By Timothy Q. Cebula
RICHMOND - JohnnyMash has arrived. It has a way to go, of course, before it can compete fully with other hard ciders on a national scale. But after its first year of produc- tion, the Richmond-based Johnny Mash is considered a major player in the regional hard cider market.
Johnny Mash has been recognized in stories by both regional and national business publications, such as the Boston Business Journal and the Wall Street Journal, and has received highly favorable reviews from cider critics.
The September issue of Yankee Brew News, for instance, gave Johnny Mash - "Complex, with some muted sweetness. Pleasant, lingering finish." - three and-a-half stars, while national competitors Woodchuck and Hornsby's Draft Cider received two-and-a-half and one star, respectively. The Internet web site "Ciderspace" also gave the local cider high marks.
"We're loving it We think it's just great," said John Vittori of the business that has rapidly become the apple of his eye. Vittori co-owns Johnny Mash - marketed as Berkshire Cider Co. product - with his sister, Wendy, a Portland, Ore., resident.
It's a trend
The Vittori's are capitalizing on statistics that show hard cider to be the fastest-growing segment of the alcoholic beverage market in America.
John Vittori estimates they'll have sold 40,000 cases of Johnny Mash by the end of the year, and projects that figure will double in 1997. Sales should top off at about $700,000 this year he said.
For the last 10 years, Vittori has run the Hilltop Orchard, which conveniently provides him with most of the raw product and equipment he needed to start his hard cider business last September. Before it hit the shelves, Johnny Mash was test-marketed in the area.
"We found that people didn't care for the flavor of many European ciders. They weren't used the the harsh, bitter, highly tannic, musty taste they tend to have. We mainly use McIntosh, Northern Spy and golden russett apples...to get the proper acidity and sugar levels and have a well-balanced taste," Vittori said.
Johnny Mash is fermented, aged and bottled at Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, N.Y. But it gets its start, and perhaps its "pleasant, lingering finish" at Vittori's orchard.
Walking before running
Because Johnny Mash has a marketing and production budget a fraction
of the size of its competitors, Vittori tries to carve a niche in other
ways,"Some of these (cider companies) are doing massive radio, television
and print campaigns. We're still in our infancy here. We just can't compete
like that," Vittori said."What we try to focus on is the highest
quality cider, and the best
service, like only a small regional company can provide. We're there to help support it, and I think people appreciate that kind of personal service."
Adrienne Albani certainly does. Co-owner of Limerick's, a bar in Boston's financial district, Albani said she used to serve Cider Jack, a big-budget, Newton-based hard cider. "But because they're so big, maybe they feel like they're the only game in town, so they don't support their product on premise," she said.
Vittori and Sean Collins, his marketing director, approached Albani with their own product. "We did a blind taste test with the customers and the staff, and we found that Johnny Mash really tastes better. Now Johnny Mash is the only hard cider we serve."
At Limerick's and other bars and drinking venues, Vittori throws "Mash Bashes," promotional parties with product-related giveaways and extensive tastings. "To see the president of the company down here, getting feedback from the customers, really showed us a lot." said Albani. "We like their style."
By Ed Brennen
RICHMOND - There's a new player in the cutthroat liquor game, and his name is Johnny Mash.He descended from his Richmond apple orchard four months ago, making his way into bars and package stores from Becket to Boston. And his creator, 36-year-old Boston-area native John Vittori is mighty proud of him.
Johnny Mash, a hard apple cider containing 6 percent alcohol, is the latest in a growing line of beer alternatives. What sets Johnny Mash apart from the established hard cider brands like Woodchuck and Cider Jack, according to Vittori, is that it uses 100-percent fresh cider made only from New England apples.
"It's a pure apple product - no additives or preservatives," said Vittori, who has owned and operated the 200-acre Hilltop Orchards in Richmond since 1987. "I had made hard cider for my own use for a long time," he added. "We saw a big potential market. There were already a couple out there, and it was a growing segment."Vittori was convinced of hard cider's marketability when he traveled to England last spring to attend a twoweek course on cider making. While "studying" at the Wooster College of Agriculture, Vittori said he was amazed at hard cider's popularity in the pubs. "It was a bit of a jolly," Vittori said of his trip.
With cider-making certificate in hand, Vittori and his wife Julie began the Berkshire Cider Company last August. But before the apple spirit could hit the market, the Vittoris had to hash out some details, such as a name.
"We played with tons of names," said Vittori, who added that the monikers "Captain Jack," "Scrumpy," (the English nickname for hard cider) and "Chipmunk" were all in the running. "We did surveys in bars and restaurants, but Johnny Mash was the clear winner."
Vittori said "Johnny" was chosen after his own name, "John," as well as for the orchard legend Johnny Appleseed. "Mash," meanwhile, refers to the cider-making process, and according to Vittori, "it says booze."After hammering out a formula, the Vittori's contracted with a winery where the cider could be oak aged for three months, found a bottler, formed focus groups and did extensive market research before launching Johnny Mash last fall. Since he had already been peddling his regular apple cider for several years, Vittori had plenty of connections in local stores and restaurants. But he needed to turn the consumer on to the hard stuff, which took some leg-work.
"It's one thing to get into restaurants and bars, but it's another thing get people to drink it," said Vittori, who has been busy traversing the Mass. Pike to Boston every weekend, conducting "Mash Bashes" at drinking establishments. "You try to create a little excitement. You talk to people and educate them about the product."
"Some of these (cider companies) are doing massive radio, television and print campaigns. We're still in our infancy here. We just can't compete like that," Vittori said.
While Johnny Mash has pretty much saturated the Berkshire County market (it's now available at over 100 locations), Vittori still takes time to personally introduce his product to the locals. Last Saturday the Vittoris were at Michael's in Stockbridge, giving away t-shirts and key chains to those with a Mash in hand.
"It's been amazing. The Mash logo is hot," said Vittori, who estimated that five cases were sold at Michael's Saturday night. "People definitely appreciate a regional product."
While the constant barstorming can become tiresome, Vittori said he has no plans to ease up on his itinerary. He wants to see Johnny Mash in Worcester and Boston's North Shore by spring, and this summer he planson introducing his product to the Cape and Providence, R.I.
Vittori, an apple grower at heart, knows that Hilltop Orchards is still the backbone of Johnny Mash. "Fresh ingredients make the best products," Vittori said. "Nothing added, nothing taken away. It's just all apple."
"Bittersweet nose with a subtle vanilla oak. Toasted oak melds nicely with apple fruit on the palate. Complex, with some muted sweetness. Pleasant, lingering finish. 3 1/2 stars"
-Yankee Brew Review, Yankee Brew News, Inc., September, 1996
"[Johnny Mash's] early success is evidence of the growing demand for hard cider...consumption is skyrocketing"
-Boston Business Journal, September 13, 1996
"Last year, Americans consumed about 3.7million gallons of it, more than double the year before, according to Impact Databank, a New York market-research publication. This year overall hard-cider sales are likely to nearly double again to about 8.2 million gallons, the publication says...Johnny Mash is aged in oak barrels. "
-The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 29, 1996
~To New York Times
"The Verdict is In!"~