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Message in a Bottle

In this era of drinking to our health, why would Pok Pok Som relaunch away from its wellness sheen?

Four bottles of Pok Pok Som.

It’s tempting for people of a certain age to think that their city’s exciting, youthful vibrancy has faded along with their own. Sure, there are people at this very moment in the flush of youth, drinking in bars a few blocks away that you’ve never heard of. But remember when there was a record store on the corner that’s now those hipster-brutalist condos? Remember when nobody else had heard of Stumptown and Salt & Straw? Remember when Pok Pok sold Som out of those stubby little bottles?

Okay, those last examples may be fairly specific to Portland, Oregon. But like many trends that Portland has come to embody, those brands’ rise to prominence — and the changes they’ve made in the process — both shape and reflect trends in the food world writ large. Even when it comes down to a boring little bottle of vinegar.

For those who haven’t sipped, Som is a vinegar cordial developed by Pok Pok founder Andy Ricker. Ricker began riffing off Southeast Asia’s drinking vinegar tradition several years ago — creating puckery syrups similar to American shrubs, but flavored with ginger and Thai basil. He served the concoction he’d call “Som” at Pok Pok restaurants, stirred into soda water, shaken into cocktails, and by 2009, sold by the bottle to diners who wanted to take the taste home. In 2012, Som made its debut as a grocery product on the shelves at retail markets, sold in stubby, round 16-ounce little bottles with yellow and green labels that shared the same rustic-looking fonts as the restaurant menu.

Apothecary bottles (“Boston rounds” if you’re being particular) were generally associated with things medicinal, but, in recent years, likely became more familiar as the containers for fizzy bottles of kombucha stacked in the Whole Foods cold case. In other words, it’s a bottle that has, for decades, signaled “Health and Wellness.” It’s a bottle that clearly places its contents inside the booming natural foods market — a market with a devoted consumer base and solid sales, which so many producers are praying to the almighty Goop gods to enter.

So why would Som relaunch this year “with elevated new packaging and expressions,” as the brand put it, complete with a sleek bottle that says fancy cordial, rather than kombucha contemporary: Are the hippies going to buy that?

If you go back a few years, Ricker would likely have asked the same question. Like most small producers, Ricker followed the typical expansion trajectory, launching into the larger retail stream with a very specific customer — and one likely not familiar with the restaurants — in mind. “We were shooting for natural foods, because that’s what made sense,” Ricker says. “Get into Whole Foods and you’ve got it made. You’ve got a community. And our product seemed to fit that.” Because Som is a vinegar-based drink, it seemed at home amidst the Braggs, probiotics, and aspirational health claims. The stubby bottles were slapped with a rustic label advertising “full strength drinking vinegar,” allowing them to rub their squat little shoulders with kombucha bottles. But in the midst of this, Ricker says, the grocery world changed dramatically.

“You can kind of time it to when Amazon bought Whole Foods,” he says. “It became a pay-to-play system. To get into Kroger, Whole Foods — as a small brand, it’s difficult to make your way in the grocery stream. You have to give comps, free fills, demos — lots of ways to say ‘Give us free product, in order to stock your product.’” And even getting products on the shelves wasn’t a guarantee of brisk sales. “Unless you have a team in the field to see if it’s on the shelves, dealing with distributors, charging stocking fees, or return plus shipping,” Ricker says, “it’s set up to not be good for small producers.”

As Ricker fought that uphill battle, he was approached by Distill Ventures, the “drinks accelerator” looking to find the next beverage to add to its portfolio. As has been written, alcohol companies are seeing the rise of sobriety and want in on the market (or, as Distill’s May 2019 white paper calls it, “Non-Alcoholic Drinks: A Growth Story”) — and not with kombucha and shrubs, homespun labels, and Boston rounds. The new wave of no-proof drinks mimic their alcoholic counterparts, involving technology, mixology, and craft ingredients: Drinks that are calibrated, shaken, and poured over a ginormous ice cube.

Ricker and Distill spent a few months honing the redesign, with help from Portland firm Murmur Creative. Priya Raghubir, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, says the redesign hits all the marks to make it no-proof staple (in addition to fooling bartenders into pouring out bigger pours — thanks, elongation effect!). The luxe gold accents, the elegant empty space, and the dynamic swoosh to the font can all be associated with higher price points, sure, but also just get the thing poured in the first place.

“It’s not just give me a Scotch on the rocks,” Raghubir says of current bar trends. “Everybody wants a twist. The Scotches have to be rare, or from unknown lands. Or done in cherry casks. Or the gin has to come with basil or cucumber — something to give it a bit of a difference. The Bloody Marys have to have a pickled sardine thrown in. People are experimenting a lot with cocktails, and I can see that this would play to that need.”

Renee Dimalla, Murmur’s art director, says moving Som from the health food aisle to behind the bar involved both aspirational and practical design changes. For bartenders, fishing out a stubby bottle with a small fiddly cap was not physically practical. “Part of this project was figuring out to make this bottle user-friendly for an actual bartender,” Dimalla says. The redesign pulled the bottle into something long and sleek — comfortable for bartenders to grab from behind the bar, but also beautiful enough to display in front of it. The sloping script that harkens back to its Thai roots, but the sleek minimalism is modern.

And, Raghubir notes, it doesn’t hurt that Som tweaked the messaging. “I don’t see ‘full-strength drinking vinegar’ being emphasized as much,” she says. “And I think that’s a very wise decision. I’d think twice before drinking vinegar. ‘Vinegar cordial’ is very different from ‘full-strength drinking vinegar.’”

Ricker acknowledges that this was a pretty conscious decision. “You have to be careful about how you deploy the world vinegar,” he laughs.

But for all the gilded script and rebranding, for all the market trends reflected in the redesign of the bottle, Ricker stresses that this wasn’t just about chasing trends. “We’re not just doing this because we see an economic opportunity,” he says. “It’s a worthwhile place to be.”

As a restaurant owner, Ricker has seen the damage of alcohol — a conversation that’s come to the forefront of the restaurant industry of late. Ricker himself doesn’t drink every day, and Pok Pok did away with the alcoholic shift drink policy a couple years ago. “The Som of yesterday was born in a break room at Pok Pok in 2008,” remembers Ricker. “Where we started from and where we are now are two different places. So I think it’s fitting we look the way we do now, and not the way we did before.”

And, most importantly, Som itself has changed. The brand has switched the flavor lineup, balanced the tartness, and brought the produce flavor (be it Thai basil or pineapple and peppercorn) a bit more front and center. “It’s a huge improvement on what we did before — and I thought what we did before was pretty good,” Ricker says.

Ironically, even though Som moved from the Health and Wellness market to the No-Proof universe, it’s actually arguably healthier than it was before. In tweaking with the flavors and formulas, Ricker ended up reducing the amount of sugar to bring out the fruit and herb flavor. But, he acknowledges, it still has sugars. Because at the end of the day, Ricker notes, it’s all about balance. “It needs to taste delicious... vinegar without sugar is fucking vinegar.”

Deena Prichep is a print and radio journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

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