Swedish startup hits US sweet spot with 100% natural rhubarb liqueur


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'I had to be in category that wouldn't eat me up immediately' (Ylva Binder, Rhuby)
'I had to be in category that wouldn't eat me up immediately' (Ylva Binder, Rhuby)
The founder of award-winning Swedish rhubard liqueur brand Rhuby insists that the major battle for a spirits startup is distribution and it isn’t enough to have a ‘great product, fantastic concept and beautiful brand’.

Batch-produced liqueur Rhuby launched properly in the US in January-February 2013 -- $39 for a 750ml bottle – and uses juiced Swedish rhubarb stalks, smooth wheat vodka from a local distillery dating back to 1580 and bourbon vanilla bean, the last to balance the tart taste of the rhubarb.

The award-winning 20% ABV drink – created with master blender Solveig Sommarström – won a listing at the Swedish Systembolaget (state liquor store) in June 2012, and listings include UK department store Selfridges, 30+ accounts in Central Manhattan and premium off-trade outlets in the US.

Life at Bacardi, William Grant & Sons

Binder has extensive experience working for spirits giants such as Bacardi – where she was global marketing director for the travel retail and duty free division – and William Grant & Son’s, so what does she consider to be the greatest challenges facing a beverage startup?

“It’s not that difficult to get a great product, fantastic concept and beautiful brand. It’s actually quite simple – many people are able to do this,”​ she tells BeverageDaily.com.

“But when you come into the spirits trade, unless you have the logistics and the distribution, and a network of people you know, then it’s very challenging,”​ Binder says, adding that her industry experience and contacts stood her in good stead.

“I often say that the spirits industry more than anything is distribution, which sounds awful when you work with a very large brand, you always say it’s about the brand, and creating aspirations, dreams – but these are very hard to create without a business base,”​ she adds.

‘A category that won’t eat me up’

Many nascent beverage brands spent too much in the first few years, Binder explains, but didn’t generate sufficient returns to pay back funding, meaning that they have to dilute equity holdings and answer to boards of 20-50 people, which slowed down decision making.

Such slowness – and the need to report to a board on one’s actions – is what made Binder so keen to run her own business with Rhuby, she says, adding that she created the product as a sophisticated, super fresh beverage that can be drunk neat and that doesn’t have the viscosity or sugariness that a lot of liqueurs have.

 “When you’re a small player like I am I have to be in a category that wasn’t going to eat me up immediately. St-Germain [elderflower liqueur] was one of the first to make a statement in recent years, and that gave me the confidence to believe in Rhuby even more,”​ Binder says.

Rhubarb formulation challenges

When she launched Rhuby, Binder says she wasn’t aware of anything else in the rhubarb space, apart from a mass-produced rhubarb liqueur and a limited edition Chase Vodka variant, and she says it was “very rare to find a sophisticated product, something mature or great to drink but not as strong”.

“I’ve been told by bartenders that some other liqueurs are a bit like ketchup, a bit like a sugar syrup that makes a drink taste a bit nicer, while Rhuby has a core rhubarb flavour that you want to enhance (as the base of a cocktail) and not kill,” ​she adds.

Discussing the formulation challenges involved in creating a rhubarb-based liqueur, Binder describes getting the right color as “extremely challenging,because you have this beautiful red, pink hues that as time moves forward – especially after exposure to heat or sunlight – that goes to orange and then ultimately to brown”.

She adds: “I wanted an all-natural product with no preservatives, additives or artificial colorants, it was vital for me to develop a naturally stable product that wouldn’t degenerate with time. Because no-one wants to drink a rhubarb liqueur that’s brown.”

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