How Barstool Sports and 2 retired NHL players launched Pink Whitney, America's fastest-growing flavored vodka
The Hustle

How Barstool Sports and 2 retired NHL players launched Pink Whitney, America’s fastest-growing flavored vodka

Ryan Whitney and Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette built Spittin’ Chiclets into the world’s most popular hockey podcast and -- through a wild sequence of events -- turned a huge following into America’s top-selling flavored vodka.

Bissonnette (left) and Whitney (right) taste testing Pink Whitney

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In October 2018, two former NHL players — Ryan Whitney and Paul Bissonnette — did an ad read for their insanely popular Barstool Sports hockey podcast, Spittin’ Chiclets

The podcast’s featured sponsor, New Amsterdam Vodka, gave the pair a simple prompt: “How do you drink your vodka?”

With a completely straight face, Whitney — a professional athlete who is 6’4″ and weighs 210 lbs. — said he drinks vodka with “pink lemonade” and added that anyone with “any brains” or “any balls” or “any sort of confidence” would understand his choice. 

It turns out he wasn’t wrong. 

Within days of the podcast, fans were tweeting their makeshift pink lemonade and vodka concoctions. 

Within months, the drink was a viral sensation.

About one year after that initial podcast ad read, New Amsterdam’s Pink Whitney was on store shelves across America. Today — after moving 15m+ bottles (gross sales of $100m+ based on our estimates) — it is the country’s fastest-growing flavored vodka brand. 

The success of Spittin’ Chiclets and Pink Whitney are intertwined, with both products originating on the internet: 

To understand how all of this happened, The Hustle recently spoke with Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini as well as the Spittin’ Chiclets team (Whitney, Bissonnette).

“It didn’t matter what the playbook was for creating a new alcohol brand when we launched,” Nardini tells us. “We are writing the playbook.”

Pink Whitney…in all sizes (Source: New Amsterdam)

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The Podcast: Spittin’ Chiclets

When Nardini joined Barstool Sports as its CEO in 2016, the sports, culture, and comedy digital media company had only 3 podcasts to its name.

Today, Barstool Sports is the 5th-largest podcast publisher in America, with 30+ podcasts under its brand. According to podcast data firm PodTrac, Barstool’s 7.4m unique listeners a month is even more than sports media giant ESPN.

Among its podcasts are Pardon My Take (the #1 sports podcast in America), Call Her Daddy (the #1 female-led podcast) and — particularly relevant for this article — Spittin’ Chiclets (the #1 hockey podcast in the world).

The tweet that started it all

Ryan Whitney with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Source: Wikimedia)

Ryan Whitney spent 11 years in the NHL (2004-2015) as a defenseman, including notable stints with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks.

Prior to the NHL, Whitney played hockey at Boston University, where he got his first glimpse of Barstool Sports, which was founded in 2003 in the neighboring town of Milton, Massachusetts. 

After retiring in 2015, Whitney — between rounds of golf — sent out a bat signal for his media ambitions:

He @-mentioned fellow NHL player Paul Bissonnette, who Whitney had gotten to know during various league training camps over the years. Bissonnette was still playing professionally at the time, but his reply to Whitney’s tweet suggested that he wasn’t long for the league.

While Bissonnette passed up the opportunity, Brian McGonagle (AKA Rear Admiral AKA RA) — jumped into the replies: “@ryanwhitney6 a partner, eh?”

The Rear Admiral Story

Since the late 2000s, RA has been a Boston Bruins blogger for Barstool Sports.

This was a side hustle, though; his day job was as a custodian… one who just so happened to be fanatical about hockey and had attended countless marquee NHL games.

Whitney knew RA from his blogs and agreed to partner up on a podcast. Starting in October 2016, the retired NHL defenseman began recording podcast episodes in RA’s house.

After building a solid rapport over ~20 episodes, Barstool’s founder Dave Portnoy asked Whitney (who he knew from Milton) and RA to bring the podcast over to the growing digital media company.

Producer Mike Grinnell joined the pod shortly after and has been vital in growing the show’s brand, social following and YouTube channel.

As for the name Spittin’ Chiclets?

It was meant to be a placeholder, but stuck. Per RA, it’s an “old hockey phrase about losing one’s teeth” and “spittin’ also means rapping or talking and, combined with the Boston stereotype for getting in scraps, the name just really clicked.”

Whitney, RA, Portnoy, and Bissonnette in 2019 (Source: YouTube)

Bissonnette joins the show

During Spittin’ Chiclets’ first year, Bissonnette (AKA BizNasty) dropped in as a guest on occasion…relaying road stories from his still-active professional career. 

