John Ralph Talks About Cocalero

We talk to John Ralph, creator of Cocalero and CEO of Intrepid Spirits, about flavour, bringing a uniques spirit to market and of course how to use it.

By: Tiff Christie|July 2,2020

It’s not often that a truly unique spirit enters the market with the same impact that has been created by Cocalero.

Celebrating the coca leaf that has grown in the Andes mountains in South America, the spirit imparts a sense of terroir of its Homeland.

To understand this unusual spirit a little better, we speak to John Ralph, creator of Cocalero and CEO of Intrepid Spirits about botanicals, flavour, what it takes to bring the unique spirit to the market and of course, how to use it.


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It's not often that a truly unique spirit enters the market with the same impact that has been created by Cocalero. Celebrating the coca leaf that has grown in the Andes mountains in South America, the spirit imparts a sense of terroir of its homeland. To understand this unusual spirit a little better, we speak to John Ralph, creator of Cocalero and CEO of Intrepid Spirits about botanicals, flavour, what it takes to bring the unique spirit to market and of course, how to use it.

Thanks for joining us John.

Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be able to join in here and share some of the inspiration behind creating Cocalero.

Now, what was it about this South American inspired spirit that made you want to produce it?

Well, first of all, I was traveling down into South America and I saw, particularly in countries like Bolivia where the cocoa leaf is really... It's a central part of the culture. There's all this negative view of what the cocoa leaf stands for in the western world or in the developed world. But when you really tap back into South American Incan culture, you can really get a feel for how important the cocoa leaf is within their cultures. And even today, it'd be widely...
First thing you do when you get into Bolivia is you have a cup of coca leaf tea because it seems to help you with the altitude sickness. And so really as I was down there and started to understand more and more about cocoa leaf culture and how it was evolved, how it was deeply rooted in their society, I started researching and I think obviously something, naturally, people will gravitate to when you talk about the coca leaf is obviously Coca-Cola. And when you start to dig deeper into that, the origins of Coca Cola was actually a product that was an infusion of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves and it was very popular in Europe. And that was called Vin Mariani. And Vin Mariani was consumed by the Pope. It was consumed by the higher echelons of European society. And that was ultimately, the inspiration for John Pemberton to create Pemberton's French Wine Coca. And that ultimately became Coca-Cola. There's a whole long story behind that I could get to, but what that really inspired me to is maybe trying to bring something with that unique history back to life and sort of bring it into sort of maybe a slightly more modern footing, but rooted in that history. That's kind of in a nutshell, the inspiration behind Cocalero.

Now, unlike Coca-Cola, though, you've made Cocalero quite a vivid green color. Why did you decide to go that way?

Yeah. Well, it's interesting. When you look at the history, you look at historical spirits around the world, and you look at a lot of herbaceous, herbal spirits, products like absinthe and various different liquors you've seen over the years, particularly from Europe, they've used those green colours. And I think green is something that's very interesting as sort of promotes a vitality and sort of sends the right signals.
I think from a mixology point of view as well, it imparts of really interesting hue on different drinks. It could really sort of make them stand out from when you're presenting drinks to customers, et cetera. So we decided that that was the direction we go down and it's proven to be very popular with consumers, and the trade, alike.

Let's talk a little bit more about the coca leaves. I believe that they have healing properties.

Yeah. Look, if you tap into Incan culture and that goes back over 7,000 years, there are various different directions you can go down. But as of today, you'll see that its primarily used a lot, would be for both it's altitude, it really helps your body deal with altitude sickness, by sort of increasing your blood flow allowing oxygen into your body faster. And that really helps when you're up at 4,000 meters above sea level. It really does help you acclimatise a bit faster. But historically it was always seen as kind of like one of these cure-alls. So, people would take it for arthritis. They take it for rheumatism. You name it back in the day, people would have used coca leaf as a cure all for that.
But today, where you largely see it... It does have quite stimulant properties. Not to the extent that it's more illegal cousin today might have, but you'll see if you walk around the streets of Bolivia, you got people sort of walking around with a... They look like they're chewing tobacco. They've got a lump on the side of their mouth, which is where they would have a gourd of coca leaf. And that would provide stimulating properties, which helps people, historically, work longer hours and all, so it's got a very rich history when it comes to healing properties and its functional benefits, as well.

And I believe, an ability to protect from curses.

