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Frank August | Reshaping What Bourbon Can Be

We spoke with CEO and Co-Founder, Johnathan Crocker, about the story of the new bourbon brand.

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Nate Rynaski

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Frank August is the bourbon brand re-contextualizing what it means to be an American spirit—embodying an ethos of innovation, authenticity, and heritage. Its inaugural Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey flagship launch introduced two very limited expressions, expanding on the initial single-barrel releases.

Recently, for its first "Single Barrel" cask strength release, Johnathan Crocker, Frank August CEO and Co-Founder partnered with one of the industry's most respected master blenders to identify their top 10 favorite barrels, blending their pallets for the final five barrels of the brand's first Single Barrel release. Continuing to challenge the bourbon industry's status quo, Frank August also released its first "Case Study" offering "Case Study: 01 | Mizunara | Japanese Oak", a release of five hand-selected barrels of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, boasting flavors of butterscotch and baking spices.

Flaunt caught up with Johnathan Crocker to discuss the brand's impetus, the response to the brand, and more.

Tell me about the impetus for Frank August.

The catalyst to creating the brand or actually really pursuing it was Covid. It's an idea that me and my two business partners have kind of floated around for like the last six or seven years. They both live in New York. I'd always stay at the Bowery, so it'd be like, at the hotel bar, one in the morning, drinking a bourbon. And at some point saying, “how amazing would it be to have our own brand.” But it was always more or less just a wishful idea, as opposed to any kind of real, serious, business endeavor that we wanted to pursue. Then when the pandemic hit, obviously the world just kind of came to a screeching halt, and I think we're gonna probably look back at that time and see so much creativity and innovation that came out of that time. Just because it really, whether forced upon or not, gave people the opportunity to do what we did. Kind of explore what we had always considered, but never really thought seriously to do. 

Not to digress, but I think that's the reason why the hospitality industry is in shambles, right? All of the servers and service staff and cooks and all. They finally did that. You know, they've been talking about getting their real estate license and they finally did it, or they were talking about switching careers and they finally did it.

So for us, it was like, “well, you know, now that we're all sitting home, maybe we kind of start to really flush out this idea.” And fortunately for us, one of my good friends for the last 10 years now is Drew (indiscernible). And Drew is the master distiller and his family owns Willett and Willett. And if you know anything about whiskey and bourbon is one of the most sought-after respected whiskeys in the world.

And Drew himself is a three-times James Beard-nominated Master distiller of the year. So if you're gonna have a friend to ask questions about bourbon, you know, Drew's obviously a good friend to have. So he was the first call. I reached out to him, I told him what we were thinking about doing, and had a ton of questions for him, but the two main questions I had were, “if you didn't have your distillery today and you were launching a brand, who would you wanna distill with? Who would you wanna work with?” And two, “We're gonna need to get an attorney. Do you have any recommendations?”

So Drew, not involved with the bourbon in any capacity, just a buddy helping out another buddy who just happens to be Drew (indiscernible). But he pointed us in the direction of a distillery. That's where we got our source liquid from, as well as who we contract distilling with, meaning who we're laying down, you make new foot barrels with.

And then in regards to an attorney, he had said that they worked with like four or five different attorneys. And I reminded him that we were gonna need just one. And, he kind of laughed and said, “We actually have a good family friend who we do a lot of work with that I think the two of you would get along well with. And he also happens to be the majority whip in the Kentucky State Legislature.” To which I replied, “That sounds amazing, Drew, but sounds incredibly expensive. And why would he wanna work with some guys like us?” And you know, Drew just shared that he seldom made introductions that Chad would take the meeting, I should take the meeting.

So long, long story short, in the last two and a half years, besides my wife, there's no one I speak to more on a regular basis than Chad. He's turned into a dear friend. But the reason why I share that is just for context, right? It's really reflective of not just how we've gotten to where we are in the last two and a half years, but more importantly, the quality of partners that we have. Because as much as the bourbon industry is evolving, it's still a good-old-boys club, you know? And while you don't know me that well, it probably doesn't take a whole lot of imagination on your part to imagine me rolling into Bardstown on my own and saying I'm looking to start a Bourbon brand or looking to lay down barrels, you know, probably not too many doors are gonna open for me, not gonna be welcomed with open arms. But if Drew (indiscernible) or Chad McCoy is making an introduction, at least it gets me in those rooms. So, we've taken those relationships and, um, all the benefits that have provided the brand and we've put it all back into the brand product.