When he retired from hockey in 2017, Bissonnette immediately threw himself into media.

His career choice didn’t come out of the blue. During his playing days, Bissonnette had an oversized social personality. (Today he boasts ~1.5m followers across Twitter and Instagram).

His first media venture was a self-financed docu-series called “Biz Nasty Does BC“. Produced in conjunction with filmmaker Pasha Eshghi and his manager Jeff Jacobson, the series followed Bissonnette as he travelled through the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The production perfectly showcased Bissonnette’s many talents — and Barstool acquired the property.

Bissonnette — who is also a TV analyst for the Arizona Coyotes NHL team and has been called “the most influential person in hockey” by Canada’s leading newspaper — officially joined the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast in April 2018.

Today, Spittin’ Chiclets is easily the world’s top hockey podcast with 500k+ downloads per episode. The relatability of its hosts — literally, the show started from a Twitter fan exchange — has made it a must-listen for wild takes on hockey, pop culture, and even golf.

The show is particularly strong in hockey-obsessed Canada, with 40%+ of podcast downloads and YouTube views coming from the Great White North. 

Incredibly, it all started with a tweet.

RA, BizNasty, Producer Mike Grinnell, Ryan Whitney (Source: Twitter / @SpittinChiclets)
WHAT’S THE SECRET SAUCE BEHIND SPITTIN’ CHICLETS?

Here’s what the Barstool team had to say.

Erika Nardini: “The show is important for the NHL, which needs to grow the game by appealing to casual fans. Spittin’ Chiclets is the most recognizable and relatable NHL brand. It works because it’s a team of characters that stand for something who are self-deprecating and have a real following. Barstool is a place for highly motivated and highly creative people to do great work. That’s what you get with Ryan, Biz Nasty, and Rear Admiral.

Paul Bissonnette: “The contrast of the team is perfect. Mike Grinnell, our producer, is younger. RA is like the Forrest Gump of hockey, he’s seen it all. There’s Ryan and myself, the plug [a hockey slang term meaning a less than productive player]. It’s a group of misfits that all work.”

Ryan Whitney: “We all have different senses of humor. We all have different opinions. The funniest thing about the podcast is that there is always someone listening that will like one person, but completely hate another. Opposites definitely attract with us.”

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The Drink: Pink Whitney

A few months after Bissonnette joined Spittin’ Chiclets, the podcast picked up a new presenting sponsor: New Amsterdam Vodka, which is owned by California-based winery and distiller E&J Gallo.

The tie-up was struck in October 2018 as part of New Amsterdam’s larger partnership with the NHL (it is the league’s official vodka). 

Why vodka? 

Well, it’s America’s largest spirits category with 80m+ 9-liter cases sold in 2020. 

New Amsterdam successfully entered the vodka market in 2011 but Pink Whitney offered a particularly juicy opportunity to capitalize on 3 industry trends: 1) domestically produced alcohol; 2) lower price points (e.g., NOT Grey Goose); 3) flavored drinks.

The ad read that started it all

As part of the first Spittin’ Chiclets sponsorship ad read (episode 112), New Amsterdam provided a simple prompt for the crew: “How do you drink your vodka?”

Here was Whitney’s answer (remember, this is a 6’4″, 210 lb. former pro athlete):

“I drink pink lemonade with New Amsterdam vodka. And anyone else who has any brains, and any balls and any sort of confidence in life will understand Pink Lemonade New Amsterdam Vodka, come at me one time.”

(SIDE NOTE: Bissonnette said his favorite drink was the “triple Bs” (AKA the ‘boys being boys’) which mixes vodka with Canadian Dry Ginger Ale and orange juice; RA likes it on the rocks). 

Whitney made his recommendation fully expecting the public to skewer him.

Instead, the social media response was hugely positive with fans posting their own pink lemonade (Whitney singled out Paul Newman’s brand) and vodka concoctions on social media. Hilariously, #PinkWhitney started to trend.

Shortly after the podcast, Bissonnette responded to one #PinkWhitney tweet with, “Can’t wait to try that concoction after my dry spell.” Things really took off a few weeks later following these 2 tweets from Whitney:

Creating the drink

Bissonnette — and his manager Jeff Jacobson — were among the first to pick up on the Pink Whitney social media hype and how it could actually be a real product. “This was ‘creator economy’ sh*t before that was even a buzzword,” says Jacobson.

The pair quickly moved to secure all the social handles around “Pink Whitney” and approached Whitney about commercializing the drink. They also pushed Barstool to get on board with the idea, which Nardini and her team quickly did. 

