For Mark Anderson, the unusual combination of being born in Hillsboro, N.D., riding in rodeos in high school and the Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places” has helped him build a growing company -- Drake’s Organic Spirits.
Drake’s Organic Spirits is located in Minneapolis, where Anderson relocated after graduating from UND in 1991, with a degree in aviation, to pursue a career in commodities trading. The move was inspired, of all things, by the 1983 movie. The character played by Dan Aykroyd was trying to corner the commodities market for orange juice.
“You mean to tell me that you can do this on paper?” Anderson asked his father. “Instead of farming in a tractor, you can do this on paper?” he asked.
After that fortuitous turn watching the movie, Anderson relocated to Minneapolis in 1995 “with a credit card and a cash advance on the card” to begin work as a trader at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, where he worked for several years. There he founded a company, Captain Drake (after the explorer Sir Francis Drake), and began importing organic ingredients and non-GMO commodities, such as cane sugar and citric acid from South America, two ingredients used widely in the food and beverage industry.
According to Anderson, his company ultimately became the largest importer of non-GMO commodities in the United States. Other food and beverage companies, such as Flavor House and Unilever, began to seek his company out for their ingredients, which they, in turn, used in their organic products.
The idea to distill alcohol came about when he was asked to make an organic alcohol for a company that makes extracts. They needed an organic alcohol in order to label their products organic and non-GMO. From there, Anderson decided to start a spirits company -- after he changed the name.
“The name of the company was Captain Drake, and when we started to actually take that organic cane sugar and distill it onto organic alcohol, to produce the first organic rum … My law firm said it’s not if, it’s when Diageo sues you for using ‘captain’, because they have Captain Morgan. I said OK, no biggie, drop the ‘captain’, and thus, Drake’s Organic Spirits,” said Anderson.
Flash forward to today and Drake’s Organic Spirits now has a vodka, white and spiced rum, mixers and the popular Spiked Ice freeze-and-eat adult treats, a “Freezie” for adults, made with organic fruit juices.
All the products have a laundry list of certifications: certified organic, non-GMO project verified, vegan, gluten-free and kosher, for the world’s largest organic alcohol maker.
“Around 2001 was when Whole Foods started to prove that organic was not a trend, but a lifestyle change. In 2008 or 2009 is when I determined that it was beyond organic, it was becoming a bigger issue for food manufacturers on their labels, if they wanted to disclose if they had GMOs or non-GMOs,” said Anderson about the desire for sustainable and natural foods.
It was necessary to import cane sugar from Columbia because it is non-GMO, which is not the case with American sugar beets.
Getting all that cane sugar, citric acid and eventually alcohol distilled from that sugar cane, was tricky, and is where Anderson can credit a portion of his success to growing up in North Dakota and riding in rodeos. He was asked to play polo by the head of the sugar cartel in Columbia.
“He said: ‘Do you play polo?’ and I said I can ride a horse,” said Anderson. “He goes ‘You’re going to play polo this afternoon with our families,’ so that afternoon I played polo with them and the next day he said that I was getting the quota for the U.S. on the organic cane sugar.”
The cane sugar is distilled into organic alcohol in Columbia, before being shipped to Austin, Texas, where it is finished in a distillery under the watchful eye of master distiller Luis Ayala, a 38-year veteran of the industry, according to Anderson.
Today, Drake’s Organic Spirits is beginning to spread through the country, after it first focused on larger markets, such as California and other West Coast areas. “Our growth right now is like a hockey stick taking off,” he said, referring to the shape of the stick on a bar graph.
“I’ve got a desire to get into North Dakota and get our product in there since I’m from there, and we’re excited to do it,” said Anderson. “Hopefully, in the next couple of months, we’ll be able to supply Happy Harry’s and some of the great retailers that have expressed interest in carrying an organic spirit line and mixed line.”
Anderson admits it has been a wild ride: “All because I grew up riding horses in Hillsboro, N.D."