Tell me about Frank August as a brand.

Starting new businesses, you typically have to identify a problem or need that's not being met in the marketplace and create a solution for it.

There's no problem of a shortage of bourbon brands, it's quite literally the opposite. Probably the last thing the spear industry needs is another bourbon brand. But instead of a problem, what we saw was an opportunity. And the opportunity was that, you know, there's predominantly one story, one strict narrative in bourbon and it's been told over and over again. And unless you follow that, traditionally, you haven't been considered real, you're not authentic, you're not bourbon. And that's always been that legacy origin story. So some family recipe passed on from generation to generation, a distillery that's been revitalized after a hundred years, a yeast strain that's been discovered. This is the name of the mule that pulled these barrels from these brick houses a hundred years ago. You know, so on and so forth. And we're not saying anything disparaging against those stories. A lot of those stories are beautiful. A lot of them are complete BS, but you know, no matter their authenticity or not, um, the end result is still the same, right?

It's become so ubiquitous that it's homogenized the entire category—Bourbon. So, walk into your favorite, you know, uh, liquor retailer—Flask, (indiscernible), Wally’s, wherever it is. Walk into the bourbon aisle, close your eyes, randomly reach out, grab two bottles, and pick 'em up and look at 'em. And chances are it's that story.

It's the same story, just repackaged, and regurgitated differently. So that's where we felt the opportunity was, you know, kind of creating this reconsideration of what bourbon is, this kind of modern expression of what it can be, what it can represent. While at the same time reconsidering its identity as America's Native Spirit.

And just a quick history/refresher—In 1967, Congress introduced a resolution that deemed bourbon a wholly distinctive, unique product from the United States. And it kind of became coined as America's Native Spirit. So, bourbon has been intrinsically part of the history of America as much as America has been part of the history of bourbon.

So the ethos of the brand is a play on that. It's America's spirit, be frank, and it's this kind of double entendre. So America's spirit—referring to the liquid, be frank and America's spirit, be frank—Referring kind of to the attitude of what it means to be frank: open, honest, undisguised, sincere.

So that's the story that we want to tell, that's the conversation that we want to create around the brand. And the name itself represents that story. Um, Frank August isn't a real person. Frank is inspired by one of my business partner’s late father, and August is the middle name of my other business partner's son.

So Frank, representing our past, understanding our heritage, where we've come from, where we've been and August, representing all of our future ideals and aspirations, and just the idea of looking forward. Because traditionally, the story of bourbon's told by its past, it's told by looking back and looking back alone.

So we wanna pay our respect to that, but at the same time, look forward. So hopefully that's, in what you've seen, I'm not sure if you've got your hands on a bottle or not, maybe just imagery, but you know,  we wanted the liquid itself to be the heritage in the story. That's why it's Kentucky-straight whiskey. But beyond that, we wanted every other touchpoint, every other experience of the brand to look, behave, operate, feel different than what you had come to expect from bourbon. So hence the minimal design, the elements of modernity. Just the simple idea that less is more. Because in bourbon, it's quite literally the opposite—It's typically “more is more,” that's the reason why bottles are very ornate, very decorative, lots of copy, typography, you know, throw an animal on for good measure; a buffalo, an eagle, a chicken, a horse, and you've got yourself a bourbon brand, you know? And again, we truly aren't saying anything negative about that. It's just that if you want that, if that's what you're looking for… We don't need to create another brand that delivers on that, because there's hundreds of them that you can choose. So we wanted to create something that almost was like a palate cleanser, if you will. You know, where our hope was, and it's been kind of validated since we've been launched all these last four months, is that it would be the simplicity of the brand that would speak so loudly.