Whitney was hesitant at first. Not because he was skeptical of the product, but because Bissonnette is constantly pitching new ideas. Finally, at a Halloween party, Whitney’s wife commented that he should make a drink, and it finally clicked for him. 

Barstool Sports is famous for rolling out merchandise on trending news items, but liquor was a whole different beast. Fortunately, the company already had the perfect partner in place: E&J Gallo.

In addition to its distilling experience, E&J had built a huge distribution network of retailers over an 80-year period and was perfectly placed to launch the product.

New Amsterdam presented the Spittin’ Chiclets crew with various blends (see video below) and — by August 2019 — Pink Whitney was ready to go.

The Launch

The Spittin’ Chiclets crew announced Pink Whitney on August 7, 2019 (episode 195)… less than a year after the legendary ad read. 

In a savvy marketing move, the product launch coincided with the crew’s interview of NHL superstar Sidney Crosby (considered his generation’s best player). 

Whitney — who played with Crosby on the Pittsburgh Penguins — joked that, “It’s very exciting to have Sidney Crosby, who made me millions, the same day we’re releasing a drink that could someday make me millions.”

The Spittin’ Chiclets crew interviewing NHL superstar Sidney Crosby, far right (YouTube)

The personality of the podcast is slapped all over the Pink Whitney bottle, including the Barstool logo, the Spittin’ Chiclets logo, and one of its most popular catchphrases: “not a big deal.” 

Unsure of the demand, E&J Gallo rolled out 1m bottles. For this type of new product launch, that inventory should last a season or 2. Instead, Pink Whitney sold through the entire supply in 6 weeks.

It has since sold 15m+ bottles and is the #1 flavored vodka in North America. All in less than 2 years. 

Its customer base has grown outside of Spittin’ Chiclets fans, including college campuses and — geographically — states where there is little hockey to speak of (Mississippi, Alabama). 

Next up: to become America’s top brand for shots, taking on the likes of Jägermeister. “Bring it on,” says Bissonnette.

Incredibly, it all started with a podcast ad read. 

Not a big deal.

WHY DID PINK WHITNEY BLOW UP?

Here’s what the Barstool team had to say.

Erika Nardini: “The way that Pink Whitney came to market defied all conventional practices. It was built from scratch and organically. Unlike other popular liquor celebrities — like The Rock or Ryan Reynolds — Ryan and Biz are much more relatable. You can approach Ryan in the streets of Boston or chat with Biz at a Coyotes game. Our fans have a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ with Ryan and Biz and that’s why you’re seeing people that are typically beer drinkers buying Pink Whitney. We are bringing new purchasers to the category — 40% of Pink Whitney buyers have never bought vodka before.”

Paul Bissonnette: “We listen to the fans. Fans have really dictated what happens with Pink Whitney and really anything we do. I want to take this success and keep giving back to the hockey community. I’m shocked and overly grateful for what has happened.” 

Ryan Whitney: “I had no idea that this would work. Not one iota. Everything that has worked with Spittin’ Chiclets has been completely organic. Timing is everything in life and I’ve been very lucky. We’re doing stuff that hasn’t been done before by NHL athletes and are flying by the seat of our pants.”

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The Lesson: Content and commerce are becoming one 

Leading ecommerce analyst Web Smith coined the term “linear commerce” to describe how the lines between content and commerce companies are blurring. 

Instead of creating products looking for end customers, organizations with built-in audiences (e.g., media ventures) can leverage this relationship to sell an assortment of products.

For years, Barstool Sports has sold merchandise to its audience based on the content it creates. Few products have reached the success of Pink Whitney, though. 

Here are some key lessons: 

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The Future 

Whitney believes that Pink Whitney was like “catching lightning in a bottle” and wants to keep building the brand. 

“Whatever comes next will be user-generated, so to speak,” says Jacobson, Bissonnette’s manager, who works closely with the Barstool team. “The guys aren’t going to force anything down their audience’s throat. They would see right through it. If anything, the fans were more determined than anyone to see this product become a reality. Biz and Whit just took the time to hear them out.”

“I don’t know if it’s possible to have this success again,” says Whitney. “I’m very blessed.” 

Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini

For Nardini and the Barstool Sports team, Pink Whitney is at the top of the list of what the media platform can do when it comes to building consumer products from scratch.

When asked what’s next, Nardini says: “We are picky about what we do but I think you’ll see Pardon My Take and Call Her Daddy each with a leading product.”

Whether it’s starting with a tweet or a podcast ad read, Barstool is creating the consumer product playbook for the internet age. 

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