An Insider’s Look At Spirits Sourcing: An Interview with Obtainium’s Gene Nassif
At just 28 years old, Iowa’s Gene Nassif wears a lot of hats. By day, he’s a practicing attorney focusing on family law. By night — and on the weekends and whatever other spare time he can muster — Nassif is co-owner of Cat’s Eye, a Bettendorf, Iowa-based micro distillery more widely known for its “Obtainium” brand sourced products.
With Obtainium, Nassif has leveraged social media, YouTube, and word of mouth to build a following around the brand’s sourced Polish rye, Canadian whisky, light whiskey, Armagnac, and more. At certain points, some of Obtainium’s products have boasted age statements exceeding Nassif’s own age.
With Obtainium sales growing in double-digit percentages year over year, Nassif and Cat’s Eye co-owner John Baker have sights set on broadening Obtainium’s lines into international spirits from around the globe. Cat’s Eye also bottles select blended products under the Nassif Family Reserve label.
Nassif — a frequent guest on whiskey-focused YouTube channels — recently sat down with Drinkhacker to discuss starting off in the sourced market and the regulatory challenges involved with sourcing abroad.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: How did you initially develop a passion for spirits?
Gene Nassif: Where I went to college, Luther College, is next to Toppling Goliath breweries. So one of the best breweries in the country was a block away, and I got to taste some really great beers. And then the craft aspect of craft beer turned into the craft aspect of whiskey, and the rest is history.
Drinkhacker: You live a dual life: You’re a practicing attorney and you’re also a distillery owner and active in sourcing spirits.
Nassif: That is correct. Two full-time jobs. The story goes that I was in law school in a whiskey group locally in Iowa. We were talking about the store pick market before the store pick market skyrocketed. And what I saw was an opportunity. This was 2016, but the whole idea of store picks wasn’t huge. And also the sourced market, as we know it today, was not huge. You had some, but people going beyond the MGP or at that time, Heaven Hill or Barton, and sourcing spirits from around the world.
Me being into Scotch at that time, I thought, “Why can’t I have this independent bottler concept applied to American spirits?” Full transparency, you see on the label what you’re getting. I got connected to John [Baker], my partner, who at the time was running a distillery in Iowa, creating his own product. We partnered to create this brand new brand — Obtainium — which becomes 99% of the sales. And now we’re co-owners.
Drinkhacker: Are you exclusively handling the sourced products, or are you involved with any of the in-house distilled product?
Nassif: Our current setup is not built to sustain scaling. So unless we spend another $250,000, we could never produce enough product to even get beyond the state of Iowa. So I am solely the sourcing, blending, and marketing aspect of the Obtainium brand. The product that we distill ourselves, while we care about it quite a bit, just could never get to that point unless we spent a huge amount of money on improving our equipment.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk about some of the early sourced products that you were releasing. What was your first sourced product, and what was the launch strategy for that?
Nassif: So it took a lot of cold calls to even get somebody who was willing to sell us barrels. I didn’t know the market, I didn’t know that this market traditionally was almost shrouded in secrecy. Nobody wanted to say where they got the stuff from. Nobody wanted to disclose brokers. It was actually Jeff Mattingly of Mattingly & Sons down in Kentucky who was the first person to really help me out. A famous quote from him that I remember to this day is, “Us little guys stick together.” And that was absolutely true. He connected me with some of my first brokers, and I tasted through a bunch of barrels.
I tasted through a bunch of Dickel at that time, old Dickel, I’m personally a huge fan and I really wanted to bottle it, but the idea stuck about how many people really like Dickel? There’s like 10% of all whiskey drinkers who like Dickel. So I tasted through, and then I get to this light whiskey and I go, “Nobody’s heard of this stuff before.” I really liked the history that was overlooked. It’s essentially a single grain akin to scotch used for blending. And it’s really good when it’s old, on its own, period. So I enjoyed it. It was a new spirit. I could create my own category or bring back this historic category. And that’s what I did.
Drinkhacker: What are some of the other releases that you’re doing with some regularity?
