An idea becomes real monkey business in West Palm Beach
Only a few years ago, some local West Palm guys—Alex Kowtun, Frank Gomez and Seth Goldberg—came up with the idea to launch a high-end spirit brand—Monkey in Paradise vodka—a “millennial’s fantasy” that initially “combines an award-winning vodka with viral social media accounts and accepts Bitcoin as a payment option for online merchandise,” according to a 2017 article in the Palm Beach Daily News.
But it didn’t all start with vodka. It actually started with those little plastic monkeys people used to put on the rims of tropical drink glasses, monkeys Kowtun revived as cocktail markers, followed by creating actual social media accounts for the monkeys. That somehow morphed into the vodka idea, and Monkey in Paradise was born.
After winning awards from the World Spirits Competition, in late 2017 the trio approached veteran spirits industry top gun Patrick McGeeney to serve as CEO and CFO, operate and develop the company, raise capital, establish a national distributor network, and recruit a national sales team. Industry veteran Frank Sacca was tapped as executive vice president of national sales, and Peter Pace was hired as chief marketing officer. In early 2020, the company acquired Blue Nectar Tequila and formed Paradise Brands to market both brands to the alcoholic beverage industry.
Pace, who joined the company about 16 months ago, has brand development cred that includes a stint with Ogilvy & Mather and brands such as Grey Goose, Pallini Limoncello, Absolut, Ithaca Beer, Narraganset, Goslings Rum, Rumchata and Jaeger. He was determined to reposition the brand, differentiating it from others on the shelves and getting the word out.
“To me, it has to be a very strong product,” he says. “[Monkey in Paradise vodka] is made with 100-percent American corn; it’s sugar-free, carb-free and gluten-free. It is seven times distilled; distillation for you and I is a cleansing process—to give it a smoothness on the palate.”
And Pace knows a trend when he sees one; the American-made artisan spirit is hot right now—and Pace is all over it.
“When I was a kid, it was Smirnoff, and then came all the European imports like Absolut, Ketel One, Grey Goose, Finlandia. You had 10 to 12 powerhouse vodkas. Tito pivots that and says, ‘I can make a great vodka here. I can make it in Texas.’ And we are part of that trend. Just because we’re American doesn’t mean we can’t make a great artisanal product.”
Pace also wanted to capitalize on the name and the connotation it evokes.
“Monkey in Paradise as a name, as a package, is sort of mercurial and fun, sort of charming and mischievous and approachable. The monkey’s cute, and you can define your own paradise. Vodka is a very malleable spirit; you can drink it with tonic, cranberry, soda, martinis, rocks, up. Monkey in Paradise for us might mean South Florida, but that’s the beauty of a tagline that says Find your Paradise. For you and I, it could be beach or a boat in South Florida, but for others it might be on a mountainside or on a golf course…”
Pace also redesigned the packaging from a “transparent” look that made it disappear on the shelf, to a bright new logo (yes, monkey included). Next was “articulating its positioning” to distributors and retailers, and getting consumers to actually taste it, or “liquid to lips,” as Pace calls it. Although the pandemic put a damper on live tasting events, the brand pivoted to serious digital outreach and e-commerce and is now poised to start swinging from state to state.
“We have to reinvigorate the emotional connections of the brand,” he says, adding “consumer demand is outstanding.” McGeeney says the company grew in 2017 from a few hundred cases in Florida to being in more than 25 states today with projections for later this year of 50,000 cases.
It seems a lot more people are venturing out this year to find their paradise. Pace just hopes that comes with a monkey.