in discussion with Balcones at the moment about an old fashioned, we're talking to not just brand owners but distributors, but also as well on premise venues.
This is a great way for them to have a ready to serve product, which means that they can continue to put a little bit of cash through the tills, keep people employed. Because that's, I guess, one of the biggest challenges is, with job keeper and stimulus and everything else, it's all well and good that there's a little bit of money being supported by the government to keep people on, but they need stuff to be able to do. And that's, I guess, where we can pass a little bit of value back into the industry as well.
our doors always open. We're super keen to work with bars. We're super keen to make great drinks. I guess if you were to go all the way back to the start of this whole journey, the reason why we got into this is we love making great drinks. So when the opportunity came up to do the mai tai with Jacoby's, I couldn't have been happier. Trader Vic's mai tai's probably my favourite drink in the whole world. To be talking with some of these brand owners about creating some of the world's greatest cocktails, is really exciting and that's the reason we got into this whole thing in the first place.

For anyone who's not particularly aware of the toreador, can you talk through what the difference is between that drink and the margarita, especially the way that you guys have done it?

Sure, sure, sure, sure. So the original toreador recipe predates the margarita by a few years. And the difference between them is a standard Tommy's margarita, which is what we make with the tequila Tromba Blanco, that's got lime juice in there and agave syrup. It's a really straightforward drink and it's just bloody delicious. That drink is designed to really hero agave. Whereas, the Toreador is slightly different. So the toreador was made with tequila Tromba Blanco again, and those guys especially distill this for us at the US ABV spec. That's also with Joseph Cartron, apricot Brandy, and also Illegal Mezcal, which is an amazing little mezcal originally out of Antigua. And then lime juice and simple syrup instead of agave.
Now what it does is it's got the grass and pepper of the tequila, which is elegantly balanced with the sweetness from the apricot Brandy and then there's just a slight hint of smoke that comes through from the mezcal. So it's a really balanced but characterful drink. And one of the things that can happen when you've got a characterful drink is that that character can overflow and take over the whole drink. Whereas this, everything's perfectly in proportion and it makes for a really fun, exciting but interesting drink and that was why we fell in love with it.

You said from talking about it to bringing it out, it was a two week process, but how long were you in discussion with Black Pearl in deciding on the perfect drink?

Look, we've been talking with them for ages. They're right on the cusp of innovation and so we had been talking about other ways that we could potentially create ready to serve cocktails with black Pearl for quite a while. And it was really a question of finding the right drink and the right time. And as much as the virus has been absolutely crippling to the industry, it gave everybody an opportunity to pause for a second and say, "Okay, well, maybe this is a commercially viable option." And so, we were talking for quite a while before we really pulled the trigger on the toreador.

With everything that has been going on in terms of the virus and with lockdown, I assume that the uptake for your cocktails has risen quite dramatically.

It’s kind of a two edge sword for us in as much as our sales are up through the major retailers, our sales are up through the website, we've got export launching as we speak. So from that point of view our numbers are up, but having said that, the margarita was due to go live on all Qantas flights on the 1st of April. That's a lot of cases per week that aren't going out. We had a number of major accommodation chains who were going through the final processes of putting our little cans in their mini bars and in room and on demand dining and so that's had a massive impact as well. So where there are a lot more people at home at the moment who are using Jimmy Brings, who are using Dan Murphy's delivery, who are using PWS delivery, who are ordering direct from our website and getting home delivery, yes those numbers are up, but it's very much the scales are not balanced on the other side with the volume that's been lost through the rest of the industries.

But it does point out the need for businesses but also bars to have more than one string to their bow.

Yeah, correct. Look, as well as that, to be able to respond and react in effective manners. Our advantage is we're a little business, we're incredibly agile, we're able to move with the forces of the market as we need to. And so that's definitely been, for want of a better term, that's been our super power through this, in as much as we were just about to sign a new lease on a new premises, which we're able to hold off, we're able to scale back all of our outgoings. And then at the same time and probably unusually so for manufacturing businesses during this crisis, is we were able to launch new products, we're able to launch new collaborations, we're able to scale our channels that were still in operation very quickly and quite effectively.

