The Visionaries: Thomas Le

Thomas Le, the founder of Oliverlane bourbon whiskey, isn’t afraid to mess with tradition. And considering Kentucky’s first commercial distillery dates back to 1783, few things get more traditional. In 2014, Thomas used his savings to buy barrels of bourbon, which served as the foundation of Oliverlane, a light, modern take on whiskey without the burn. His brand has accessed a unisex market of drinkers who previously wouldn’t have considered a shot of the hard stuff.

As Oliverlane isn’t a typical whiskey, Thomas isn’t a typical whiskey maker. He started his career as an investment professional in U.S. Equities at J.P. Morgan Asset Management and as an associate in Equity Research at Lazard in New York. Since then, he’s been an investor at investment firms focusing on technology, media, telecom, and big data opportunities in the public and private markets. His wife, and co-owner, Ashley Pham, is an engineer by training and works at a technology firm as a branding and media consultant. Clearly, their backgrounds are far from typical in the distillery business. We invited Thomas to ZACHARY PRELL to hear more about their journey, and introduce him to our collection.

Did you always have an interest in whiskey?

Growing up in Texas, the first spirit I had was, of course, whiskey. It quickly became my alcohol of choice—especially bourbons. However, some of the common qualities of whiskey, like having a spicy kick or fiery finish, never quite resonated with me.

Did you have a light-bulb moment to develop a lighter whiskey?

The light-bulb moment came when Ashley and I arrived at a friend’s brunch with a bottle of whiskey to share. The whiskey spritz remained untouched next to the mimosas and screwdrivers. We’re whiskey lovers, but we realized that whiskey, even when “spritzed,” tastes much heavier and more potent than the other casual daytime drinks. On the walk home (on Oliver Street in New York, where the “Oliver” in Oliverlane comes from), we questioned why there wasn’t a light, modern, approachable whiskey that would be suitable for brunch and daytime sipping.

Thomas tried the Quincy sweater in Brown, the Aster in Navy, and the Robert in White.
Did you worry about how your idea might be received in the traditional whiskey industry?

No, this was a big part of the opportunity that we saw. Oliverlane was born to be something different. We’re the first whiskey with natural flavor that is light-bodied, refreshing, and mellow. And the soft finish of our recipe is unlike any whiskey out there. Today, the alcohol industry is undergoing a renaissance in craft, independently owned brands coming up with original ideas. It has already happened in bread, coffee, wine, and beer. Drinkers are increasingly moving to niche brands, taking the time to seek, understand, and appreciate the care it takes to create something new.

You worked on the recipe for over two years—can you talk about the process and the importance of using natural additional flavors?

The process started with hand-mixing flavor extracts with whiskey in my Murray Hill apartment in Manhattan. In the spice aisle of my local Food Emporium, I searched for flavor extracts that were refreshing and could possibly go well with whiskey. My hunch was that blending fresh ingredients in whiskey could make it smoother and mellow out the typical fiery finish. I decided to go with flavor extracts of vanilla, almond, mint, and cucumber. The initial samples turned out pretty bad. Long story short, I quickly realized that I would need help from a professional blender to see the vision through.

I sent over 100 cold emails to whiskey bloggers and enthusiasts and one person pointed me to a master blender and former sommelier with over 20 years of experience. He instantly understood the vision and agreed to work on the recipe. For about a year, my blender would send me five small sample bottles at a time. I recorded my notes and observations on each sample in an Excel spreadsheet and used that to inform how we should alter the subsequent samples. Ashley was the sole taste tester. One night, exhausted from tasting whiskey samples for nearly a year, we decided to finish up with one more test for the night. After tasting two samples, Ashley declared that she would never drink Sample 1 and that Sample 2 was way smoother and more enjoyable. Unbeknownst to her, Sample 1 was actually Ashley’s long-time favorite whiskey, and Sample 2 was the Oliverlane test sample. We knew we had our recipe.

Oliverlane’s bottle and label has a contemporary aesthetic. If this approach attracts the non-whiskey drinking crowd, do you think you can also win over the traditionalists?

No, I don’t think Oliverlane will win over traditionalists. But I don’t think about it that way. I’ve conducted a thousand consumer tastings, and I see a bifurcation of whiskey drinkers: traditionalists and modern drinkers. Traditionalists often prefer single malts and peated whiskies with a smoky and woody character. Those are wonderful whiskies, but Oliverlane probably isn’t for them. Oliverlane is for those who enjoy a softer and more approachable finish.

Who do you see as the typical Oliverlane drinker?

Oliverlane is for those who are naturally curious and embrace originality. Our biggest fans have typically been millennial urban dwellers. We have fans that were previously non-whiskey drinkers and now opt for it over their usual bottle of wine. Oliverlane is a unisex brand that speaks to the modern drinker, both women and men. Just like in fashion, we don’t believe products or experiences need to be strictly for men vs. women.

You’ve talked about going door-to-door to stores in NYC to have people try Oliverlane when you first launched. How challenging was it to do a face-to-face sales pitch for your own product and dream?

It was rough at first. The last time I sold anything I was a 10-year-old selling basketball cards. Door-to-door sales is probably one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had. Pitching your dream is also a very personal experience. It wasn’t until the 25th store that I got a “yes.” So 25 is now my lucky number! The 24 “no” replies in a row, many with the store owner laughing, did prompt me to think more deeply about my convictions. Fortunately, I grew up comfortable with being misunderstood so it didn’t faze me much. From the outset of the venture, nearly everyone I met from the industry told me that starting a whiskey company with no experience and no contacts in an insider’s clubby industry was a bad idea. But I never felt it was my duty to make them understand what I saw in my mind. I believe that most innovation looks like a bad idea at first. If it looked like a good idea, then someone would’ve done it already and it wouldn’t be innovative. Oliverlane is doing something new with a playbook that we’re writing as our own. My fresh pair of eyes has actually been an advantage as I’ve questioned everything throughout the process and started with no preconceived notions of how anything should be done.

Can you describe the initial reception?

Getting an initial market reception, whether it is up, down, or sideways was always going to be a critical part of our process. The first stage of our company is what I call hypothesis testing. At that point, we only had an idea and a hypothesis that people would want a light-bodied, refreshing whiskey blended with subtle notes of natural flavor. In order to put this belief to the test, I sampled about a thousand consumers and documented their feedback. Based on the overwhelmingly positive responses, the hypothesis was clearly validated.

As for the feedback itself, the initial reception has been even better than I could have imagined. My favorite part is watching people try Oliverlane for the first time and seeing their eyes light up. That moment of cheer is something that’s special every time, and it reminds me why I started Oliverlane in the first place.

Your website provides a number of cocktail recipes that work well with Oliverlane. What’s your favorite way to drink it?

On the rocks or as a highball. Highballs are refreshing and so easy to make; just combine Oliverlane with ice and top with club soda or ginger ale in a tall glass.

You selected the aster pant, the robert shirt, and the quincy sweater, We’d love to know how they’ve worked for you.

Fit, functionality, and comfort are the things I care about when selecting clothing. The Aster pants have a quality, tailored fit yet they’re definitely among the most comfortable pair of pants I own. I especially like that they pair with everything from t-shirts to dress shirts. The Robert is a classic white shirt with a clean cut that I can wear for any occasion.

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