August Sebastiani’s great-grandfather, Samuele (his dad’s dad’s dad), came to the United States from Tuscany in 1895, a stone mason who ended up living the American dream. He worked, saved his money, and started buying land in and around the burgeoning town of Sonoma, Calif.
“The story goes that, after the 1906 earthquake, he made a killing quarrying stones in the hills north of Sonoma,” August says. “That’s when his investments started to grow, and he had a diverse range of holdings” that included a cannery, a skating rink, a bus depot, and Sebastiani Vineyards. It was the younger Sebastiani’s namesake, Samuele’s son August, who took the business in a more agricultural direction starting in the 1950s, farming winegrapes and other crops before those were largely phased out in favor of more vineyard land.
“It was serendipitous because that was [about the same time] the Mondavis were setting up camp in Napa, the Gallos were getting started, and the first growth of the California wine industry,” he adds. “My grandfather had the foresight to put all his chips in a winegrape program.”
Some of the resulting wine was bottled and labeled in Sonoma for local consumption, but much of it was put on railcars to Chicago, Memphis and other cities across the country to be bottled (and maybe even labeled) as something else.
It would be the next generation, the younger August’s father, Don, and Don’s siblings, Sam and Mary Ann, who would drive the Sebastiani brand forward, moving it from jug wines to 750 milliliter bottles. August credits his father for premiumizing the Sebastiani name as well as growing the company. During the 1980s and ’90s, that included the creation of a high-volume portfolio of value brands called Turner Road Vintners.
“Fast-forward to the Constellation sale [in 2001], when my family sold a number of secondary brands—mostly the volume offerings of Vendange and Talus. My dad, my [older] brother [Don, Jr.], and I kept equity in Sebastiani Vineyards and started Don Sebastiani & Sons.” Don & Sons (as it’s commonly known) produces a range of wines mostly from Sonoma County, Calif.
While he was under the Don & Sons umbrella, August began incubating his own wing, The Other Guys, with his own wines, including popular names such as Plungerhead, Hey Mambo, and Leese-Fitch.
“We slowly sold more and more wine until it got to a point where, ‘This car might be able to run on its own,’” he says. “We slid it off as a free-standing entity in 2009.”
At that time, The Other Guys was selling on the order of 150,000 cases of wine annually, and August was just starting to kick the tires on getting into the spirits business. Three years later, the company released its first product in that category, Masterson’s Straight Rye Whiskey. Out the gate, Masterson’s received a whiskey of the year honor from the Canadian Whisky Awards. (The company recently added Masterson’s Barrel-Finished Rye Whiskey to its portfolio. After 10 years in charred white oak casks, a limited quantity of the spirit undergoes an additional time in American, French, or Hungarian oak barrels that have been air-dried outdoors for more than two years. Each of the oak barrel types imparts the optimal amount of complexity and flavors with varying times in barrel.)
Meanwhile, Sebastiani had sourced rum from the Dominican Republic, which would be bottled as Kirk and Sweeney, named for a rum-running schooner that was eventually caught during Prohibition and turned into a U.S. Coast Guard training vessel.
“We were doing the brown spirits; we had rum and rye, and the concern was that, although the barrel-aged stuff is great,” he explains, “we were scouring the globe for odd lots of whatever—relying on the foresight of someone 10 or 15 years ago to have laid down in excess of what they would need.”
That’s when Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin was born. From a supply chain standpoint, it allows for a much quicker turnaround. And it was fun for Sebastiani and his team to roll up their sleeves to create a recipe from the ground up, to talk about the flavor profile and own its expression. It’s been so successfully received that the team added a peppered gin, spicy as advertised and perfect in a Red Snapper, and a restorative gin made more in the style of a dry London gin (more savory, with cucumber and rose petal), intended as a food-pairing gin.
3 Badge Is Born
When he released the beginnings of his spirits portfolio, Sebastiani was still using the name The Other Guys. Then, for a brief moment, it went under the name 35 Maple Street. That was before he stumbled upon the chance to buy an old firehouse from the city of Sonoma, one that (he soon found out) had figured into his grandfather’s life. The company promptly changed its name to 3 Badge Beverage.
The name refers to his namesake’s three service badges. The elder August Sebastiani served as a firefighter in this specific firehouse and as a civic volunteer, lobbying for the bond that would raise the funds that would ultimately erect the building in the first place. Dad Don was also a volunteer at the fire station and, as a city council member, the younger August Sebastiani spent time in the building while city hall was being retrofitted in 2008 and 2009.
