Two Finnish food and beverage entrepreneurs in Thailand are out to make a mark not only on the local scene but also internationally. They have started out boldly by succeeding in launching and, remarkably, also obtaining the trademark to name their very first brand after the capital city. Thus the spirit ‘Bangkok Vodka’ is here – made in Thailand and created by Finns.
Most known as the country of origin for an energy drink that led to the creation of Red Bull, and a few spirits that include the Mekhong rum named after a famous river, Thailand is probably still an unlikely market to look at when it comes to spirits and beverages.
Now, however, evidently two food and beverage professionals from Finland is out to improve that weak brand list, based on their daring ‘Asian Beverage Revolution’ as tagline an some really bold undertakings they have set in motion. In late November 2022 food and beverage enthusiasts Jouni Heinonen and Mika Tikka launched, at last, the first flavour of their brand new energy drink Fame.
But circumstances had also meant that this launch was actually preceded by the launch of another bold product; namely their very own Bangkok Vodka! And that brand was realised after a very long period of research and development, only to encounter the arrival of Covid-19 as the biggest possible stumbling block.
Opportunities in Asia/Finnish weather dislike
But let’s rewind the clock to learn more about how this adventure started, with Jouni being the first of the two to arrive to Thailand, moving here 17 years ago. He explains that he has been in the hospitality sector for nearly thirty years and set up an agency in Thailand to continue doing the same as he had been doing back in Finland – doing marketing for bars, clubs, hotels, breweries and other alcoholic drinks producers.
”My clients first came from Europe and then gradually I started getting clients also here. I saw more opportunities in Asia and I hated Finnish weather and always had an international mindset and travelled a lot, including to Thailand. I was considering moving somewhere else than Thailand too, like Hong Kong or Singapore, But Thailand is still the easiest place to start building a business and I saw opportunities here. I also did a lot of clothing and promotional items for clients that were designed and exported to Europe. So it was better to be based here closer to the manufacturers,” says Jouni.
That view is shared by Mika, whom Jouni met with for the first time back in 2010 through a common friend. “We had similar ideas and I was also a bit tired of doing branding for others so I wanted to create something on my own. We were in close contact for a few years until we finally took the decision that Mika would move to Bangkok from Finland and we started the company, Pulmentum, in 2013. Mika had a very good job in Finland so it was a big decision to leave everything behind there.”
“I used to travel here during ten years and I fell in love with the country and its food and other things. I used to work in Kesko Corporation, a retail conglomerate. Mainly, like Jouni I have also always worked with food and beverage, which is close to my interest,” says Mika, “so it was this segment we would focus on and beverage is where our attention is now and will be for the near future.”
Pulmentum (which is Latin for ‘small portion of food’) was established to capture the F&B market potential, focusing on brand creation, product development and marketing.
Spirit to mix with energy drink
“There were already ideas for products early on that we wanted to create on our own. But we knew it was going to take a little bit of time, so in the beginning we planned to import some products too. However, we let go of that and concentrated only on doing own products,” continues Jouni.
“The first idea was to bring out our energy drink on the market. Then we started thinking: ’Maybe we can mix it with some alcohol.’ And out of that came the idea to come up with vodka – and to create our own such spirit.”
Realising that plan was by no means any easy thing to do and it would take them nearly six years from start to finish. And yet, ‘Bangkok Vodka’ ended up being their first product to the market – and also above their expectations.
“We did research all over Asia. There were some opportunities abroad, but, of course, the primary goal was to manufacture it here in Thailand. We were lucky when we finally found a good production partner who was located here. But a lot of research was done before we decided to do it and with whom,” says Mika.
“It was not exactly a process achieved over one night, with the trademark, development, research and many other things,” Jouni fills in. “It was about figuring out together with our partners how to develop the product. And many things happened along the way until it was finally launched.”
In the process they learned that sugarcane – readily available in Thailand – is actually a very good ingredient to produce vodka from.