How do you think the lessons learned from this can be adapted when it's all over?

We're in a position the same as most businesses, where we have no idea what the future holds. Will consumers go back to bars in the numbers that they were in? Those numbers were already in decline. Will they aspire to be drinking more cocktails at home? Or will they, when the restrictions get lifted, will they rush back out into cinemas and back onto airplanes and back into hotels and back into bars and restaurants and everything else? That's really hard to tell. So I guess for us the lessons have been that we got to continue to stay agile.
I guess one of the big things for us as well is this has given us a great opportunity to focus on independent retail. And so from that point of view, yes, we'll continue to function in the way that we have during the crisis. And the main thing for us as well, is that we're able to stay in front of market trends, that we're able to identify which drinks are going to be successful, how people want to get them. Do they want them in 30 minute delivery from Jimmy Brings? Do they want them in two hour delivery from BWS and Dan Murphy's or are they prepared to accept next business day delivery as they might from our website? Is there a point where a shopfront would be appropriate for us? I guess that's where we will have to remain agile and really stay on the edge of what the consumer is looking for.

How important is innovation for within the ready to serve category? Is the innovation aspect of your business just as important as the agility?

I think absolutely. If you look at traditional innovation in RTD for example, okay, well let's do a bourbon and Coke with no sugar. Okay, let's do a bourbon and Coke with no caffeine. Or let's do a bourbon and Coke that's got 2% more ABV and put it in a smaller can. That's not innovation. But having said that, the big businesses can't take the risks that we can take. Because we do all of our manufacturing in Australia, we can do runs as small as a case. So we can take a risk and go and test it in market. But from that point of view, that's where the innovation is so important because consumers now, they're more educated than they ever have been.
They know more around the providence of the spirits and liquors and aperitif's and fresh ingredients that go into their drinks. They're not just going to, and they can't be expected just to drink a whiskey and dry, the same whiskey and dry every day for the rest of their lives, or have a low cal whiskey and dry. What they want to do is they want to try new things. They want to elevate their drinking choices. They want to drink premium brands. They want to drink less in total, but drink better each time they have a drink. And that's where our innovation is absolutely, again, one of our superpowers because we're able to go and talk to emerging brands.
We've got a Negroni coming out with Never, Never Distilling Co triple Juniper, Campari, Mancino Rosso in it. The triple Juniper has just picked up best in class at the San Francisco wine and spirit awards. From that point of view, their innovation, where we can go, "Look, this is an amazing Australian brand that's making the best gin in the world. Here's a cocktail with it in it." That's where we can innovate much better and much faster than any of the big guys.

Out of the four cocktails that you've got out now, which is the most popular? And is that an indicator to you about what direction the cocktails should take for the future?

So the answer to that question changes. When we launched, as we expected, the espresso significantly outsold the Negroni. Then through the major retailers over the past six weeks, the Negroni is outselling the espresso. Through our website, which is where the margarita is primarily available, the margarita is outselling the other two together by a factor of three to one. The toreador only launched through our website on Friday of last week and I think because that's probably a little bit more adventurous, it hasn't had as much uptake, but I think as well, as people start to get their head around the fact that, "Okay, well I understand what a margarita is and I understand what a Tommy's margarita is, and this is slightly divergent from that. I'll give it a go." Or as they find them at parties or as they find them in their local delivery service, that will become more popular.
famcyInterestingly as well, is where we're launching more products over the coming weeks. On the 11th of May, being next Monday, we are one of the first liquor brands that are going to be available on Amazon Australia. And what we have offered with them is they have the exclusive right to sell our Plantation Rum pineapple daiquiri. So that's made with Plantation Rum Stiggins Fancy pineapple run, which is amazing, amazing, amazing rum and lime and simple syrup again. So that's a really exciting product that's coming out. We've got the bloody Mary, which we make with Archie Rose original vodka and Jarnsaxa Doom Brew bloody Mary mix, that's launching Friday week on our website. So look, we will be able to see which other drinks people really resonate with. And one of the other things that we're doing at the moment as well, is we're not far away from launching our cocktail subscription service.
And that's where we'll be bringing drinks out that customers will be able to receive a pack each month with a series of different cocktails in them. And that's going to enable us to really test out the more experimental, the more niche cocktails and see if they work because that's going to be able for us to test market them before we go to the majors. Because as soon as you go to the majors and you say, okay, well between Coles and Woolies, you might have said 1,300, 1,400 distributions, that's a lot of cases to make for a product. And like we were talking about before with the major brand owners and distributors, there's a lot of risk to then go and try and put a product everywhere, into every retail store in Australia or every retail store in a different country, if it's not going to work.

