Captain Morgan, watch out. A freebooter from Chicago is poised to enter the rum market.
When Brad Trayser goes to the bar, his drink is less a choice than a reflex. In 2003, he helped launch the premium vodka Effen, and since then, he has ordered virtually nothing else. But that will change when his first solo venture, a spiced rum by the name of Kilo Kai, reaches shelves in late summer. When it does, Trayser will switch to Kilo and Coke.
An Effen vodka. A Kilo and Coke. Get it? Trayser hopes so.
"Drinking is supposed to bring a smile to your face," says the 42-year-old nightlife entrepreneur, who's sitting at the bar-actually, Le Bar, in the Sofitel-sipping an Effen on the rocks. He acts coy about the obvious pun. "By God, there's no reference to narcotics or anything at all, and I never said it! If someone thinks it's funny, as they did in bartender focus groups, it was a surprise to me."
So, why rum? After stealing U.S. market share from other liquors over the past decade, rum has become the second most popular spirit in the country behind vodka. Yet one brand dominates spiced rum: Captain Morgan. And The Captain, in Trayser's opinion, is ripe for dethroning.
The folks behind Captain Morgan "must just come to work every day and say, ‘Thank you, God-I can't believe this is happening to us,' because the brand is pretty cheesy," he says, taking particular issue with the swashbuckling cartoon mascot. (Diageo, the firm that owns Captain Morgan, did not return calls for comment.) His friend and employee Mike O'Connor, a former bouncer for The Jerry Springer Show, interrupts: "At a certain point in your life, you should just say no to cartoons," he says, previewing the pitch to the 21- to 32-year-olds they're going to target.
If there's one thing Trayser learned by launching Effen, it's that liquor is all about buzz. He plans to do with Kilo what he did with Effen: build word of mouth by winning the favor of the people who work in bars and clubs.
"I don't want it to be everywhere overnight," says Trayser, who will initially launch in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Milwaukee. "If you go to a bar and the bartender or the waitress says, ‘Hey, have you tried this?' I'll take that any day over a billboard."
Which brings him to the packaging. Kilo-a blend of one- and five-year-old rums from Curaçao flavored with vanilla, nutmeg, anise, banana, cherry, and strawberry-will come in a bottle bearing a skull-and-crossbones with a label that exhorts, "Take no prisoners." "Traditional pirate iconography-without it being blatantly obvious," says Trayser. "It's much more abstract and, I would argue, cool."
Coming off cool, however, is not something Trayser agonizes over. He freely admits that his Harley-Davidson V-Rod is way too much bike for him to handle. He lights up when the talk turns to the four exotic cats and two guinea pigs that he and his wife, Shawn, keep in their condo off Rush Street. He's also been taking violin lessons for five years, which he says is "kind of weird for someone who is, like, out in nightlife."
Trayser, who's been marketing liquor in some way or another since 1995, launched Effen four years ago with Jon Deitelbaum and Dan Stoothoff. He struck out on his own in December 2005 after a major multinational took a stake in the business and after Stoothoff died in a car crash. Back at the Sofitel, he decides to break his vodka streak and take a shot of José Cuervo Gold in honor of Stoothoff, who worked at Cuervo in New York before Trayser persuaded him to move to Chicago. "I know that if he was here, he'd be launching Kilo with me," he says.
Eventually, conversation moves on and the somber mood lightens. The waitress comes by and Trayser pauses. "I'm feeling good," he decides, and orders another Effen.
PHOTOGRAPH: KATRINA WITTKAMP