On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Louie Catizone, co-owner of St. Agrestis. Catizone details the origins of St. Agrestis that includes a trip to Italy to taste regional amari. St. Agrestis offers four core products: St. Agrestis Negroni, Spritz, Amaro, and an Inferno Bitter Aperitivo.
In addition, Catizone and Teeter discuss how St. Agrestis is one of the first brands to box a Negroni. Finally, Catizone explains the branding side of St. Agrestis with a primary focus on packaging and labels.
Tune in to learn more, and visit St. Agrestis website at https://stagrestis.com/.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. And today, we are lucky to be speaking with Louie Catizone of St. Agrestis. Louie, thanks so much for joining me.
Louie Catizone: Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me, Adam.
A: So for those who are unaware, can you give us the pitch on St. Agrestis?
L: Sure. St. Agrestis is an Italian-inspired spirits and cocktails company. We are based in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, N.Y. We’ve existed since 2014, but the brand changed hands in 2017. We really have four core products. St Agrestis Negroni and St. Agrestis Spritz are our two ready-to-drink cocktails. Then, the core spirits, St. Agrestis Amaro and St. Agrestis Inferno Bitter Aperitivo.
A: Awesome, and how did the brand come to be?
L: The brand was founded in 2014 by two sommeliers. They were in northern Italy on a wine trip, as sommeliers have the luxury and pleasure of being able to do during normal times. They fell in love with regional amari while they were in northern Italy. They decided on that trip that they would come back to Brooklyn and create St. Agrestis Amaro. They didn’t create any of the other St. Agrestis items that I just explained. Those were created after the brand changed hands, but they created St. Agrestis Amaro and ran with it until 2017.
A: Awesome. And then that’s when you came into the picture?
L: Yeah, exactly. We started to see St. Agrestis less and less. I started to hear whispers. I was on the distribution side of the business, the import and distribution side. I started to hear rumors that the brand was disappearing, and that was late 2016. By summer 2017, we closed on the brand. We brought production from Gowanus over to Greenpoint and had some fun and exciting tricks up our sleeves for the launches that now are on the market.
A: Awesome. Obviously, you have these four core products. One of the things that I think is really brilliant that you guys do is you put the Negroni in boxes. How did that happen?
L: I had been thinking about putting the Negroni in a box for years. I think it’s the perfect cocktail to be in a bag-in-box format for a multitude of reasons. The impetus of it actually begins with a trip, one of my very first trips out of the market to go visit a different city in the United States and work the market with our distributor out there. I was in Minneapolis visiting The Wine Company, who’s our incredible distributor in the state of Minnesota. The folks were taking me out around, and we were at a retail shop, which was understandably much larger than a New York retailer that I had been used to. The buyer said, “OK, these Negronis are incredible and we love them. We’re going to bring them in, but Minnesotans don’t want things small, they want things big.” As he’s saying that, I’m literally staring at a display of bag-in-box wine. I thought, wow, that is going to be the format for this at some point. When the pandemic happened, it was a no-brainer with the way folks changed their drinking rituals and the way they were drinking. It just made all the sense in the world, at that point, to dive in on it despite having some hesitancies pre-pandemic about it cheapening the brand because of the negative connotations around bag-in-box stuff, which we’re getting away from. Yet, when the pandemic happened, I thought it was perfect. People want this in the fridge right now. I’m going to go ahead and buy the equipment that we need to be able to do it and see how the world responds.
A: I think it’s awesome. I had one in my fridge throughout the pandemic.
L: I appreciate that.
A: I think we went through two or three of them throughout the pandemic. It’s so great because it is a perfect Negroni, and it’s super convenient. At the end of the day, if you want a cocktail and you don’t want to make it, you can get what I feel is a craft-cocktail, bar-quality Negroni but in the fridge. It’s funny to me that I really had never seen that before, and I just thought it was brilliant.
L: Well, thank you. No one had ever really done it before, but it was a pivot that a lot of folks agreed with you on, as far as the usability of it. It was something that was easy, and there was so much complication going on in the world. There still is, obviously, but it was nice to just have a cocktail waiting for you at home.
A: Obviously, there was the bitter and the amaro that existed, but how did you decide you wanted to start making cocktails? What was the process of that from a business standpoint? And were you at all concerned when you were doing them, especially given the association people have with Campari when it comes to the Negroni or Aperol when it comes to the spritz, that you would have any pushback from consumers?
