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Your Next Billion Dollars

Several years ago, a friend of mine was at a charity event for which Sidney Frank was the guest of honor. Frank, made fabulously wealthy as an alcohol baron, related the tale of his greatest personal triumph: Jägermeister.

Prior to Frank’s efforts (including vigorously encouraging partnerships with metal bands), Jägermeister was an extremely obscure and vile concoction, drunk almost exclusively by middle-aged and elderly German and Austrian men out of the misapprehension that it would help their digestion, and commonly referred to as “liver glue.”

When you look at Frank’s achievements in the world of alcohol, it seems like either he was a genius, or that everyone else was useless:

The big time came around 1950 when we bought a Scotch plant in Scotland, and the distiller called up my father-in-law and said, “You have two executive vice presidents getting drunk every night; bring them home and send your son-in-law over.” Well, I went up to the plant in Glasgow, and it was producing a million gallons of grain whiskey a year. I didn’t think that was much because some of our plants in the States would do 10 million gallons. And so I watched very carefully, and I said to the distiller, “I notice you’re only distilling twice a week. Why is that?” He said, “It used to be law.” I said, “Is it still the law?” “No.” “No? You mean you can distill seven days a week?” “Yes, but my instructions were to do what was always done.” So we began doing seven days a week and increased production from one million to three million six. It cost a dollar a gallon to make, and you can sell it for $5 a gallon. That’s $10 million and we only paid $13 million for the company. So I was a big hero.

Frank, after his success with Jägermeister, turned his hand to vodka: “The nice thing about vodka is you make it today, you sell it tomorrow; even Jägermeister is aged for a year. So you don’t have to put your money into buildings and machines and warehouses. Just make it today, sell it tomorrow.” He then went on to create both Grey Goose and the idea of…just charging double for it, not that people in the business enjoy admitting it’s as simple as all that:

Of course, when I suggest to an SFIC vice-president that vodka is by definition odorless and tasteless, and thus one vodka couldn’t be much better than the next, his face goes tight. “That is a dinosaur statement,” he says, speaking slowly, then lectures me on water- filtration processes and Champagne limestone and special grains and such.

It’s kind of a beautiful story, when you think about it, right? That you could make a zillion dollars first by taking a gross German drink selling literally 500 cases a year and telling American college students it was SO gross as to be cool, and then another zillion dollars by taking a tasteless clear liquid and convincing affluent people it was superior to another tasteless clear liquid. What I’m saying, I guess, is that you should marry into a wealthy family already in the business of importing booze, and then just try random crazy things in hopes that being all Forrest Gump about it will result in money beyond your wildest dreams. Go forth!

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