Yes. Of course, they were always a very superstitious race. A superstitious bunch of people but no one of the things they used to do, which I think is quite fun is they when they would mummify bodies after people died, they would stuff their mouths full of coca leaves as a way to protect them as they go to the next life, et cetera. So there is a wealth of imagery coming out of that. There's a wealth of interesting... They would set up shrines with coca leaves in them when people would die. It's quite an interesting background to it. Yeah. That's it.

Unlike a lot of, shall we say, herbal cures that have been brought from areas of the world, why do you think this one hasn't really hit the mainstream as much as others?

Well, it's funny, cause it probably, in many respects, it did. Early on in the 16, 1700s, there would have been fairly widely spread across Europe, even probably up until the late 1800s, you would have had Vin Mariani or some of these coca wines that were available in Europe. And I think, really what happened over time was that flavour trends changed, as well. But I think if you look at what happens from the late, the early 1900s as the pharmaceutical uses became more obvious. If you look, the coca leaf was used, if you look back in history in the early 1900s, probably up to the 1920s or 30s, it ended up becoming used as an anaesthetic for dental work, et cetera.
And then obviously, the coca leaf... The cocaine aspect of it started to become a lot more prevalent. And at that point, then I think western governments really started to push back to stop the growth of coca leaf on a world level with very few exceptions. Like Coca-Cola, which becoming, still, part of that. But, there was a big push with regard to Cocalero. I think it was probably the late eighties when most of your American listeners may remember Coca-Cola Classic, but just before that they created a New Coke, which was an effort by the Reagan administration at the time to basically try and shut off coca cultivation in Latin America because a huge amount of coca leaf was still being used in the flavour for coca Cola.
And I think as soon as they switched to the new flavour, Coca-Cola's market show dipped considerably and they were forced to jump back into using their original flavour, which is why you had Coke Classic for a lot of the nineties. And so there's a bunch of factors that have played into it, but the coca leaf's global explosion as probably in a negative context has really restricted message in terms of the more functional benefits of the coca leaf and the rest of the world.

There are a number of quite unique botanicals within Cocalero. Can you talk us through a little bit about those?

Yeah. Well, obviously we've got three different versions of cocalero that we sell around the world. The most complex of that would be Cocalero De Altura, which is our flagship and our most premium version. And that we actually distilled in really small batches at a distillery La Paz. And on that we have a bunch of different Amazonian botanicals. We have a number of Amazonian wood barks and I think at the Amazonian wood barks, which are kind of the more exciting things that I look at because part of the process we actually do. So we distilled the coca leaf and we distill a number of other... I think it's called a tumbo fruit. We distill cocoa pulp. So the pulp from a cocoa pod. Cocoa, not coca, cocoa. But, also a number of the classic gin botanicals, as well, to give it that botanical flavour. But what we also do is we macerate the Palo Santo wood, chuchuwasi, and Canelone. And they're three Amazonian wood barks that we macerate for about 30 days in our base spirit. And that imparts this really unique flavour. I don't know if you've ever walked into a... Where would I put it? A store that would sell incense or kind of more of the hippy stores. You'll always have the smell of Palo Santo and Palo Santo has been used for many years around the world as a way of warding off evil spirits, et cetera. And so when you taste some of those botanicals they're really unique. And I don't think anyone's really ever used them from a spirit, in a spirit context. So that kind of really makes the drink quite unique and different.

With that combination of ingredients, what sort of flavour is it imparting?

It's quite unique. So Cocalero De Altura, it's almost got a lot of positive gin aspects to it. So we do use a Juniper berry. We do use coriander seed. And so they really do come through and in the dissonance. But it's more that finish. So on the finish you'll pick up a really unique woody flavors. So then they really come from the canelone and the chuchuwasi. We also use some eucalyptus leaves within the distillation process. So that also comes off. So the spirit itself will be quite fresh and quite unique but once people try it, it's unlike a spirit most people have ever tried before. It's very unique, very different.

Is there anything that would be modern in the popular vernacular that you could point to as a similarity flavour-wise so that people can get a bit more of an understanding?

Sure. So for Cocalero Classico, that'd be the green one which is very broadly available. A lot of bartenders that come back to us and said, "it's kind of got a very light version of chartreuse". Which is true to some of the botanicals that we've worked on and how we've developed it. And that would probably be, by and large, the most regular reference points we get from our talking to bartenders.

You've got a lot of ingredients in this that are native to the South American area, was this based on an existing recipe from the area or have you created this from completely new?