L: I actually thought that the ready-to-drink cocktails would help curb a concern that a consumer might have. We launched the Negroni in bottles and single-serve, 100-milliliter bottles before we launched the Inferno Bitter. The concept was that there wasn’t a single-serve, ready-to-drink Negroni that’s on the market right now, so we launched that and we got it out there. That was May of 2018. At the time, there were a lot of negative connotations around ready-to-drink cocktails in general. People just associated them with being sugary and out of balance. We were one of the first craft, ready-to-drink cocktail pioneers, and that came with its challenges for sure. The goal of launching the Negroni, at the time when we launched it, was that folks would try it and realize that this is a proper Negroni. Then, when we launched the Inferno Bitter, then there would be built-in demand and understanding that this bitter aperitivo is bitter enough. We’ve seen many aperitivo hit the U.S. market in the last five, 10 years that maybe were more natural than Campari or produced in smaller batches than Campari, but they didn’t necessarily have that bitter backbone.
L: We use the Negroni as, “Hey, try the Negroni. It’s low risk. It’s $6 or $7 on the shelf, try one.” When you realize it’s a good Negroni, you can buy more of these, and then eventually, you can make your own Negroni at home. We didn’t exactly have it all planned out, but eventually, you could also buy a bag-in-box of it.
A: Awesome. So you weren’t nervous that the Negroni business would eat into the Inferno Bitter business?
L: No, I think that there’s certainly a place in the same home for both of them. There’s people who want to make Negronis at home, and those folks can use our Inferno Bitter. There are also folks who perhaps want a Negroni waiting for them at home or want a Negroni on a flight — which the 100-milliliter bottle is TSA-friendly. Not to say that the airline is OK with it, but you can carry it onto an airplane for sure.
A: I am assuming you’ve done that.
L: Yes, that is a safe assumption. Hopefully, no one from the TSA is listening, but of course, the convenience of being able to get through security with a proper cocktail is —
A: It’s awesome.
L: Yeah, we’ve been tagged in a lot of 30,000-feet photos of folks enjoying Negronis.
L: Yeah, it’s interesting. They land and think, “Well, that was a good flight.” They post it, and it’s fun.
A: That’s awesome. I think what’s also really cool about your brand is the branding. What has gone into that conceptually for you guys? First of all, I think your bottle shapes are really interesting. They very much stand out, and I don’t want to say it’s a triangle, but I’m trying to paint a picture for the folks at home. How much have you thought about the brand? Was it something that you came up with? Did you work with the branding agency? What went into the creation of St. Agrestis?
L: I’m almost ashamed to admit how much time we thought about packaging and continue to think about packaging. It’s ongoing and continuous. We always want it to be better, and it’s all very thoughtful. Everything is intentional about the St. Agrestis packaging. We want it to feel a certain way. The development of the package, soup to nuts, was about 80 percent internal. There’s certainly an element of the people who visualize things and had ideas to convey a certain look that were just outside of our expertise. For that stuff, we worked with some really talented graphics folks who can create the label that ends up becoming the St. Agrestis Negroni or Amaro label. The bottles, we literally drew up ourselves. Then, we shopped around and tried to find a person or company who could create custom glass in the shape and size that we were looking for, which comes with its challenges for sure. We definitely didn’t do anything the easy way. Going the custom glass route means everything about it has to be custom. Our 750-milliliter bottles are custom. That means that it’s a custom top. Every label has to be shaped after you have a sample. After you have the sample, you get the label shape, then you design it. It all takes a lot longer. However, to your point about a lot of cocktail association and affinity towards these classic Italian brands, we knew it had to really look the part in order for folks to give it a chance.
A: Interesting. What was the decision to do the leather at the top? The tag that you guys have also become known for? Was that just a way for it to pop on the shelf?
L: I call it Louie’s Law, but it’s really Murphy’s Law or Entrepreneur’s Law. Everything that can go wrong, especially as it pertains to packaging, will go wrong. The reason we ended up with what is at the top is because we had labels that looked really good. There were neckers that came in, and they looked incredible on a screen, Adam, but they looked terrible in real life. We could not roll them out when we changed to that custom Amaro and Inferno Bitter bottle. They just wouldn’t have looked the part. We started to go back and come up with something that would premiumize it. We decided on this faux leather look that, again, has these associations back to Italy, but also has a modern look to it. Then, we ended up putting a pin on it because we couldn’t find anyone that had adhesive for faux leather, an adhesive that could also hold that piece up. So we put a pin into it. Now, we have an adhesive, but we haven’t done away with the pin because bartenders and consumers just love getting a bottle of St Agrestis Amaro. When they’re finished with it, boom, they have a pin for their apron or to wear on their hat or whatever.
A: That’s amazing. Obviously, you’re selling them online as well, all the products. Has that gotten more insane during the pandemic? Did you see a lot more people buying online? And how much is that a focus of the business moving forward?
