Tom Baker, the founder of Mr Black Spirits, shares the wild ride his team has been on since serving up their first coffee-infused cocktails back in 2013.
How and where did the Mr Black journey begin?
It seems like a while ago now! We started Mr Black back in 2013 for the simple reason that coffee is delicious, drinking is a fair bit of fun and we should put those two things together more often!
Why do you think the espresso martini has become such a prolific cocktail in Australia? Is it because we’re all a bunch of coffee snobs?
We are a nation of coffee addicts – so why would our choice in cocktail be any different? While the espresso martini was created in London in the 80s, it was perfected here in Australia in the two decades that followed. I think it’s equal parts that Aussies love for coffee and the decadence of it all. People in Australia like to have a good time, and there’s no better symbol for that than the espresso martini. It combines two much loved slices of Australian life.
The entire Mr Black range is made with pure specialty-grade Arabica coffee. How do you select the beans that go into the range?
Choosing coffees is akin to a painter with a palette. We know what we want the picture to look like, and we spend a lot of time blending the colours before we touch the canvas. Each of our sourcing regions around the world has a specific character, taste and texture, and we test, experiment and taste to make our selection. We love the rich chocolate and cacao notes of medium and dark roast South American coffees paired the lovely fruit and sherbert-like acid notes of East African coffees. Each coffee has a story to tell, and they’re always the starting point when we’re creating new blends.
How have you managed the supply chain as the business has grown over the years?
Small spirits companies are the perfect storm for supply chain hell. High (and highly unpredictable) growth combined with long lead times and capital constraints make managing operations a nightmare for businesses our size. Add in export markets, draconian excise and tax jurisdictions, government compliance and it’s a lot of work.
Our solution was to focus on a small number of products – 95% of our sales are made up of one (astoundingly good) coffee liqueur in a few different bottle sizes. That gives all aspects of the business from sales to marketing and ops a laser focus on doing one thing well. Had we diversified too quickly we would have fallen over.
Now we’re of a scale where we can employ a high-caliber COO and operations team. It’s still hell for them – but we’ve got experts managing it now. This gives our business, and our business partners, the confidence to invest in the growth of the busienss, because we know we’ll have the stock to sell.
Tell us about the Mr Black Ethical Sourcing Policy and why it is so important for your team to uphold.
Core to our purpose at Mr Black is making people care as much about their evening coffee as they do the coffee they drink in the morning. When we make a premium product using top-shelf raw ingredients, we create value for growers, for retailers, our team, and for drinkers. It’s not a race to the bottom on price, rather creating a product people are happy to pay a little bit more for.
The simple idea of “leaving the place better than you found it” applies to all aspects of our business – but none more important than our coffee sourcing. We work with a small number of high-quality producers, co-ops and importers to ensure the coffees we get not only taste delicious but help improve communities at every step along the way –overseas and here in Australia!
The new canned Mr Black Espresso Martini couldn’t have come at a better time, with double-vaxxed Australians heading out for picnics and outdoor gatherings. Can you see these products becoming a staple for coffee lovers?
It is a serendipitous time to launch – but completely unintentional. We’ve been working on our Espresso Martini for the last three years, and it happened to launch when people are looking to get out and about and reconnect with friends and family.
If you like coffee, I struggle to see how this product couldn’t become a staple. It’s everything a coffee lover likes in a can. Rich, authentic, full-bodied coffee with a little 8% pep of booze to follow it up with. If there’s a better way to spend an afternoon in the park or at a BBQ I’m yet to find it.
Canned or tinned cocktails have proven difficult to really nail – until now. How do you think Mr Black succeeded where other producers fell short?
Our Mr Black Espresso Martini looks like an RTD, but it’s not made like one – and that’s the “secret”. Too often producers just buy in flavours and have a production company blend it all up for them – that’s not how we work. That’s not us. Mr Black are the real-deal roasters and distillers of the best coffee spirits in the world. We create our products from scratch, and we’ve developed a reputation for being pretty good at it.
You’ve also added to your product offering cocktail kits with shakers, strainers, glasses and more. How do these products add to the overall Mr Black experience?
Since COVID there has been a huge rise in people making cocktails at home. Previously it all fell into the “too hard” basket, but with people spending more time at home, some have rediscovered the joy from a freshly shaken cocktail. We sell a bunch of these from the website. People love it. While we don’t make the cocktail shakers ourselves, we’ve curated a small selection of high-quality kits that will last for thousands of cocktails – it’s harder than you think to buy a quality cocktail shaker!!
How has COVID-19 affected business (if at all)?
COVID was a wild ride for our small business. In two years Mr Black has gone from the depths of despair watching our sales go to almost-zero in February of 2020, to achieving a level of sales we thought it would take many years for us to achieve. COVID made us focus on the important things – like direct connection with our drinkers – and less of the “nice to haves”.
It’s been a challenge that’s for sure. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it all that much – especially watching on as many of our friends and customers have closed. It’s been tough. Add in the operational complexities of running a distillery where social-distancing is challenging, the global freight crisis, rising coffee prices, cardboard and can shortages… the list goes on.
On balance, I’d have to say we’re a better business now than we were in 2019, but there were a lot of very painful lessons along the way.
What’s the next big move for Mr Black? Any new products or initiatives we should be keeping an eye out for?
Our Espresso Martini is available in over 1000 stores across Australia and we’ve got a collab in the works with the team at Bundaberg Rum on the way! So if you’re a fan of coffee, drinking and having a good time, it’s a good time to be discovering Mr Black that’s for sure.
To find out more about Mr Black visit mrblack.co. The Mr Black Espresso Martini is available for $34.99 for a four-pack from all good bottleshops.
Lead image by Guy Davies
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