That it would be, whether it's sitting on a shelf or sitting on a back bar, if you saw it, it's so sparse, it's so minimal that you'd be like, “what is that? I wanna see what it is and just engage with it.” And I think living in the time that we are and where we're so overstimulated constantly, if you as a brand, no matter what it is that you're selling, can get people to pause even just for a moment, it's half the battle, right? Mm-hmm.  just to pause and consider. Just because there's so much thrown our way that usually that's what happens. It's like in and out, in and out, in and out. And it takes a lot for us to kind of just stop for a second. And, the hope and expectation is that we would design a product that would do that.

How's the response been to the brand?

We've been more excited about is the response to the product itself. So we take spirit competitions with a grain of salt, but nonetheless, it's something that you have to participate in if you're in the industry. And we participated in Tales of the Cocktails first inaugural spirit competition, the New Orleans Spirit Competition, and all the blind competitions. We took home a gold medal for that.

We won Best Modern Packaging across all spirits, all categories, you know, which includes LVMH brands, brown Form, Pernod Ricard, you know, all these big guys. So that was a huge nod to us. So then we participated in the New York World Wine Spirits Competition, and we earned a double gold award for that. And in order to earn a double gold, all judges in your category have to unanimously award it a gold. Mm-hmm. . So it means every single judge that tasted it did that. So again, not the end-all, be-all, but when the product is validated by industry professionals that have discerning pallets and that's their job, that's been incredible. And then just the feedback from editors… It probably sounds funny, but the bourbon influencer community, it's a very real, very strong, very active community. The support has been incredible. To be completely honest, I thought there was gonna be a lot of pushback.

I thought it was gonna be, Who's this? Frank August? This isn't bourbon, you know? But, I've been pleasantly surprised. It's been almost just the opposite. And I think it kind of shows that there's an appetite for something new in bourbon. And I think, um, you know, the reason why we see so many legacy origin stories is because it ties back to something that did exist in the past.

And I think inherently because that's true, there's a sense of authenticity. Like, “oh, there was this old master distiller 80 years ago” Or “there was this distillery” and we can point back to something that was. And I think that's what's made it so difficult to introduce any kind of new story, because usually a lot of times we associate longevity and time with authenticity…That it has to have this really long-storied past in order for it to be authentic. But part of the—and I can't remember how much I got into this with you–and this is what I always thought might be interesting with Flaunt readers, is the story that we really want to tell around Frank August is this idea of reconsideration, right?

We're asking people to reconsider what does it mean to be bourbon? But what we're doing as well is we're asking people to reconsider its identity as America's Native Spirit. So what always struck you was that… all bourbon is whiskey. Not all whiskey is bourbon.

So in order for a bourbon to be whiskey, there's a number of criteria. It's probably one of the most strict, stringent categories of spirits in terms of qualifications of being deemed it. One of the first criteria for whiskey to be bourbon is that it has to be made in the United States. A lot of people think that it needs to be made in Kentucky. 95% of it's made in Kentucky. We think the best bourbon's made in Kentucky. But it just has to be made anywhere in the US. So it's the identity of the spirit, right? Like every single bourbon you drink is an American Spirit. And I thought, “why don't people talk about that more?” But then it kind of dawned on me, well, if it's a shared characteristic with every single brand, what makes it unique to any one individual brand, right? If we're all American, like me talking about where Americans like, “yeah, great, we all are,” you know?

But then I thought it's also because most brands look at it through a similar lens. So that's when we started to kind of, you know, ask that question if we're reconsidering what bourbon is, let's reconsider the identity of what it means to be American within whiskey? So we started to look at things…there's such strong connotations and associations that come to mind when we hear the word “American”—baseball, apple pie, Elvis Presley, Ford, Chevy, Coca-Cola, Levi's, Wrangler—all amazing American institutions, but fairly limiting for as rich and as diverse of a story that we feel that America represents.

