“From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you... until now.”
Queenstown is the place. I stumble from the airplane blinking into the bright southern sun. The chill air making my teeth tingle. Mid-way through my flight a giant’s hand decided to grab the plane and shake it like a polaroid picture. It was at that point I considered that maybe drinking heavily the night before wasn’t such great idea. Considering I was attending the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup the next day it was probably an extremely stupid idea. On the plane with me are several of the international teams who have come here to compete. They’re a rag-tag fugitive crew who have all earned their right to here. They are among some of the top bartenders in the world. They are a breed apart. They are freaks of nature. They are rockstars. They are the people who live to serve. And they’re not here to suck spiders. They’re here to win.
Drinks will be served and as I’ll discover they will also be drunk.
The reason this gathering being held here in New Zealand is simply because the sponsor of the cup - 42 Below - started life here in a garage in Welllington. And why Queenstown? Well the answer is - why not?
42 Below, as I’ll soon discover, have a way of doing things that is uniquely their own. Their culture is pure rock and roll. When I’m introduced to a staff member and he hands me his card the job description reads “Hair of the Dog Walker”. This company isn’t just about thinking outside the square it’s about taking the square to a mexican bar and getting it into a fight with Chewbacca’s wife. My first real introduction to the 42 Below culture is when I board the bus after the plane. The theme for this Cocktail World Cup is “Love, Drinks and Rock ‘N’ Roll Baby!” so waiting for me on my seat is a 42 Below hanky. When I unfold it I discover that this is more than just a hanky. This is the pure distillation of 42 Below. Around the edge of this hanky are words and this is what they say:
“If you are holding this bandana chances are you thought it was a handkerchief. I mean who wears a bandana? We got a truckload of these printed because our marketing guy thinks it symbolises all that is good about Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Rockstars” (and I use the term loosely) used to wear them when? The early 90s! That’s not even far back enough to be retro. I think that guy off Rock of Love still wears one, but he is a dick. Our marketing guy sucks. Why do we pay him so much? Handkerchiefs aren’t Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Can you imagine your company putting something like that on the pencils for your next team building weekend? Let alone a piece of merchandise that will enter the public domain and possibly even be published in a national magazine? Welcome to the party pal because this is 42 Below. Irreverent, straight up and unafraid to stand out from the grey.
Then next thing that happens after I board the bus is they take me to a bridge and throw me off.
It's Queenstown so no prizes for guessing that it's a bungy jump. Over the week while I'm here covering the Cocktail World Cup I will scream down a river in a jet boat - a cocktail challenge the teams have to shake their cocktail onboard. I will ride in a helicopter twice. I will ride around Lake Wakatipu on a Harley Davidson. I will go fly-fishing on a remote river. I will hit the town with some of the hardest working (and drinking) bartenders in the world. I will fly to Wellington on the strangest and most rock n' roll charter flight I've ever been on. I will ride in a Hummer limo and I will be surrounded by beautiful women. And I will drink a lot of Cocktails. I know it's a tough job but someone has to do it. To paraphrase Claudia Schiffer "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful". Believe it or not this is a serious competition. Deadly serious. I've hung out with these guys and the truth is while they're quick with a joke, a story, or drink and never far from the centre of attention under it all they're nervous. They want to win but they don't want anyone to know that they want to win. It's like that if they let us see they want the glory they lose face. Lose some of their cool. It's not hard but you know that it will break these guys hearts if they lose. But there can be only one.
And there can be only one 42 Below.
A quick visit to their website reveals the truth behind the clear thinking that is this brand. Where other brands contain "about" pages that rabbit on about their history and the technical details of their "process" and their "craft" 42BELOW offers up this little gem:
"If you pick up a map and trace your finger around the 42nd parallel you'll find us, little old New Zealand, one of the remotest places in the world. For the couple of hundred years we've pretty much done our own thing down here, growing a bit of food, playing a bit of rugby and heading off to the beach every weekend for a nice lie down in the sun. It's a great place to live and coincidentally a great old place to make premium vodka and gin.
