Rebranding Three Rivers Distilling Co

Repositioning a Midwest Distillery

In our quiet midwestern fashion, Indiana has become an undersung hotbed of must-visit breweries, wineries and restaurants. This shift began about 10 years ago as seemingly everyone decided to shed the mediocre, humdrum consumption habits of a heavily industrialized food system. For one reason or another, people began to care about the quality and provenance of the everyday stuff they were buying. 

Artisanal butcher operations cropped up, and we worked with those. Same with cheese makers. And fish mongers, coffee roasters, bakers, restauranteurs, and vintners. Truth be told, we love each of these things as much as we love our craft breweries. Er, well… almost as much.

Along the way, we assumed that the volume of work we’d seen in all of these parallel industries would eventually manifest in a flood of distillery projects. In fact, we were certain that a craft spirits boom was right around the corner. We figured the phones would be ringing off the hook as bespoke distilling operations cropped up all over the country. In that moment, it’s easy to see why. But as time passed, that work didn’t materialize—at least, not at the rate of the brewery work we were taking on. We did pick up a project here and there. For the most part though—it just wasn’t happening.

So, we were wrong about the whole craft distilling thing; at least about the timing, if nothing else. Fine. But… why?

Behind the scenes at Three Rivers Distilling Co.

[Craft breweries] have been able to set aside their competitiveness and work together as one industry to address legislative priorities, rather than working against one another to hold on to their small corner of the market.

Marla SchneiderExecutive Director of Three Rivers Distilling Co.

“Legislatively, we have very conservative alcohol laws in Indiana. Previous to 2018, a start-up Artisan distillery had to wait three years before they could serve or sell bottles at their location—that waiting period has now been reduced to 1.5 years. It’s difficult to build revenue on distribution alone for a distillery; therefore, it is essential to be able to serve alcohol and sell bottles on-site in order to keep the business afloat and the marketing buzz humming for a small distillery.

I believe that the distilleries still have some lessons to learn from their elder peers in the industry, too. The breweries and wineries are decades ahead of the distilleries as far as building guilds and networks. They have been able to set aside their competitiveness (for the most part) and work together as one industry to address legislative priorities, rather than working against one another to hold on to their small corner of the market.”

That insight comes from Marla Schneider, Executive Director of Three Rivers Distilling Co. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 2018, Marla hired us to help tackle a full-scale rebrand of their several-years-old distilling operation. Understandably frustrated by our relative drought of distillery work, we JUMPED on this project. This was our chance to add a real-deal, local distillery to the portfolio, and we weren’t going to miss out on the opportunity.

Marla and Bruce, two of the fantastic faces behind Three Rivers.

Three Rivers Distilling Co. was established in 2016 inside a former industrial-scale bakery on the south side of downtown Fort Wayne. The original owners of Three Rivers envisioned a luxury-level product to be enjoyed by the movers and shakers around the region. Originally, there was even a sort of “corporate lounge” where drinkers could rent out a locker to store their aged spirits and ephemera. But, after a couple years of business, it became obvious that this model wouldn’t pan out. People wanted a less stuffy (and more approachable) local experience that aligned with some of the other goings-on in Fort Wayne.

“Over the past decade, Fort Wayne has seen tremendous growth in community and economic development,” Marla tells us.

“I can recall working in the heart of downtown pre-2009, and it was a ghost-town come Friday at 5pm, and remained that way all weekend long. An effort to build a vibrant city was launched and we began to see pockets of growth that are now connecting as downtown assets in our community. We’re also realizing growth in the fermenters space—with only having one main brewery 10 years ago, we now have several breweries, wineries, and two distilleries and cideries in Northeast Indiana.”

So, the growth we were seeing everywhere else in the nation has been happening in Fort Wayne as well. The snag, at least as far as Three Rivers Distilling was concerned, was that the corporate, high end, suit-and-tie muckity-muck approach was not going to fly. By a stroke of luck, there was an ownership change that allowed Marla to step into an executive position; Marla and her team knew intuitively where they needed to head. They had to find a way to better integrate their products with all of the exciting local goings-on. And, they needed to do a better job of telling their story to potential customers.