No. We wanted to go right from scratch. There are other coca spirits that have been created around the world and in South America but we want you to really take this right back to the starting points. And when I was developing the recipe with our distiller, we did recognise that there was this global gin Renaissance going on. So we felt that was a great way to deliver a unique botanical spirit, would we just start with those gin botanicals. So we started with the classic gin botanicals, as I said earlier Juniper, your coriander seeds, there's some cinnamon in there, but then what we really laid onto that was all of these other unique botanicals.
And so we wanted to come up with something that was completely different but had a very kind of easy home to get back to if you were, if you wanted to come out and get your first time thinking about how to make a drink for Cocalero. You can very much start with what are the great gin drinks and build from that. And then you can go down a path of making hundreds of different cocktails.

I'm interested in the barks. And what made you think to incorporate those? Were those something that you had come across in other drinks or in other flavours?

No. I'm telling you, we're going to give full credit to that to our master distiller, a gentleman called Juan Carbazole and Juan was actually... He works at the restaurant in Girona in Spain called El Celler de Can Roca. It's been noted as one of the world's best restaurants for many years. And he developed this whole drink. They basically built a small still in the restaurant for developing really unique spirits and really unique ingredients. And so he worked on developing the whole Cocalero de Altura liquid with me. So he came up with the idea of how bring these flavours alive within the product. A total union. I'd never seen it done before, but the finished product was just so exciting. It was just so different. That's yeah. And it was very exciting.

You're distilling all of these things at high altitude. Is that different from doing it at a lower altitude or what sort of effect does it give to the liquid?

Essentially, the higher you get, atmospheric pressure changes. As a result of that, alcohol has a much lower boiling point. So typically ethanol is a boiling point is about seventy-eight degrees. Whereas I think a 4,000 meters above sea level. I'm pretty sure we're boiling at about seventy. It doesn't sound like a huge difference, but what happens there is it's got a much softer interaction with botanicals. So it just leaves this sort of more a bit more of a sort of smoother flavour. It's hard to describe without you having a side by side taste of gin distilled that at sea level versus our product which is still about 4,000 meters above sea level. It really gives that... It just leaves a bit of a bit more of a lingering taste from the botanicals. Cause they're they're not just bullied around in the still as much as at sea level.

If someone were to buy the Cocalero for the first time, how would you suggest that they first try it?

Well, look. I think my personal favourite drink, which is over time, is definitely a Cocalero sour. So if it's someone who knows their way around around a cocktail, take your classic whiskey sour recipe and just switch the whiskey for Cocalero. It's a really nice drink. And if you use those fresh egg whites as well, it really creates a a nice foam to it, on top of the drink as well. So it's quite very smooth, really easy drinking and from a presentation point of view, it has a really nice green hue to it. But it works great given our gin characteristics. Anything that goes with gin. So what works fantastic is a gin and tonic. I mean that's a very simple refreshing long recipe. It's just cocatonic and that's one of our more popular drinks in Japan which is where we're quite successful as you may know. But also just chilled, neat, it tastes fantastic. And it is quite a complex spirit. So it does challenge your taste buds just sort of pick up and see what you might do with it.

The spirit debuted in the US about this time last year. What has the reaction been?

The reaction has been very positive. And the US is a very big market as you know well. But we've spent the last year and a bit just trying to figure out what is our best approach. So we haven't gone out with a sort of let's take on the entire United States and dominate tomorrow kind of approach because a lot of brands try that and a lot of brands fail. We're fortunate that we've had success in other markets. So it does give us time and resources to be able to try and figure this out and do it right. But it's funny, we're finding success in a variety of different ways. We really focused in of some of the higher energy places to start and it's working great there but that would be more in terms of the shots and easy drinking cocktails and that's kind of where the brand lives in the likes of Japanese and Chinese markets.
It's very high energy. It'd typically be slightly younger consumers. So probably 21 to 28, 21 to 30 consumer, but actually in the US what we found is we're getting a lot more traction than we expected in the likes of craft cocktail bars and in some of the casual dining restaurants as well, which came slightly as a surprise to us in terms of our initial focus, but it's something that we've really managed to get behind, now. Particularly that casual dining channel, because that was something that we always thought we know it works great, long drinks and long cocktails but it does take time obviously to develop those channels.
I think what really helped drive that was our German importer came up one day. He said "Look I think this works great in a spritz." And we're like "Okay we didn't really think to go down that Aperol Spritz route, but once we tested a couple of different recipes and we tried it out in a few places here in the US we started to really start of tap into that sort of Sunday brunch thing. Which as we all know, is a fairly significant drinking opportunity here in the United States.
We're getting interesting pockets of traction and we wouldn't say that we've totally honed in on our strategy for here in the US in terms of which channel we're going to focus on. We're still sort of testing. We're still trying to figure out the best approach, but overall really positive response to the brand, which has been quite humbling.