Nassif: After light whiskey, we came into some Polish rye whiskey. It was actually distilled in Poland, then we imported it here and bottled it, which was absolutely amazing. We do MGP five- and six-year rye whiskey, the 95/5 recipe, which is also a staple. We do Canadian whiskeys. I bought a bunch of whiskeys from the Palliser Distillery, which is also known as Black Velvet.
When Heaven Hill purchased them, a lot of the old whiskey stock stayed. The reason is that Black Velvet in America is a bottom shelf brand. In Canada, they actually have more premium lines and they discontinued the premium lines. So the most premium, highest-age product, we ended up buying a lot of. It’s a 26 year old Canadian corn whiskey, and a 27 year old blended Canadian whiskey. Additionally we’ve done Armagnac. I imported Armagnac from France, blended it, which was amazing. I’ve got a 21 year old Canadian rye whiskey coming out, really just sourcing some of the coolest, most interesting products from all over the place.
Drinkhacker: What’s something you haven’t bottled that you’d be excited to tackle in the coming years?
Nassif: Scotch is the ultimate hurdle because of regulation. Scotch does not allow for bottling outside of Scotland, which means that I have to partner with bottlers there and then essentially learn how to import Scotch. So I did probably the last step first and bought Scotch barrels before knowing all of this. Down the line, a blended Scotch too, with older, single grain and single malts.
Drinkhacker: What’s your marketing strategy?
Nassif: What we did differently I think has changed how craft distillers market themselves, and I think not a lot of brand people or marketers were willing to engage with whiskey YouTube and social media. In other words, you might have an ad, right? You might pay somebody or send them the little sample bottles along with a $50 bill or whatever else you want to do and say, “Hey, please review my product.” But almost nobody up until that point of time wanted to go on Whiskey-Tube and talk about the product. You did not have a lot of people that wanted to engage with these whiskey Tubers. And we’re not just talking the big deal people, the Fred Minnicks of the world. I’m talking about these people that at that time were maybe 10,000 subs on YouTube or 3,000 on Instagram, or haven’t really skyrocketed.
I really wanted to engage with those people because I knew even just trying a bottle with them was going to get more eyes than an advertisement on YouTube, specifically, eyes of people that were going to buy my product. So I started engaging with them, started talking with them, started getting feedback from them. And I was happy to do it. I really enjoyed the community.
Drinkhacker: Is most of your pick interest inbound now? Or are you approaching people that you specifically want to do picks with?
Nassif: Most of it now is people reaching out to us. We’ve got a backlog at this point, given how large we’ve grown. When there are certain groups and certain people that I care about who supported me when I was nobody, absolutely. I reach out to them and say, “Hey, I got this really cool stuff coming. I’m going to offer it to everybody else, but I wanna make sure that you have your opportunity.”
Drinkhacker: I know you’re a numbers guy. What can you tell us about the growth of the brand?
Nassif: I share everything. In fact, I’ve made other distillers uncomfortable during live streams, when I talk about the price of barrels and such.
Drinkhacker: In 2022, how many barrels of sourced product are you going to move?
Nassif: I think we’re probably on track for another 250 to 300 barrels. On contract now and owned we’re at around 2,000 barrels, I think maybe 2,100 at this point. And that is ownership, and then we have contracts to purchase. So it’s basically an option that you just have to exercise.
Drinkhacker: How can people stay on top of your new releases?
Nassif: Most of the time, Instagram or Facebook. Let’s say somebody is going to get a store pick from us. The first thing that I tell the retailers are post on social media, send me the link and you’ll see it on our Facebook, you’ll see it on my Instagram. I try my hardest to do that. That being said, even a lot of these liquor store owners still are not getting behind social media marketing of their store picks. And so you end up having third parties, like somebody that came in and bought it that are posting the pictures.
Drinkhacker: Anything else you’d like to add?
Nassif: Enjoy drinking, enjoy exploring different spirits from around the world. Enjoy making a cocktail with it, too. I tell people that it’s great to explore, and don’t be limited by thinking you have to drink it neat and in a glass without ice. I mean, just enjoy!
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