With the chance to promote New Zealand’s prizewinning 42 Below vodka at a beach bar on the Shonan coast last Saturday, Tom Huskinson was there at 5 p.m. to find a long line for beer but no one queuing for the long sensuous mixers he calls cocktails.
“I shook up a few specialties — using fresh fruit juices and herbs, and of course 42 Below — then found myself chasing after potential customers scared off by this strange foreigner with a bad haircut. Eventually a girl bought one, came back for six, and then eight. Within no time I’d emptied all four bottles brought along.”
Such small-scale promotions are typical to date. As Tom explains: “With the company concentrating effort and investment in the States, 42 Below’s U.S. president recently signed with the fifth-largest distributor in North America.” Japan, he is sure, will be the next major target.
Growing up in New Zealand, Tom remembers many Japanese passing through his home. “My family emigrated from England when I was 8. My father hated the British class structure.” Living first in Auckland and then Howick, which has a large Asian community, “Dad was importing industrial machinery, mostly from Japan. He came here several times a year on business.”
Tom grins broadly as he explains that to help feed his addiction to Japanese food, he became a part-time garbage consultant. With a degree in environmental studies, he put on a suit two days a week to help companies go green, and otherwise dressed down to mow lawns at a Catholic girls’ school.
“I came to Japan to play music — my brother was here, running a club in Nagoya. I helped organize events, ran the bar and had fun for a year that turned into two, into four. Also I met my business partner, Michael (“Mad Mike”) Long in Nagoya; he was a friend of my brother’s.”
It was while in the States — touring with a band, studying drumming in New York and organizing jazz events — that Tom realized the potential of New Zealand wine. Yet despite the fact that New Zealand has nearly 500 wineries, Tom couldn’t find the wines he wanted in Japan. “This is what motivated us to import on our own. It was a long hard slog, but eventually a wine import and distribution license was granted earlier this year.”
Tom first tasted 42 Below Manuka Honey Vodka at a family wedding back home. “I thought, ‘This is amazing stuff.’ When I was a hippie, I kept bees, harvesting 40 kg a year.” Waiting for the license to come through over Christmas, he took a look at 42 Below’s Web site and found they had a contact in Japan.
“My timing was perfect. After six months preparatory work, the contact guy had fallen off the planet, so having checked our own Web site, the company asked if we wanted to become involved. By this time we’d moved to Kamakura, which is great for beach life, history and ghosts. 42 Below was a hugely popular brand of vodka in London and Sydney; after New York, Tokyo is an obvious target.”
Geoff Ross, who started 42 Below, used to be in advertising. On a flight back to New Zealand, Ross (“Chief Vodka Bloke”) was startled to see an ad for vodka made in the U.S. In his mind, vodka had always been associated with the clean rivers and forests of northern Europe. But New Zealand had clean rivers and forests too, so if it could be made in America, why not his own country?
Experimenting in his garage, Ross came up with a uniquely smooth vodka. Made from homegrown wheat with no genetic modification, 42 Below uses water from a 300-meter-deep underground volcanic stream at latitude 42 south, just above Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. The water is certified AA, the top rating for purity.
42 Below is distilled four times and filtered 15 times, so although it contains 42 percent alcohol it leaves no hangover. Tom says he can personally verify this: “Mixed with fresh fruit juices, it makes a very nice drink — not at all damaging, and leaving one nicely sozzled.”
You can buy 42 Below straight, or in four vodka infusions: Manuka Honey (with bacteriostatic medicinal properties), Passionfruit (claimed as a backyard standby for most Kiwis), Kiwifruit (say no more) and Feijoa, made with what a brochure calls “God’s best fruit ever!”
42 Below’s advertising is infamous. “Take a look at our U.K. Web site to see how close to the bone we get.”
Tom works for nothing right now promoting 42 Below, but that’s because he’s passionate about the product: “I really like it.” But since no one will order anything untried, he has to introduce it slowly but surely . . .
Want a recipe for a Summer Shiso cocktail, he offers. Muddle three or four chunks of fresh pineapple with two shiso leaves and a wedge of lemon. Crush it all up. Place in a shaker and add 45 ml of Kiwifruit 42 Below and some ice. Shake enthusiastically and pour into a tall glass. “In summer, top with soda. It’s very strong and, looking so pretty, can be deceptive.”
Read on, you “crazy, slightly creepy people,” as 42 Below advertising calls you, because the company is looking for new recipes — via the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup to be held in Queenstown, New Zealand. The company is planning to fly in for free the top 42 “mixologists” from around the world, who then will compete to make the best cocktail, go bungee-jumping, party and have a ball.
There will be a competition for Japanese entrants Aug. 28 at Soft in Shibuya from 7 p.m. Anyone is welcome to come and watch Japanese mixologists compete for the trip to New Zealand. “It should be be a great party.”
As for Tom, his funk-Latin band HUK is playing tomorrow, Sunday evening, from 6 p.m. on Enoshima’s West Beach at the “umi no ie” beach bar Dickies. With Tom on drums, sadly no 42 Below, but a different kind of buzz: no entry charge.