We grabbed a delicious coffee from local favorite Fortezza and arrived at the distillery to a warm welcome. We spoke with staff members and leadership, toured the facility, and checked out liquor shelves around town. We learned that Three Rivers’ spirits are distilled from local (organic!) grain sourced from a farm in Bluffton, IN. We learned that their aged spirits are conditioned in barrels made by a Fort Wayne cooperage called Anne-Grey. We spoke with frontline staff at their restaurant and tasting room, and discussed opportunities for the space as the brand continues to mature. We sampled the goods. We saw their gorgeous column-style still, modest bottling line (where labels are applied by hand), and met the master distiller Patrick Tanesky, a former brewer who is as humble as he is obsessed with improving Three River’s production processes.

(A brief aside: There has been much reporting on this in recent years, but, I feel it was worth mentioning here. A lot of national “craft spirits,” and particularly bourbons, are manufactured en masse at a factory distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The liquid is purchased by the barrel, essentially as a commodity, and then further aged [or not], blended [or not], relabeled, bottled, and sold. It’s rare that there is an actual local distiller making actual aged spirits properly on site. Knowing this, I was absolutely blown away by Three Rivers’ dedication to procuring supplies, distilling and aging their own products locally.)

And then, we met Bruce. Bruce wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a voice that sounds like a thousand pickup trucks crunching along over thousand gravel roads. “We welded those barrel racks ourselves,” he points out proudly, recollecting the work they’d done on the building since the beginning. Aside from doing an impressive amount of work on the property, Bruce serves as something of an unofficial mascot for Three Rivers. The distillery even has a whiskey named after him.

Three Rivers’ previous packaging.

It’s safe to say that, from a branding standpoint, there’s a lot for Three Rivers to be proud of. A huge part of our task is helping our clients to pare back and focus on those key ideas that will help them the most in the market. We start this process by literally asking the question – What are you most proud of? Marla fills us in:

“I’m most proud of our efforts to continuously improve in the craft space. In the short three years that we’ve been open, we’ve improved our products, our distillery space, and our marketing in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I first started. We are 100% grain to bottle, which means we’re not sourcing distilled spirits and blending them with our own, we do everything in-house using organic, non-GMO Indiana grown grain. This is not the easy way to make a dollar or enter into the whiskey market, but we believe that it will pay off in dividends for our aged products providing a product that is unique to our brand and not like the other bottles on the shelf.”

Great! Now Three Rivers just needed a logo, packaging design, signage, spatial design, and cool merch to get these ideas across. You can look at all the pretty pictures on this post; I won’t bore you with the real estate tour. The big ideas? Focus on the local procurement of ingredients. Make the label designs feel like a natural extension of the distillery building (and the culture developing inside). And, drive home the point that this product is 100% borne of the local scene in Fort Wayne—the same scene that has brought all of the cool new breweries, restaurants and bars that we know and love.

So, how have people responded to this stuff so far?

“We’ve been introducing the rebrand through signage at our location and mock bottles for display during our tours and tastings. The reception has been fantastic from our customers and from the Fort Wayne Bourbon Society, which are our toughest critics in town. The logo is more readily recognized and easy to read the company name, the labels are compelling and unique, and the personality fits our business model and core values. We are so anxious for the bottles to hit the shelves, which we anticipate to be by mid-September.

Once the bottles are on shelves in liquor stores, our efforts will shift from finalizing branding and positioning in liquor stores to focusing on building a greater presence in restaurants and bars across the State. We are also focusing on obtaining a license that will allow us to serve beer and wine at the distillery (locally-made of course) and would offer business hours for families of all-ages to come in and enjoy our restaurant and patio.”

Thanks, Marla. So, with this project under our belt, we know a whole lot more about why we didn’t receive dozens of distillery branding calls all those years back. Distilling is an industry that takes money, and perhaps more crucially, time. Time enough, at least, to do it right and build something you can be proud of. We eagerly await this work hitting shelves so we can toast a glass of Franklin B. to all of the hard work and dedication that has gone into Three Rivers.

Here’s to not cutting corners, and perhaps selfishly for us: Here’s to many more such projects to come.

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