“For me, being in Thailand there was a wish to create something from Thailand that Thai people can be proud of. We wanted to recreate the Thai atmosphere. The spirit of Bangkok, of Thailand, is why we wanted to make something like this. And even though Bangkok is also a world party capital in some ways our product was missing, so we wanted to create something for this. You know the feeling of Bangkok and Thailand – it’s something amazing. We wanted to bottle that,” he continues.
“Made in Thailand with Finnish know-how we wanted to bring it also into our branding that it’s a local product,” adds Mika as he explains how they decided on the name.
“‘Bangkok Vodka’- it’s a really good name, but it wasn’t easy to get trademarked; it took 2.5 years. Even our lawyer said that we cannot get the trademark, so we did it ourselves. As Finns we are sometimes stubborn and want to have something, so we just do it.”
“And of course, there is also the story behind the Bangkok Vodka and the angel: Since 1782 when Bangkok – City of Angels was born, angels have guarded Bangkokians and kept them out of harm, but when the sun goes down, the angels cover their eyes and let the ‘adventure’ begins… and we can feel the spirit.”
Super premium surprise
“When we started the vodka project, we thought it was going to be something standard quality. So, finding out that it was possible to come up with a super-premium product here in Thailand was somewhat of a surprise to us,” says Jouni.
“We were super happy when the end product was even better than we expected. Also, when we manufacture the product here and sell it in Thailand, we have some advantages as we don’t need to pay the import duty. We are being told that a super-premium product always must be super expensive, so we have set up a pretty decent price level: a super-premium product but for a medium price! adds Mika.
“It’s a good selling point but we also have to remember that competition is quite tough and having only one product so far which makes it a little bit harder, than if you have a wider range. Still, we are doing quite well and I think we’ll do even better in the future.”
Their main clients are bars, clubs, hotels and restaurants but also in retail.
The feedback so far has been very positive. Says Jouni; “We believed it was going to be good, but it surpassed our expectations. The name helps because everyone knows your name already and you only need to get them to taste it.”
“People like the name, the design of the bottle and most importantly they love the product itself!” Mika adds.
“But then Covid-19 came when we had been on the market for only one year. Things were moving forward and we had big plans to participate in expos and spread the brand around. So it has not been an ideal situation, especially when you have a new product and have to practically start all over again in terms of introducing it. But now we’re having a restart and things are looking very positive!” says Jouni.
What is overall also an advantage in launching and selling new beverage brands, Mika and Jouni agree is the positive transformation of the bar and cocktail scene in Thailand and Asia in recent times.
“It’s indeed an advantage for our sales when we have this, and we are also very happy to especially see that many five-star places are keen to have some local product and where quality-wise our vodka is of such high standard that they accept it. But nightlife is yet not where it was prior to Covid-19. But we are getting back to that level step by step,” thinks Mika.
“It’s really inspiring that there are many things coming onto the scene. The cocktail culture is really growing and in different kinds of places. And for Bangkok it’s starting to be amazing again,” Jouni adds.
Lifestyle drink for adults
And back to their just launched energy drink debut, ‘Fame Energy Cola’.
“We saw opportunity within this segment. There are a lot of energy drinks on the market, but middle & high-income young adults lacked their own lifestyle energy drink. Thailand is the entry market for this, but we’ll soon bring it to other ASEAN countries and later expand globally,” says Mika.
“We started off with a cola flavour – cola is very popular globally and especially in Thailand, where we wanted to create an energy drink that no one else offers. So our energy cola was launched already during Covid but then all bars and clubs were forced to close so we postponed sales,” his colleague adds. In 2023 there will be more flavours coming too.
“We can also disclose that we have other spirits coming with other names. An excellent gin will come out in the near future.” Q4 2023 is their target for this launch.
The company is currently raising a fresh round of additional investment capital for the continuation and growth plans, so this is just the beginning of the journey for Pulmentum.