Now with bartenders, other than, obviously, doing a spritz and doing gin-style cocktails which I imagine would be easy to recreate, have bartenders been experimenting with it in ways you didn't expect.

Yeah. Jesus, we've had the beauty of Instagram, I guess, these days is that people can post a drink very quickly and we'll find out about it, which maybe in the past, you would never hear about these things. But one of the drinks that kind of really threw me sideways was when they used Cocalero in a Mexican hot chocolate and it tasted delicious. It was just one of those things. I would never have thought of putting a product like ours, which is quite botanical and quite unique into something sweet like a hot chocolate, but it works a treat and so much so we actually managed to put it onto a few drinks this last winter. And we'll definitely be pushing it again this winter as when the summer is over.

Yeah. Okay. Now, if people are going to experiment with the spirits at home, what flavours do you think work well with it? So you've obviously mentioned hot chocolate and so chocolate obviously works well with it.

Really the best direction to go down if you're mixing drinks at home and you want to make maybe a pitcher of something to have with your friends, really those citrus based drinks really work well with it. We do a lot of work with some Mexican restaurants where they swap out the Cointreau or Triple Sec and replace it with Cocalero. It really adds a different dimension to the cocktail, itself, but it's very easy to do. It's very simple to make at home right? So most people in the US know how to make a margarita at home. So that's a really simple mix you can do. You can get a bit more adventurous and you can make a last word, which is gin, lemon juice, and you swap out the chartreuse for Cocalero. And that works great. Probably a little bit more adventurous than most people want to get when they go home, but really heading down that route of anything kind of citrus based. It is very easy. Very mixable for that.

You mentioned earlier about the popularity of the spirits in Japan. Do you want to talk us through a little bit about why that is and how it came about?

It's funny. It's kind of a... I think we were quite just, a lot of it might have to do at a place in time. And it actually goes back to one of our sales people in Hong Kong was looking to move home to Japan. And he was very involved in the world of music and DJ's in both Hong Kong and Japan. And when he was moving home, he wanted us to bring Cocalero home with him. So we started off with a very conservative approach. We said "Look, let's do 10 bars and Osaka, 10 bars and Kyoto 10 bars in Kobe." and really worked to try and promote us and what he did with his connections. He managed to really get that whole underground music world supporting him.
And literally we spent the first year, we didn't go anywhere near Tokyo. And so we really just focused in on small high energy venues. People really took to the brand. We've done research on it. And from a taste profile, it really resonated well with the Japanese palate. And the brand image itself then kind of did the rest of the work for us. And so we spent about a year kind of saying no to anyone from Tokyo to have the brand. So when, by the time we got to Tokyo, there was just such a pent up demand that the brand sort of had this natural momentum.
And then we would call it what it is. We managed to get picked up by some celebrities in Japan and they promoted it through their social media. And all of a sudden the snowball effect kind of happens. The brand is now, if you speak to anyone from Japan, sort of from the ages of probably 20 to 40, they will have an awareness of Cocalero. The product was right. But more importantly, we managed to jump on to ...we got involved with the right people and yeah, we hit it at the right time. There's always a portion of luck and everything in you do.

It does also point out how differently you need to almost approach each market, doesn't it?

Absolutely. But even if you look at Japan, Japan typically would be a very conservative market. So you look at Japan. There hasn't really been any innovative spirit brand lunch like ours in probably the last 20 years for anyone who knows the sort of Japanese market. I think the last sort of brand that broke out was a brand called Deter (?) which was a Lychee liqueur. And that was probably in the early nineties, mid nineties. So Cocalero came along and was that first sort of innovation in a long time and we're adjusting our approach to market and in various different countries. As we go in China, we're working closely one of the major nightclub chains in China. And it's a lot more high energy. But even bottle service.
So we do a ton of volume in bottle service in the likes of China. And learning from that really is about, you go and you see a table, which is very prevalent across China. You would have bought bottles of whiskey or spirits for the guys, probably champagne for the girls. I'm not being generalising, I'm just using an example and then Cocalero was kind of the shot that would get everybody together. And so that's an approach we're trying to make here in the United States. It's a lot harder. I think the world of bottle service over here in the US, whilst it's big for some brands, it's still small on a sort of overall basis. And it's very concentrated with a huge pay to play business in there. We try and look at it. We take our learnings from each market and trying to apply them on a local level in each new market that we go to. We know there's no one size fits all for any market in the world.