“All three of us worked in a public service capacity [within these walls],” August says. “It’s a very important part of my family’s history and one I’m really proud of and happy to share at every opportunity.”
The city of Sonoma put the 9,700-square-foot Patten Street building on the auction block in 2011 after the state disbanded redevelopment agencies; it took until 2014 to complete the sale. Sebastiani believes he might have been one of only a few offers willing to preserve the building’s fundamental imprint and legacy.
“Don and Sons has my family history in terms of my dad’s piece of the Sebastiani story, and Bill Foley has Sebastiani Vineyards’ story [Foley bought Sebastiani Vineyards in 2008],” he notes. “The 3 Badge facility gives us the opportunity to tell the story of my family’s connection to Sonoma from a municipal and a philanthropic standpoint, while also letting us be distinct from other [businesses that bear the family name].”
Now ensconced in a spectacular home, 3 Badge continues to grow and innovate. Its rye, rum, and gin are selling well, and newly added is Pasote Blanco Tequila, released last summer. Sebastiani was looking into the surging mescal category and, while exploring the Jalisco region of Mexico, couldn’t help but fall in love with this particular tequila.
Technically, the name means “leap of faith” or “an exaggerative statement,” though when Googled, the first hit on Urban Dictionary defines it as “one badass motherf***er.” Sebastiani liked that take and came up with the motto “The fierce art of tequila.” It’s yet another of the company’s original recipes and entry into the higher-end spirits category.
“If you’re looking for a common thread in our spirits portfolio, it’s that there’s a premium slant,” Sebastiani says, “which might seem a departure from my family’s hard-earned reputation for being in the everyday wine business. But at the same time, it actually softens the learning curve for us coming from wine.”
For 3 Badge, that means instead of focusing on well placement in bars, which is challenging and very competitive, its portfolio sales pitch is about terroir, process, ingredients, flavor profile, barrel aging, and the like, with the mixology craze driving growth of a number of different categories. Three Badge does its best to find itself in on-premise categories when it can.
With that in mind, a good bartender is like a person telling stories in a winery tasting room, talking about the distiller’s process and philosophy. Sebastiani firmly believes that those stories resonate with consumers because they provide a connection, one that’s preferred to a nameless, faceless, multinational corporation.
“The consumer is looking for between three and six sentences about the product,” Sebastiani says. “The thinking is, ‘If I’m going to show up with a bottle of something, I ought to have a story or two about it.’”
He also hopes to make a connection to what buyers and consumers may already know about the Sebastiani name from the wine business. He hears those kinds of stories himself, sometimes. “In Syracuse, New York, I walked into in this mom and pop bottle shop [for a sales meeting] and ended up hearing about how the owner and his wife honeymooned in Sonoma in 1978,” he regales.
“My grandmother happened to be pruning flowers outside as they were walking by, and she invited them up to her house, where she cooked them a three-course lunch—completely unsolicited. She was paying me a dividend, all those years ago. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning to do that for my kids and their kids.”
Three Badge calls itself a purveyor of spirits, as its portfolio includes products it’s buying and blending, barrel aging, or developing recipes for itself. The company employs a procurement director who speaks seven languages and travels 200 days per year in search of odd lots and the opportunity to do things from the ground up. One recent discovery is a single-malt whiskey from Mumbai, India. Sebastiani is pondering the idea of doing a single-malt brand from each continent (excluding Antarctica, most likely). Another idea is Spanish vermouth, but he’s reticent of production-driven trends, preferring instead always to ask what the consumer is looking for.
“The gold we mine out of the marketplace is surveying, spending time in the independently owned bottle shops in and around metropolitan areas,” he notes. “We ask our distributors what’s hot in their portfolio that isn’t ours—what’s working, what’s not.”
Three Badge doesn’t sell any of its 65,000 annual cases of spirits products direct, opting instead to honor distributor relationships that have been instrumental in each product’s success.
The next challenge will be selling 3 Badge’s latest addition, Bib & Tucker Small-Batch White Whiskey, released earlier this year (also known as “white dog,” white whiskey is unaged or lightly aged and often tastes strongly of the grain from which it’s made). It’s bottled in beautifully embossed clear glass, meant to invoke a flask, and can be enjoyed neat or in all manner of cocktails. It embodies Sebastiani’s never-ending quest to offer something new, something he hopes will be loved by consumers.
“With spirits, the sky’s the limit,” Sebastiani says. “We’re barrel-aging gin in rum barrels, sending bourbon barrels to our tequila producer in Mexico. That creativity excites the consumer, and I think that’s a big part of the craft boom.”
Click here for tasting notes on select 3 Badge Beverage products.