You may have seen vodka or — during the pandemic — hand sanitizer from a distillery called Uncle Jumbo’s and thought, “Where does that come from?”
From Clarence, is the answer. Despite founder Nick Kotrides having deep roots in the Buffalo business community, his very successful distillery has struggled to gain traction as a local brand. But hopefully, that’s about to change with the opening of a tasting room on Elmwood Avenue, between Hodge and Utica streets.
For the past five years, he’s been focused on making spirits, rather than pouring them. Uncle Jumbo’s is available for retail purchase in five different states and Canada. Like many distilleries when the pandemic hit, Uncle Jumbo’s pivoted to making hand sanitizer. While that helped keep the lights on, pandemic restrictions made it difficult for craft breweries with small marketing budgets to connect to customers. Small distilleries like Uncle Jumbo’s depend on liquor store tastings and tasting room sales.
“Major brands have an advantage that we don’t,” Kotrides says. “People will come into a liquor store looking for Jack Daniels, and boom, they go grab it in the whiskey section. People who want Absolut will go straight to the vodka section, grab a bottle and get out. Whereas sales of craft spirit are more driven by point-of-sale. People might peruse a store, see a craft spirit, read the bottle, maybe do a tasting and make a purchase. But that was all gone during COVID.”
Uncle Jumbo was the nickname of Grover Cleveland, the former mayor of Buffalo and President of the United States. In his early years as an attorney, Cleveland lived in a humble boarding house and spent time in Buffalo’s many saloons and hotel lobbies.
Channeling a bit of Cleveland’s spirit, Kotrides tells us that he misses the days of strangers becoming friends over a few drinks, instead of connecting over a few clicks.
“I want to bring back what I call an analog Facebook, or an analog social media,” he says. “I want a place where people can come in, converse, meet other people and have a good time. Like the old neighborhood corner bar. That’s what I’ve missed, to be honest with you.”
He goes on to say the bar culture has become more about going with friends to different destinations, rather than being about the casual hangout.
“Even with Toro, people would come in to eat, but after midnight – people would just hang out with their friends and stay in their own little clique,” he said. “At the tasting room, I make it a point to know people’s names and introduce people to one another. We try to have like a community table.”
The new tasting room will also be a place for Uncle Jumbo’s to release new products. The distillery has a line of canned cocktails made with Uncle Jumbo spirits. Kotrides says he’s also developing a capped resealable pouch for frozen cocktails: “You can freeze it, take it wherever, open it and reseal it; unlike with a can: once it’s open, it’s open.”
Kotrides is clearly a busy man, and he’s still trying to channel bits of his younger self; someone who rolled the dice on an underdeveloped stretch of Elmwood in the late ‘80s.
“I might think like a young man, but I don’t feel like a young man,” he says “I can still put in a hard day’s work, as hard as a 25-year-old, but the next day, my motor is seized up. So I have to work smarter, not harder – which is different than how I was in the past.”
Hours at time of publishing (Subject to change): Monday to Thursday 4 p.m. – 10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. – 12 a.m., Saturday 4 p.m. – 12 a.m., Sunday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.
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