Shawn Starbuck Kelley
By David Ransom
The last thing Shawn Starbuck Kelley ever expected, was to be on the receiving end of a pitch… In her life, it’s usually her that does the asking. Not that she isn’t thrilled to be promoting something to the press. That’s something she’s VERY comfortable doing! It’s just that she’s just usually discussing one of the many spirits brands in her stable, not the finer points of the world according to Shawn. So when I asked her if I could interview her for Rocks Stars, Shawn, while surprised, was thrilled to sit down for a chat.
As Director of Public Relations for Pernod-Ricard USA (www.pernod-ricard.com), producer of such iconic brands as Absolut, Beefeater, Plymouth, The Glenlivet, Chivas, and Jameson, Shawn is one of a handful of names at the top of the leader board in the world of spirits, mixology and cocktails, who didn’t get there by shaking a shaker, or squeezing a lime. Not that she didn’t roll up her sleeves and do some dirty work along the way, it’s just that her path was a bit more circuitous, and possibly, dare I say it…, more interesting?
No, she wasn’t a lawyer, doctor, or pop singer who gave up a lucrative career to follow her dream of a life in food, nor did she leave the family coffee shop business, as her name may imply, to strike out on her own. Starbuck is a family name, but they’re not based in Seattle, and the closest she comes to being in any way associated with a coffee brand, is that Pernod Ricard owns Kahlua.
Growing up as the last of five children in a middle class family in Detroit Michigan, Shawn recognized early that food (and drink) would always play an important role in her life. She says, “I came from a family of gourmands. I grew up with an appreciation for good food, whether it was fresh fish and local veggies during summers on the shore of Lake Michigan, or learning how to make my parents’ evening drinks when they came home (Mom’s drink was an Old Fashioned and Dad drank Bombay Martinis). My parents loved food, and there was always a new recipe or concept to learn.”
She took that foodie mentality to college in Boston, where she majored in history and planned on attending law school, but it was while taking cooking classes after graduating, that she realized what she really wanted was a life in the culinary world. So Shawn moved to New York, and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute.
After graduating from FCI, Shawn worked for a number of New York’s trailblazing chefs, including Sarabeth Levine, the icon behind Sarabeth’s Bakery, Kitchen, etc., and Peter Hoffman of the groundbreaking Savoy. It was while at Savoy, that Shawn realized that, while she loved the restaurant and food world, she did not necessarily love working on the line, so she soon made the transition, with Peter’s blessing, to the front of the house. This enabled her to broaden her horizons into the beverage side, and learn some of the organizational skills that would help her get where she is today.
After a while, still loving the industry, but not loving the hours, Shawn left Savoy, and went back to FCI, this time as Director of Alumni Affairs. There, she worked her way into the position of Director of Alumni Affairs, or as she calls it, “a glorified title for being the person who helped place students in jobs after school.”
During this latest stint at FCI, Shawn realized that she had a knack for communications, and in 1998, accepted a job in public relations with Gault Communications in NYC. “It was like I had found my calling,” she says of combining PR with her love for all things food and beverage, “everything just clicked.”
From there, there was no turning back. After five years promoting numerous brands, including Vox Vodka, Shawn was approached to head up the PR department for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), an industry sponsored lobbying group based in Washington, DC, whose focus is to help negotiate regulatory laws through congress, like drink size and blue laws, etc. Its other purpose, to act as the go-to answer center for spirits industry related education, also plays an important role, and was the primary focus of Shawn’s work. She explains, “My main focus point there was to promote what we called ‘Cultural Acceptance’, or in layman’s terms, ‘how do we make spirits more mainstream?’”
Shawn worked with DISCUS for 4 years, before being approached by one of its sponsor companies, Pernod Ricard, to head up their PR department. She jumped at the chance. “Wild Turkey (which Pernod Ricard owned at the time) was already my favorite whiskey, so the transition was easy” she says, “and they are such an industry powerhouse. Who wouldn’t want to work with all those amazing brands?”
Still with Pernod Ricard, these days Shawn spends much of her time promoting her brands at all the major industry events and to the marketplace. She also spends a good deal of time on industry and consumer education, including starting BARsmarts, an unbranded national on-premise bartender education program funded by Pernod Ricard, and co-produced with Beverage Alcohol Resource, with its key players, Dale Degroff, Paul Pacult, Steve Olson, Doug Frost, and Dave Wondrich.
I caught up with Shawn recently over a cocktail (or two) at Pegu Club in NYC, and we had that chat:
DR: You have a lot of brands under your watch, what’s the secret to managing so many high profile products, and do you find it difficult?