So you've got a lot going on. Talk a little bit more about the Amazon situation.

Yeah, look, this is really exciting. Amazon approached us, and again, this has been pushed back, this was actually supposed to happen on 24th of March. But Amazon approached us going back in February. They had been tasked, one of their teams had been tasked with finding really exciting, really innovative Australian liquor brands and we came back as the top of the list. What we do is we make amazing cocktails, we put them in cans and therefore people are able to get these world-class cocktails delivered, which is perfect for what Amazon offer. Around the world, their delivery service and their interface with customers, is a really amazing way that everybody understands, that they can go, "Okay, well I can buy my consumables from there. I can buy a TV or a wetsuit or a trampoline." And now they're going to be able to buy liquor from Amazon as well. So again, that's also pretty exciting for us because that will potentially springboard us into other markets and then ultimately the aim is going to be to work closely with Amazon in the US.

Now talking of the US, you've spoken about where cocktails are available here in Australia, what are your plans with going global?
Already happening. We have our first pallets going out to Singapore and New Zealand in the next couple of weeks. So we're being distributed through New Zealand and Southeast Asia by a Proof & Company. We're already working pretty closely with Dan Walker, who's the COO of Proof and Co, sits on our advisory board. So those markets are really exciting and we'll be working to find some on premise venues to do collaborations within those marketplaces. And then the US, we're talking at the moment around how our launch strategy goes there as well. The main thing is we can't necessarily take Australian centric products and try and insert them into the American market and hope that it works. So it's about finding the drinks that are going to be most impactful. It's about working with the brands that create the most amount of value for Curatif, for the cocktail and for themselves. And that's part of the strategic discussions that are going on at the moment.
I guess the advantage for us in the American market is America understands drinks in cans. They had their first canned wine awards last year. There are already ready to serve cocktails in cans in the States. There's plenty of canned wine sells going over there. They get beer in cans. They get cans. And the cocktail culture there is significant as well. So it's a great opportunity for us to go and flex our credentials in relation to how great the drinks are that we make. And secondarily it's a great opportunity for us to be that interface for brands to interact with consumers, for us to be able to take for example, Four Pillars with us to the States, would be really exciting. And then for us to work with local brands over there is a great opportunity too.

Will it be more working with local liquor brands or working with local bars over there?

Look, it'll start with liquor brands. I mentioned we're talking to Balcones at the moment. We're also initiating discussions with a very well known craft vodka over there as well. That will be the starting point for us and then as we start to develop our footprint, we will then start to talk to on premise menus around how we can potentially create some great drinks that have really hyper local relevance and that will then leverage great credibility and great opportunity for us in the bars that we work with.

Do you think that eventually there'll be a situation where the brand will have almost, shall we say, a different face in every region or will it end up where you will try, once you've got a foothold in each region, you'll try and blend what's happening between them?

Look, I think initially, we have a brand identity that is important to us, that we believe is a global identity. The concept of premium ready to serve cocktails is, I think, something that consumers from different marketplaces and different territories will be able to understand. But I think exactly as you've mentioned there, is it's really important for us to be able to work with local suppliers because what we're doing by making these drinks is we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. What we're trying to do is make these world class cocktails and have them so you can have them at home, in the boardroom, on an airplane, in a minibar. So it's going to be a juggling act to maintain a global consolidated brand identity. But it's also important as well because we'll be taking the credibility that we've built in regional markets and taking them to the new markets as we enter them.

If people want more information about Curatif, especially before you do take over the world, they can obviously go to your website, which is curatif.com. I'll spell that. C-U-R-A-T-I-F.com.

Matt, thank you for joining us.

Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having us.

For more information on Curatif, go to curatif.com.au

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