With everything that's been going on in the world and considering so many people are at home and away from bars, there's been very much a push for RTDs. Is that something that you guys would ever think about?

Yeah we've certainly done some feasibility studies to look at and try to understand if our brand is ready for it. There's certain markets in the world where we think that it could be an opportunity. But it's something that's definitely not a today project. It could come down the line maybe next year or the year after. We are seeing right now, as yourself, an absolute ton of brands coming into the market and the RTD space. So I think coolers are going to start getting very busy over the next while, but we want to make sure that we've got the right brands equity and are ready to go before we start rushing off into another category that might dilute what our core offering is.

I believe that the brand gives quite a bit of support to an organisation called the Rainforest Trust. Do you want to talk us through that a little bit?

Yeah. It's something that after traveling into South America you get an understanding of. How important the rainforests, not just there, but around the world, are. And as our company started to become more successful we started to look at how we could give back in certain ways and a good friend of mine who's in a totally different business was working with the rainforest trust for his brand. And he recommended that I would talk to them cause they they're really well run. The money does end up going into proper conservation projects. You'll hear a lot of these charities which are unfortunately, are not all slight or not all totally above board, so we've been working with the Rainforest Trust.Now I think it's four years. And I think we've saved probably 30 40 50,000 acres of rain forest.
And it's something that, each year, we're trying to do more each year as the brand grows. And as the business grows we can obviously start to afford to do more but also we'll try and integrate it further into what we do in terms of engaging with consumers, finding ways that we can get people involved in terms of conservation projects in the rain forest. So it's something that's going to constantly evolve for us, but I think we're very proud of.

Whereabouts is Cocalero available? So we were talking about it being in Japan, obviously and a little bit in the US where else, globally?

We're in about forty markets, 35 to 40 markets worldwide. It's funny. We are in most of the stans. So Kazakhstan, I think we're in Kyrgyzstan but we're also fairly widely available in Europe. Now we've been building that for awhile. So we're in France, we're in the Netherlands. We're in Germany. We're in Denmark. We are in Portugal. We're primed to the launch in Spain. We're in, obviously, Ireland in the UK. We have been in the US. We're in about 12 States here in the United States. We are up in Canada and five provinces in Canada. If I'm not mistaken, the big five. In the Asia Pacific region, we’re in Australia. We're in China, Korea, Hong Kong, Cambodia. The list goes on. We've been slowly building this out.
We obviously have our priority markets which take the most of our attention and where we really spend a lot of any of our investment dollars. But as the brand grows both in Japan and internationally, we start to see now that we're getting more and more people approaching us asking to take on the brands in specific countries. And we have a process towards going to launch in these markets. But we're seeing probably one market or one or two markets a month. So we've opened offices around the world. Now it's just to support that. So we've our main office is in Dublin, which is where it's sort of the nerve centre where operations, finance, everyone sits there and marketing sits there.
I'm based out of San Francisco. We've a few people dotted around the United States. We have obviously our production facility up in La Paz for Cocalero de Altura and we worked closely out of there and then we have an office in Shanghai and then a country manager in Japan as well. So we were still a small company but we managed to sort of fan out around the world. And hopefully that gives us an edge in terms of markets pores and really understanding the sort of regional cultures.

And what do you see as the future for Cocalero?

Good question. I think I asked myself that question more often than not. No, we're continuing to build right now. There's still a huge amount of work to be done on the core expression stuff on Cocalero Classico. As we know, we've got a number of markets we're rolling out furthering Asia at the moment. China has been our huge success recently and it continues. It'll continue to grow over the next couple of years. But really the US is probably the market that's going to take the most time, investment and resources over the next couple of years. So the vision really will be to solidify our offering with the brand here in the United States. I think there's going to be some tactical opportunities over time for RTD, et cetera. But yeah, I think we've got our work cut out over here for the time being.

If people want more information about the spirit and the brand, they should, of course go to your website which is

That's it.

Thank you very much for joining us, John.

Awesome. No, thank you very much and thanks for your time. It's always great to chat about the brand.



For more information about Cocalero go to

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