L: Online effectively didn’t exist for us until the start of the pandemic. It’s hard to say that it’s increased, because the only thing you could buy on stagrestis.com, pre-pandemic, was a tour or a tasting at our tasting room in Greenpoint. Those were the only things you could buy. We had a website that had products on it, but they were tours and tasting products. They weren’t the actual spirits and cocktails that we produce. As soon as the law that allowed us to sell to folks within New York changed, we changed the website and allowed folks to be able to do that. We were able to get a lot of folks immediately because we also were producing some hand sanitizer at the time. And there was no hand sanitizer, so the timing was perfect because folks wanted hand sanitizer. We were giving a 50-milliliter free, really nice smelling, and effective hand sanitizer away with any purchase on stagrestis.com. That kick-started our online business. It was only available in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, but it’s now expanded to 35 or so states. It is pretty complicated to get the actual products to people. It seems like a direct-to-consumer experience for folks because you’re going to our website, but there’s a lot of compliant third parties that actually do a lot of the money collection. We don’t receive that money. It’s a pretty convoluted process, but that’s the only way to do it legally. The whole point is we have the customers coming to us now. If we spend a dime in marketing, we’re actually marketing for them to come to us, and they get the spirits at their home, delivered. It’s a focus we’re thinking is never going to go away.
A: That’s so cool, man. In terms of the core, do you have plans to add more? Have you thought about it? What could be coming down the pipeline?
L: We’re constantly R&Ding and innovating. We’ve done a lot of innovation in packaging, which you’ve already paid some tribute to — not just today, but in previous episodes as well, so thank you, Adam. We have a spritz on the market, and that spritz does have an aperitivo that doesn’t exist yet. A lot of folks think it’s the Inferno bitter because the Inferno bitter does exist, but we have another aperitivo not on the market called Paradiso. It’s actually probably not happening this year. We had it all set to launch in April of 2020, and we decided that it couldn’t have been a worse time to launch something, especially when we believed that product would have had so many applications in bars and restaurants. We decided not to launch it then. We thought maybe we’ll launch it over the summer last summer, but that still was definitely not the time. As we moved into 2021, we just figured it made more sense to maintain focus on the things that are still on the market. That being said, Paradiso will come out eventually. The formulas, the labels, everything for it is ready to go. It is a wine-based aperitivo, so registered as wine.
A: Oh, interesting.
L: Yeah, akin to a Cappelletti. Flavor profile-wise, it’s pretty different from Cappelletti. It is a lot more fresh citrus, a little less sweet, more herbal, and has a nice, bitter finish to it. It is really designed around the Spritz. Then, a couple of other fun things that we’ll see happen with them. We have frozen Negroni. It’s like Fla-Vor-Ice, but in Negroni form. That’s going to be coming out this summer. And we haven’t announced that or anything, but I’m happy to “leak” it here, if you will. It’s going to be 12 percent alcohol. Half the alcohol of our actual Negroni so we can achieve a frozen Negroni at 24 percent. It separates, but it doesn’t freeze. It’s an adult ice pop.
A: That’s super cool.
L: Yeah, we’re excited about those. We think that during the summertime they’re just a fun way to enjoy a frozen Negroni and in a little bit of a different way. We’re continuing to explore different ways folks want to drink the types of spirits and cocktails that we make. We might innovate some more in format. We have other fun ideas. I have an idea that I think is maybe the best idea we’ve ever had. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but I just can’t accomplish it right now. There is no technology that’s perfect for this format that I really want to launch for one of our products, but it’s not possible at the moment.
A: Interesting. So you mentioned the tasting room. Have you reopened your tasting room? And what’s happened since last year for you in that regard?
L: The tasting room is still closed. We didn’t set the tasting room up, and it opened just months before the pandemic, but we didn’t set it up with a pandemic in mind, obviously. It’s right in the middle of our production space. Until now, it has felt like it would have been super irresponsible for us to risk having to shut the factory down, because there’s no open-to- the-public entrance. You would have to walk directly to the middle of our production facility. If you need to use the restroom, you have to walk through the production facility. We have decided at this point that it just continues to make sense to stay production-focused at the facility.
A: That makes a lot of sense. Well, Louie, this was a really interesting conversation. I love all the perspectives that you brought in terms of how you guys built the brand and the story that I wasn’t aware of. I’m a huge fan of your products, so I would tell everyone here who listens that if you have not ever had St. Agrestis, you need to. What you guys are doing is really cool around the packaging and innovation. You guys are doing very, very, very innovative things there, which I think is crazy. If you think about it, we’ve had, as you said, bag-in-box wine forever. The fact that you decided to put a cocktail in there, to me, is this no-brainer idea that no one had thought of before. And now you’re doing it. I’m sure you’re going to have people obviously now take your idea and copy it, but huge kudos to you, man. The stuff you’re doing is awesome, and thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I wish you nothing but more success.
L: Adam, obviously, your kind words mean a whole lot to us, and we appreciate all your support in all the ways. And it’s been a pleasure chatting with you as well.
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Now for the credits. “VinePair” is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.