So that's when we started to look at things like music and heard people like Dylan, Cash, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane. We look at art in some people like Warhol, Basquiat, Pollock, O'Keefe, Koons, Herring, Judd. Um, we look at architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, John Latner. Personally, I'm a big design guy, so I naturally look to (indiscernible) Ziems, Florence Noel, Palm Cobb, George Nelson, George Nakashima. Can’t help but think about literature, right? Some of the giants, Hemingway, Baldwin, Twain, Harper League, Kerouac, Ginsburg, the list goes on and on, you get it. But what's amazing and what kind of really was this kind of “aha” moment for us was—Every single one of those legends, every single one of those icons, the work they created, the art they made the indelible mark, they left on culture. Every one of them is American. And we thought, holy shit, like how powerful would that be? How beautiful would that be if we heard the word American? And our mind didn't go to the expected, but it went to these people—their work, the art they made, again, their contributions. That would be an American that we'd want to build an identity around for a brand. That would be an identity of an American whose story we would like to help tell. So yes, at the end of the day, we wanna sell as many bottles of bourbon as we possibly can. But if we can create a conversation larger than just bourbon itself, then maybe we have the opportunity to tap into culture.

And if we have the opportunity to tap into culture, maybe we have the opportunity to create something really special. So that's what we're trying to do with Frank August, and I think that's what's kind of starting to resonate with people. And I think, I believe it's just as authentic of a story as a heritage origin story.

It's just a different take on it. And what better kind of industry or brand or category, however you wanna describe it, is better to have that conversation than America's Native Spirit. So part of… you know, we're only four months old, in terms of being in the market, but hopefully some of the content that you're seeing through our soul, through media, everything we do points back to something American.

Every single post that we do ties back to something there. If we're gonna post a review on the brand. I dunno if you came across that, some of the first reviews that came from Frank August, we posted those, but alongside of those we posted some iconic First American reviews as well to tell that story. So we did like the first review of the Macintosh, the first review of the Chevy Corvette. Kind of like pointing back to that. If we're introducing Frank into a new city, we start to tell part of  (indiscernible)  And some of the history that's tied to it through art, architecture, culture, design, whatever it might be.

So it really is this kind of slight paradigm-shift of… we live in very divided times and within politics and culture, it's very polarizing. And I think this is something that almost all people can get behind no matter what you believe in. Right. That you can celebrate. For people like you that are in what you professionally…culture, art and design, the names like Warhol and Basquiat and Paul, it's just like, “oh yeah, of course.” But the average person probably doesn't know that Basquiat was an American artist, probably doesn't realize that George Nakashima, probably doesn't even know who he is, but if he did just the name itself, you know, was an American, Japanese American. So we think there's an interesting story to unpack there. And I think with this new, uh, consumer of bourbon, it's more diverse than it's ever been. It's diversity in age—younger, diversity in sex. The latest statistic is 30% of all bourbon drinkers are women. That's insane. Diversity and ethnicity, it's no longer just this old white man's string. African American, Asian American, Indian American. There are so many different, you know, ethnic groups of people that are flocking to the spirit. So when you start to paint this picture of who the customer is, it begs the question, “are there brands speaking to them, engaging them in meaningful ways?” And I really don't think there are, I don't think there really are that many.

So we hope to be that in some way, not exclusively, but we hope to be a brand that people can look to. And, when they think of Frank August, that it's more than just bourbon. It's this ideal, you know? And it doesn't hurt that it's beautiful packaging and design. It's something that you'd proudly display on your bar or proudly happy to bring to a housewarming party or something like that.

So that's part of the story that we wanted to tell, It's part of the reason why, we want to engage, with media partners such as Flaunt because yes, of course we, we get coverage with  Whiskey Advocate and Wine Spectator and Robert Port in terms of like their spirit coverage, but I think the conversation that we wanna have is within culture and I think reaching out to publications like yourselves the journalism and the editorial that you guys do. . I feel like there would be a lot of your readers that'd be like, “this is interesting…whether or not I'm a whiskey bourbon drinker or not, maybe I'm just drawn to the design, like I love beautiful design and I just want that, or I, I'm drawn to that, but I also love the spirit and now I'm tasting it, I'm like, oh, holy shit. That's really good.”

You know? I think anything that we purchase or consume is a reflection of us. The art we draw, houses we live in, clothes that we wear, it's a reflection of us in some way, shape, or form. And it's no different within the spirit space, you know, maybe the last few years because we've been locked down. But when you go to a bar and you order something, it says something about you just like, you know, if you hear someone order a Malibu rum and Coke, you're probably like prejudgment—just as a joke. So I think versus someone that sits down and orders a 25-year-old Macallan, you know? And not to be pretentious, I'm just saying there's these kind of associations that we make. So I think Frank August, we wanna build it as a brand that people would be proud to order, you know? Like a frank on the rocks or whatever it might be. 

