Ezekiel Bronfman and his cofounder, Nate Medow, were college students when they first had the inspiration for building a zero-sugar, all-natural ingredients, light, refreshing seltzer brand. For them, none of the traditional alcoholic beverage options at college parties were cutting it. In 2019, SESH: Cocktail Meets Seltzer was introduced to the world.
They’ve always had a vision of building a great-tasting commercial product, but neither of them anticipated how quickly they would start being approached by celebrities across the world to help launch their own alcoholic beverages.
We caught up with them to learn about the state of talent-led spirit brands and more.
Humble Beginnings. Before SESH, there were Zeke and Nate – two friends in college that enjoyed the social scene on their college campus. For most college students, the standard alcoholic beverage options are cheap, high in sugar, high in calories, and artificially flavored.
It’s hard to find too many college students complaining about their options because, for a long time, alcohol has served as a social lubricant and a way to meet new friends on campus. However, Zeke and Nate saw things differently.
Zeke comes from a family that owned an alcohol business for generations. He grew up around family members that were intentional about what they drank. Whether it was gin or whiskey, drinking alcohol was seen as an intimate and authentic experience in his household. Zeke knew the difference between a bottom-shelf brand and a quality alcoholic drink from a mile away. For him, it was challenging to downgrade on alcohol and enjoy any of the limited options available on college campuses.
Nate had a different story. As a type 1 diabetic, he inherently could not enjoy the high sugar content of most cocktails. Every new option that came to local campus liquor stores seemed even more sugary than the last.
That’s when they had their lightbulb moment.
Zeke explained, “We were both looking for delicious, authentic, robust flavor profiles that are in the better for you, zero sugar, all-natural ingredient, light, refreshing format and quickly realized that nothing on the market checked all of these boxes.”
They wasted little time. What started as the journey to fulfill their own needs quickly became a massive business opportunity.
Zeke recalls, “We just went back to our dorm room and started mixing and ended up creating delicious, authentic cocktails with zero sugar, all-natural ingredients, low cal, and low carbs. We started making this for ourselves and a few friends.”
Before they knew it, they made over 60 batches of their mix every weekend for friends and students around campus. This is when they knew that they were onto something big.
They quickly branded their canned cocktails as “Sesh” and launched into four markets. To their amazement, they performed even better than they imagined, quickly became a top-selling brand, and continued expanding.
After expanding to twelve markets, they started to become known for how effective they were at acquiring distribution and building a powerful brand. This was when they began to have various celebrities reach out to them and ask to help launch alcoholic beverages for them. While the opportunity sounded incredible, the reality was their team was small and their focus and resources were fully dedicated to the SESH brand.
Zeke shared, “We were a small team trying to build one brand, which is hard enough, and we just kept having to turn away these great opportunities, but we knew how exciting they were. From the very beginning, our goal had always been not to just build one brand, but to build a really exciting portfolio of brands – and we knew this was a great chance to start doing that.”
Instead of continuing to turn down opportunities, Zeke and Nate saw a chance to become a house of brands involving celebrity brands they would help launch.
Infrastructure. It’s important to note that oftentimes when a celebrity wants to launch a beverage product, they outsource nearly all of the development work. For example, their managers would rely on Zeke and Nate to source, develop, distribute and market most of the products they would develop for the celebrities.
Zeke and Nate approached a company– Next Century Spirits– with whom they shared several investors, about doing a few of these celebrity brands together in a joint venture. Instead of a JV, Next Century decided to acquire Nate and Zeke’s company to build out a best-in-class portfolio of celebrity-backed brands together.
Why? Sesh quickly became a product in a larger portfolio of brands the two founders were building. The company became known as XED brands and to this day continues to launch a suite of celebrity-founded spirit brands.
The natural question to answer is, “why are so many celebrities interested in launching spirit brands in the first place?” and “what makes some spirits brands more successful than others?”
Zeke has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about both of these questions. He shared, “The short answer is everyone saw George Clooney and a couple of these early successes and wanted to get in on it as well, but you have to go under the hood a bit more. Where can a celebrity have the most impact when they’re launching a brand? It has to be in a CPG space. Within the CPG space, alcohol has been especially attractive to celebrities for two reasons. First, it is a sexy category and one dominated by lifestyle brands. Second, it is typically higher margin and more profitable than other CPG products.”
Although the spirits market has received a fair share of criticism for being overly saturated with alcoholic beverages launched by celebrities, the truth is there have been countless winners in the category. What Zeke is highlighting here is important to understand. Celebrities and celebrity culture lend themselves so well to consumable products. Spirits have simply been a winning category with massive outcomes. Why wouldn’t celebrities launch more alcoholic beverages?
Not to mention, alcohol is an extremely profitable category.
Zeke added, “When a partnership is done well, a celebrity has to be authentic and willing to put in the work- and all the brands that you will think of when you’re thinking of a successful celebrity alcohol partnership are ones where the celebrity was massively involved and deeply engaged.”
He’s right. Teremana Tequila notably launched during the pandemic and had heavy involvement from Dwayne Johnson. 818 Tequila sold over 136k cases of tequila within the first 7 months of business and Kendall is very active as a spokesperson for her brand.
However, it’s also important to note that a celebrity alcohol brand is not a home run every time. Zeke reminds us, “Drake launched a whiskey and it did almost nothing. And it’s not just about the size of the celebrity. It’s not just about how many followers they have. It’s really a combination of the celebrity being passionate about the project, being willing to promote the brand, and having the right infrastructure and team in place to manufacture and distribute the brand.”
Good Partnership. So what are the characteristics of a good partnership?
Zeke shared, “Hands down the most important thing is having a celebrity that is genuinely passionate about the product and has an authentic reason why they are involved in that specific spirit. It is highly important to integrate the brand into the activities the celebrity already is doing. For example:
- If someone’s a musician having a huge concert tour and making sure that the brand is at every single one of those concerts and there’s a huge order placed at every one of the stadiums for the next year is an incredible integration opportunity.
- If the person is an actor, make sure that the product is featured in their films and shows
- If the person is an athlete, make sure that they integrate the product in a smart way into the way they live their lives.”
What’s noteworthy about Zeke’s comment is that there’s almost no clause you can put into a contract to guarantee that a celebrity is going to authentically feel like an owner and truly integrated into their lives. While there are several protections that are always included in their celebrity contracts, ultimately whether or not the talent pushed the product is the X factor. Authenticity and passion are key drivers, but there is also a fine line.
What’s Next? Xed Brands was recently acquired by Next Century Spirits which means they will continue being backed by the infrastructure that will support the expansion of their portfolio. The team is really excited about a few categories, none more than
There are tons of tequila, vodka, and gin brands launched by celebrities, but few whiskey and aged rum brands. Zeke and his team see this as the next coming of celebrity brands.