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Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Entrepreneurs searching for a piece of the liquor action

Many would-be spirits barons are men with lots of money, hoping to increase their social standing by means of their own liquor brands


Jeffrey Zarnow, right, at a charity event in Manhattan last week, promoting his brand, Starr African Rum, held by Barbara de Portago, left.


Clinging to a strawberry-red, pyramid-shape bottle of Starr African Rum, the two-year-old brand he owns, Jeffrey Zarnow, 33, ducked into the restaurant Parea last week to confer with its head bartender, Arin MacDonald. Parea, on East 20th Street, New York, is adding a US$14 cocktail made with Starr to its fall menu, and Zarnow wanted to sample it.

The bartender slid an orange and red mixture of raspberry puree, honey, apricot and Starr, which is made in Mauritius, onto the long sand-color bar, and Zarnow, wearing a white suit, beamed. "Beautiful drink," he said. "Beautiful."

Before he owned his own rum, Zarnow's highest profile occupation was being a friend of the actor Matthew McConaughey. That was fun, but not so much fun as his new life sponsoring parties and trying to build a liquor brand, he said, ducking into a Town Car to head to a charity event, the Fete de Swifty, on East 73 Street, whose hosts included Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Liz Smith.

"Last week," Zarnow said, "it was one night I had a party with Bono, one night with Petra Nemcova and one night with Dazed and Confused magazine."

Drink up. Just as it can seem that every woman with social ambition is designing her own handbag or jewelry line, there's a freshly distilled ticket to social standing for men -- introducing your own liquor. There is the caffeine-infused p.i.n.k. vodka, started by a 32-year-old former Washingtonian; Cabana Cachaca, owned by a 27-year-old former banker; TY KU, a sake liqueur started by two 20-somethings in a Columbia University business class; and the brands are proliferating.

Many would-be spirits barons are young or youngish men with disposable cash, hoping to increase their social profile one fashionably designed bottle at a time.

"I get to travel down to Brazil every month and to Miami and all over the place," said Matti Antilla, 27, the owner of Cabana, a brand of cachaca, a Brazilian rum often used in caipirinhas. "And I'm meeting great people and having a great time of it."

Antilla had spent time in Brazil as an analyst with JPMorgan's natural resources group. He was drinking caipirinhas late one night at a restaurant in California where he had moved to work for his family's real estate business, when it struck him that there was no major brand of cachaca on the US market.

He got in touch with Nicolas Barquin, whom he had met playing squash in New York after graduating from Amherst. By April this year they found a Brazilian distiller, a French bottle-maker and a New York label designer and were serving their new product at a party at Bungalow 8, attended by the actress Jordana Brewster and socialites like Tinsley Mortimer, Ted Roosevelt V, Amanda Hearst and John de Neufville, people Antilla knew from his postcollege days going out in New York.

"A lot of what I've done initially with Cabana is get my friends behind it in New York and for them to get their friends behind it," Antilla said.

Now he sends out e-mail messages to a list of more than 500 similar "friends that go out," asking that if they order bottle service at clubs, they choose Cabana. And when he is in New York he goes out nearly every night to clubs like Marquee and Bed as a "brand ambassador."

He has sold 300 cases of Cabana so far in New York, he said. He hopes to introduce the brand in Miami in the winter, most likely with a party at a club being opened by a friend, Reinaldo Bibolini, known on the scene as Bibs.

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