SSK: Well, I’m a multi-tasker. It CAN be difficult sometimes to juggle “brand personalities”, however, it helps to be able to pool their resources to “own” larger events we produce, or are asked to take part in.
DR: Personally, white spirits or brown?
SSK: Both! It depends on my mood, with leanings towards Gin and Bourbon. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Wild Turkey.
DR: Did you ever tend bar?
SSK: I never have, but AM open to doing a “stáge” sometime, and running BARsmarts has given me some insight as to what it’s all about. Those people work hard, and usually do it in almost no light!
DR: What is your favorite spirit to drink straight, up, or on the rocks?
SSK: Scotch on the rocks
DR: What cocktail did you have recently that blew you away? Whose was it, and why was it special?
SSK: I recently had this Gin drink by St. John Frizell at Fort Defiance in Red Hook (Brooklyn). It was a Cucumber Collins, had perfect balance, and these great citrus notes that just knocked my socks off.
DR: Favorite Beer?
SSK: Summer: Corona with Lime, The rest of the year, Brooklyn Lager or Brooklyn No.1.
DR: How do you feel about cocktail pairings for dinners?
SSK: I definitely think you can pair them, but you have to know food really well. It’s comes down to balance and flavor compatibility… AND the size of those drinks! I personally like wine at dinner, and cocktails before.
DR: Where do you see cocktail culture in 10 years?
SSK: I’ve got lots of opinions on that one. First, I think that you will see great quality cocktail programs on a much broader scale. For instance, even airport restaurants will have signature drinks to woo you. Second, I think that bar staff will be much more educated to make esoteric drinks not found everywhere these days, like the Aviator, a personal favorite. Third, the industry will “pollinate”. In other words, customers will demand better cocktails, (think of people who usually now eat iceberg lettuce, ordering mesclun greens instead).
DR: I think I know where you’re coming from. I saw a signature cocktail list at an airport Applebee’s recently…
DR: New spirit brands seem to be popping out from everywhere these days, is the industry reaching a saturation point, or is there still room for new brand growth and shelf space?
SSK: Yes, There is definitely room for more brands. Regional and artisanal producers will continue to grow and expand the industry.
DR: I’ve heard from some people in the industry, that their sales are actually doing better in the current economy then they were two years ago, and that they have seen distribution growth. How has the economy affected your position, brands, and marketing ability?
SSK: Luxury brands are down, but some brands, like Jameson’s, which is up 26%, are seeing amazing growth. I think people seem to be trading down in price, while not wanting to give up quality. For OUR needs, if we see a category is down, we want to be down 8% to our competitors’ 10%.
DR: Pernod Ricard is a global powerhouse, with both wine and spirits labels from all over the world in its stable. Which brands are doing well right now, and why?
SSK: Our #1 growth brand these days is Jameson’s, which is the fastest growing spirit in the world right now. Chivas 18 is also doing really well. Consumers seem to be searching out sleeper brands, or new brands, that may not be household names, and therefore won’t have high price tags brought on by their success.
DR: With so many brands to promote, I assume you can’t tell me any favorites. So, when happy hour rolls around, do you just order a Long Island Iced Tea and call it a day?
SSK: Absolutely Not!!! Everyone knows I’m a Beefeater and Plymouth fan. Martell comes in third.
DR: I detect a conflict, so tell me, Beefeater or Plymouth?
SSK: Beefeater. It’s just a classic brand with a great history.
DR: What do you think makes a perfect cocktail?
SSK: I’ll steal from Dave Wondrich for this one: “A simple mix of 4 ingredients- spirit, citrus, sweet, and garnish.” What more do you need in a glass, except maybe some ice…
DR: Knowing that you love to make cocktails at home, do you have a favorite ingredient?
SSK: Anything that pairs well with gin…
DR: Should celebrities have spirits?
SSK: Being a publicist, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m old school, and prefer to concentrate on the liquid inside the bottle, and not on the promoter on the outside…
DR: What do you see as the next big trend?
SSK: Tequila. I also think the industry will revisit vodka again, which is still by far the #1 spirit in the world.
DR: Last question, I promise…With all the rage of “cocktail culture” over the last few years, can you tell us the percentage of spirits that go into “cocktails” vs. “mixed drinks” like gin & tonics, etc?
SSK: With the growing popularity of cocktail establishments, “premium” cocktails are certainly gaining ground, but there are still many, many, many more “bars” out there.
DR: Amen to that, and we’re done. Should we belly-up and knock back a few shots of Jameson together…?
1 1/2 oz. Beefeater Gin
3/4 oz. lemon juice
3/4 oz. Cointreau
1 barspoon of orange marmalade
1 Orange Twist
Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.