Once in a while the boffins from some institute that measure 'air purity' come on down and set up their instruments. And they'll tell us the same thing in their weird foreign accents "Your air is awesomeness!". Not only is this cool for the scientists that get a free trip to our ski slopes, it's cool for us as well.
The of course there's the 42BELOW spring located just down the road. We draw all our water exclusively from here because from some reason it just tastes so much better than water from anywhere else. It's water that is really the secret behind our vodka and gin and we had nothing to do with making it so pristine - it's all Uncle Nature's handiwork. Some nights we'll go down there and just will up the jug to make a really excellent cup of tea."
Note the attitude? I'll come back to you on that. For now I want to be honest with you. While it's very nice of these guys to treat me to all this fun stuff and rounds of drinks I'm not going to let them bribe me. I'm here to write an article and real journalists dig deep. They don't stand open-mouthed in bars while attractive women pour vodka into their mouths from the rafters. Ahem, anyway, in the interests of sniffing out the dealio on 42BELOW. All the teams are very quick to tell me that while their are a number of Cocktail competitions around the world the 42BELOW World Cup is the one they all want to go on. And who can blame them this is fun. But again under the fun is some pretty shrewd thinking. If bartenders know about your product, know that your product could win them the chance to compete in this wild and wonderful event then chances are they'll stock your product, chances are they'll even push your product. Why market to the general public when you can market to the gatekeepers. Oh yes 42BELOW is a vodka with style and charisma to burn but scratch the surface and they're all business. They're a small company taking on the world and using good old kiwi ingenuity and trench warfare (which the Maori's invented don't you know?).
Another interesting fact that comes out is that bartenders aren't that wildly keen on using vodka in cocktails. For a start it doesn't taste of anything so a lot of things need to added to it. A lot of mixers and other alcoholic beverages. As we know 42BELOW is well up on this with their flavored products - Manuka Honey, Passionfruit, Kiwifruit and - of course - Feijoa. Incidentally the foreign teams have no idea what to make of the humble feijoa they say it tastes like liniment and until recently the United States of America refused to admit that the fruit even existed. But I digress, there is one other thing that 42BELOW have injected into their product. It's the culture. The attitude. The way they roll. It's reflected in the bandana, the business cards, the twinkle in the eyes of the staff. It's their way of doing things. And it's worth it's weight in gold.
On September 27, 2006 42 BELOW said it had received a takeover offer from Bacardi Ltd at 77 cents per share, valuing the company at NZ$138 million. Bacardi said it saw 42 BELOW as a young company with long-term growth potential.
"Bacardi plans to invest heavily in the 42 Below brand portfolio and supporting infrastructure," Bacardi's president and chief executive Andreas Gembler said in a statement. The takeover was successful and 42 BELOW Limited is now a wholly owned member of the Bacardi group.
Bacardi is adamant that manufacturing will remain in New Zealand, run by the same team to retain its distinctive Kiwi spirit. "It gives a fresh perspective to the super premium and premium vodka segments and actually comes across with a very nice Kiwi irreverence flavour that's not there in the market at the moment," says Bacardi spokesperson Atul Vora.
Not that long ago 42BELOW was being mixed up in a garage here in godzone and, ten short years later, it was being sold for $138 million. No bad for a clear flavourless alcoholic liquid. But as is in evidence here at the Cocktail World Cup 42BELOW is about more than just what is contained in the confines of the bottle and while it is an extremely good vodka there's part of us in there. Part of fun of being who we are and why we are. For the record the American team came first after spray-painting the stage (just like the yanks making a mess and expecting the rest of the world to clean up). The kiwi team came third but in the end the winner was 42BELOW or rugby I have to admit that my memory is a bit hazy after a week of cocktails.
There's something in the success story of 42BELOW for anyone embarking on making of selling a product. Yes make the best product you can but love that product, live that product and more importantly make sure other people see that. Now there's something worth drinking too. Cheers.