Success: Schnapps maker toasts overseas sales

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After searching for a decent drop, Kiwi decided to produce his own spirits.

Ulf Fuhrer is hoping Asian drinkers embrace his schnapps. Photo / Supplied
Ulf Fuhrer is hoping Asian drinkers embrace his schnapps. Photo / Supplied

All Ulf Fuhrer wanted was to drink real German-style schnapps in New Zealand. That quest resulted in him creating his own company, which now produces 50,000 bottles a month and has increased sales by more than 250 per cent in the past year.

The schnapps he and business partner Tony Green (of 42Below fame) created is called Zumwohl (a German toast for good health) and has won a gold, two silvers and a bronze at international spirits competitions in San Francisco and London.

The wins attracted venture capital support to expand the business and Fuhrer is now exporting Zumwohl around the world. He has set lofty goals: half the New Zealand shot market within 18 months; 40 per cent of the global shot market by the end of 2014.

But it really all did start about eight years ago with Fuhrer's vain attempt to buy decent schnapps, not the sweet, syrupy American stuff. Fuhrer - German-born but raised in New Zealand - had fallen in love with the drink on a trip to visit relatives in Germany and wanted to continue the affair back home.

It was his ritual, whenever he went somewhere new, to go to a bottle shop or bar and ask for German schnapps.

"Every now and then I'd get lucky and come across a bottle that had been attached to a consignment, but it was pretty irregular," he says.

He eventually started importing the stuff and divvying it up among friends and family. "Then I thought, 'bugger it, I'm going to make my own schnapps'."

Fuhrer created lots of batches based on his memory of what proper schnapps tastes like, but "I've no history in the production of spirits, so I had to team up with someone who knew how to do it well".

A colleague introduced him to Tony Green, who originally formulated 42Below, and Zumwohl was born. The pair created three varieties: natural corn-based schnapps, black doris plum and feijoa.

"People who like a good Scotch or single malt really like the corn schnapps, the natural, because it's got the clean, pure spirit flavour going on; it's got a buttery feel as it crosses the palate," Fuhrer says.

I can independently report, as an enthusiastic Scotch drinker, that he is right on the money. Initially, the pair made the schnapps only for friends and family. But about 20 months ago Fuhrer was introduced to Lion Nathan executives, who rued the day they turned down 42Below and were looking for a shot drink to compete with Jagermeister.

Lion stocked Zumwohl in its Liquor King chain to see how the spirit went down with the drinking public. It went down very well indeed, assisted by the six months Fuhrer spent conducting bar launches of the product around the country - while holding down a day job.

"New Zealand palates are really sophisticated palates compared to the rest of the world because there's that fantastic history of producing really good-quality wines," Fuhrer says. "New Zealanders expect high standards.

"Then there's the fruition of the vodka market ... people now understand what a good-quality vodka is and that's rolled out with New Zealand gins and rums, so we've now got that sophistication."

Because of the market inroads vodka forged, drinkers were ready for a top-shelf schnapps, and the nature of the drink gives it a competitive advantage over other spirits, Fuhrer says.

"It's not sweet and its much smoother than the vodka," he says. "The main difference is schnapps is distilled from the fruit itself, whereas vodka is made from a potato base or a grain base and then flavoured. Schnapps is smoother and more rounded in its flavour."

Fuhrer's background is in design and advertising, so he decided to build the brand by entering Zumwohl in the world's biggest spirit competition in San Francisco in March.

To his astonishment ("we were hoping for a mention"), the company won gold and silver for the natural and plum varieties, respectively. They took it to London, where the natural picked up silver and the feijoa bronze.

The next thing he knew, venture capital was knocking on his door and suddenly the prospect of developing a global schnapps brand became realistic. His backers are a group including bar-owners, wealthy individuals and people with liquor industry connections.

As the All Blacks near the end of the campaign for World Cup glory, Fuhrer will be in Hong Kong for another spirits competition - and what he hopes will be the springboard into the Chinese market.

"The Asian market is where our eyes are set; 50 per cent of all spirits consumed in China are white spirits and Zumwohl is a white spirit."

The next six months sees Fuhrer in Sydney, Melbourne, Germany, Poland, Shanghai and London.

"We'll be taking on global juggernauts such as Jagermeister and Jose Cuervo, but we've got a world-leading product which we're confident people will love."

- NZ Herald

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