The Dig: Bottle business

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2012 - 12:43 AM

Phillips Distilling Co. saw its future in rainbow-colored vodka, but its prodigal son would rather obsess over dusty old liquor bottles.

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Dean Phillips, board member and brand ambassador for 100-year-old Minneapolis-based Phillips Distilling Co., collects old liquor bottles. "Some people like Warhols," he said. "I like whiskey bottles."

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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The first time I met Dean Phillips, he was wearing dainty white gloves and handling a 100-year-old bottle of booze worth more than $1,000. We were at a cocktail party and he was showcasing his collection of vintage liquor bottles and some odd alcohol-measuring instruments from the early 20th century.

He had an air both regal and geeky -- wealthy enough to own such a bottle, nerdy enough to want it in the first place.

I guess it's in the blood. Phillips, 43, is part of Minnesota's first family of liquor barons. As the figurehead of Phillips Distilling Co., he says it's his duty to preserve not only his family's history, but the industry's legacy in Minnesota.

"Some people like Warhols," he told me. "I like whiskey bottles."

The Phillips company has been making history for a long time. The family business was founded by Phillips' great-great-grandfather exactly 100 years ago as a candy and newspaper wholesaler. After Prohibition, the company entered the distilling industry, creating the country's first schnapps and flavored vodka. Under his father's leadership in the late-1990s, it began producing Belvedere, which pioneered an entirely new category: luxury vodka.

In 2001, Phillips became president of the company, which has a reported value of $175 million. Soon after, the distillery debuted its highly-successful neon-colored array of UV Vodka flavors (Cake! Coconut! Sweet Green Tea!). Phillips said the brand is expected to sell 1.8 million cases this year in the United States, and it just entered the burgeoning Chinese market.

Yet for all this success, the five generations of Phillips men have often sought a low profile. Dean Phillips is no different.

"My uncle always told me that the whale who spouts the most gets harpooned," he said. (His aunt, however, pens the famous advice column Dear Abby.)

Business dealings aside, it was Phillips' almost professorial passion for dusty bottles that fascinated me.

For Phillips, this obsession with the past started in a dumpster. In 1994, his father, Eddie Phillips (who died in 2011), moved the company from its longtime home in northeast Minneapolis. Dean, 25 at the time, watched as the movers began throwing away old photos, bottles and books. He jumped into the dumpster, gathering up the artifacts for safekeeping.

"I became the de facto archivist that day," he said.

Today, the company's headquarters, located in a converted stable house on the downtown waterfront, is adorned with these keepsakes. (The distillery is 50 miles north, in Princeton, Minn.)

On a recent afternoon, Phillips gave me a tour of this impressive building -- it looks like one big scrapbooking project. He was wearing a red-and-black plaid sportcoat, the traditional uniform of Phillips men. Call it lumberjack chic.

He had promised me a look at his rare collection of bottles and cocktail books, many of them a century old.

But something else caught my eye first.

The liquor laboratory

Phillips led me into a brightly lit room filled with bottles, beakers, flasks and what looked like a variety of prototypes. On the wall was a white board covered with flavor ideas.

"All new concepts start here," Phillips said.

In a white lab coat was the distillery's director of research, Jim Aune. He's worked here 42 years.

"I call him Sir Mix-A-Lot," Phillips said.

It's Aune's job to brainstorm and develop the company's growing UV portfolio. Someone had written beer-flavored vodka on the board.

"We're probably not going to make beer-flavored vodka," Aune admitted.

On the opposite end of the pop-vodka spectrum is Prairie Organic Vodka, a premium spirit made from corn harvested in western Minnesota. Its success has Aune and Phillips thinking about a Minnesota-sourced whiskey next.

"Minnesota produces some of the best agriculture in the world," Phillips said. "There's no reason that Kentucky should have a monopoly on American-made spirits."

Collecting history

As for the vintage bottle collection, he presented his stash of old hooch like an episode of "Antiques Roadshow." He owns an ultra-rare bottle of Johnnie Walker Special Old Highland Whisky from 1907 (the last year that blend was made). He bought it for $1,100 at a charity auction.

He also has a couple of Minnesota-made bottles in his possession. An unopened bottle of Benz Appetine Bitters is in pristine condition, as is his Tanager Dry Gin, made a century ago.

"If you find a 100-year-old doughnut, you're not going to eat it," Phillips said. "But you could drink a spirit. It's extraordinary."

He has found artifacts in flea markets, antiques shops, on eBay and at bottle conventions.

Some of his oldest pieces were discovered in his own back yard. A construction project at his south Minneapolis home unearthed a 120-year-old privy, along with several discarded bottles. There are a number of ways to determine age, from the seams to the embossed markings.

"There's just a beauty in the simplicity," he said. "For me, I like to wonder: 'Who was drinking this bottle and what were they doing at the time?'"

One of his favorite pieces is a cocktail book called "Good Things to Drink," written by a bartender named Frank Stutsmen in 1909.

This pocket-sized book is filled with recipes, plus sage barman advice. Some of it is esoteric ("Don't spin a coin on the bar"), some is time-honored ("Don't spend too much time looking at yourself in the mirror").

Many of the bottles in Phillips' 250-piece collection have no labels. They're simply embossed with names like Tooze's and Weil's, which were retailers in the early 1900s. Shops such as these lined Hennepin Avenue, where customers would buy a single-serving bottle poured from a whiskey barrel.

After Prohibition, retailers couldn't sell in bulk, and these commodities were sold strictly as brands, Phillips being one of them.

"It's the story of American industry," he said.

Recently, Phillips traded his leadership in one family business for another. He stepped down as the distillery's president to follow his late father into the gelato business. That's right: ice cream. He's now co-owner of Talenti, the country's best-selling grocery-store gelato, which his dad steered to success before his recent passing.

I told Phillips it seems like an odd curveball. Gelato? He said he'll keep one foot in the liquor business. He's a board member and sees himself as the distillery's lifelong ambassador -- for obvious reasons.

"Hey, my name's on the bottle," he said.

 

  • Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909
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