From my perspective, what I feel maybe makes it so attractive of a brand is it's, “changing the story of bourbon.” You say you don't want to be the only one doing that, but you are maybe one of the first ones doing it right now, and hopefully others will follow suit. And you can kind of bring about a new wave in the industry. 

Absolutely. 

With that, and how you're changing the story and making this American association, to me, these associations you're making feel a lot deeper and more concerned with the soul and intellectualism and something that’s—it's not like a Ford, even though a Ford maybe represents something different. Not just like a truck, but it's…

It's just all those associations, those natural associations are just that, right? They're so ingrained in part of our culture and minds that that's why our minds just immediately go there. And I think if we can start to just get people to look one degree to the left or right, and all of a sudden start looking at “American” through different lens... Let's not let the last six years or whatever define what American is.

America’s diverse and rich and beautiful and storied and creative and innovative. It's all of these things. And we've kind of inadvertently let things kind of take a hold of what it is, you know?  We should be proud to wave an American flag. So I think it's, without sounding too grandiose, usually what's preceded amazing things that have happened in culture in these defining moments, have been when someone has dared to ask the question, “can something be more?” 

And by no means am I comparing what we're doing to any of these people that I'm about to mention. But you know, Steve Jobs said, “can a phone be more than a phone?” Elon said, “can a car be more than a car?” And it took people like Elon, that wasn't in the industry, to be able to think like that.

And I think it's very much the same within us. Like we don't have any kind of industry background, right? It's not a family business. So it's given us the opportunity to look at it through a really unique, fresh perspective. And I think that's the other reason why you see so many brands just looking and operating the same way.

It's just because the people that have been running those brands, probably run other brands, you know, or they're just looking to what already exists as saying “That's how it should be. That's the status quo, let's just adhere to it.” So for us, we're not looking to be contrarians for the sake of being contrarians, but we're a really kind of explorative process.

For us, it was like, “well, can it be more than this?” Surely Bourbon doesn't have to just be “this,” it can be so much more. So that's the question that we're kind of asking ourselves as well as we continue to build this brand. 

Frank, meaning an openness, why is that openness so important? I think you're trying to shift that narrative, but I think there's also maybe a certain amount of honesty and straightforwardness that I think maybe the brand has. Why is that so important?

Totally. I think that the idea is for us to ask the people to reconsider. Right? If I'm asking you to reconsider—whatever your thoughts, preconceived ideas—what it means to be bourbon or I'm asking the same thing to reconsider, “hey, reconsider your thoughts of what it means to be American,” what's required of that? To be open, to be honest. If you're closed off and you're not willing to do that, reconsideration is impossible. So for us, that really is kind of like, tenant of the brand, you know? It works nice, but in actuality, it's such a genuine, big, huge part of the brand, just kind of being open and honest. And I think creating a tagline that's “Be Frank” in this time, I think is a very provocative statement. We have all these ideas of creating these content series of like, “frankly speaking” and getting people together from seemingly disparate viewpoints in life and with the goal and intent to demonstrate that we can look at things differently, but still find common ground. it could be as serious as like politics, sex, and religion, and getting people on that. That's maybe a little too heavy, but it could be getting a Dodgers and a Giants fan together.

Well it seems like things are going well! Any final words?

It's been great. We sold out of our first release very quickly. I was in Kentucky last week bottling our first single-barrel expression, and a program that I'm calling “Case Study” that's inspired by the whole mid-1940s architectural case study project that started—the whole idea behind that was to build affordable housing using alternative materials and practices, but ended up building some of the most iconic, mid-century modern homes that we've seen. So that's the program, for us is anything that we're doing in terms of various finishing technique, re-barreling, blending of whiskeys. So it'll always be like case studies. So, our first case study release case zero one mizunara, which is Japanese Oak, and we've got a limited release, a thousand bottles that are coming out of just that.

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