Still, Frank outwitted those giants when he brought Grey Goose to market. That's why Bacardi paid such a hefty price for the brand. And before Grey Goose ever came along, Frank had done something that none of the conglomerates had managed before or since: He sold to American drinkers a product that they didn't want. He sold them Jägermeister.
WHEN FRANK FIRST began importing Jägermeister in 1974, it was selling just 600 cases and was almost exclusively consumed by German immigrants who drank it to settle their stomachs after a meal. Green and viscous, it's one of those acquired tastes - like professional ping-pong - that Europeans develop and Americans don't.
But Frank got lucky in 1985, when some college kids at Louisiana State University took to drinking Jäger for who knows what reason. They dubbed it "liquid Valium." Rumors spread: Jägermeister contained drugs - opium, perhaps. It was made with elk's blood. That kind of thing. The rumors were untrue, of course. But when a story about the tall tales appeared in the Baton Rouge Advocate, Frank jumped. "I didn't have money for advertising, so I made millions of copies of that article and spread it all over the country," he says. Specifically, Frank had his salespeople post the article in men's rooms at thousands of bars, taping it up at, well, prime vantage points. "A guy would go down to use the washroom and then come back to the bar and ask for a Jägermeister. I had to do guerilla marketing. I had to use my wits."
Eventually, Frank and his wits landed on a stroke of genius. He bought a company that made machines to chill liqueurs - kind of like beer taps, except with something more potent in the pull. "At room temperature, Jägermeister tastes lousy," Frank admits. "At five to eight degrees, it's marvelous." Today, Frank believes there are 30,000 Jägermeister machines in bars all over the country and the tap-machine program is the strongest it's ever been. He says the liqueur sold more than two million cases last year.
It could be argued, of course, that Jägermeister was dumb luck (and that a donation to LSU might be in order). And Frank does admit that luck played a part in both Jäger's rise and his next big success - Grey Goose. "I went into the vodka business with Grey Goose just as people were turning to cosmos and martinis," he says. "It was luck that we chose the vodka category."
Still, Frank's marketing approach wasn't just kismet. It was innovative. He hired a French distiller to make Grey Goose, giving it a je ne sais quoi that most big-name Eastern European and Scandinavian vodkas didn't share. He packed it in wooden crates so that it would seem fancier when it arrived at bars and liquor stores. And he gave it a fancy price - $30 a bottle when it hit the shelves in 1997. That made Grey Goose, at the time, one of the most expensive vodkas in the world. The whole idea was to create a lasting sense of luxury around something that evaporates in an instant.