Published in Food/Agribusiness

Gray Skies Distillery rebrands after trademark dispute

BY Wednesday, November 13, 2019 04:45pm

GRAND RAPIDS — After more than three and a half years in business, Gray Skies Distillery LLC has rebranded as Eastern Kille Distillery, effective immediately, to coincide with the first statewide launch of the company’s bourbon. 

The move comes just a couple of weeks after the Grand Rapids-based distillery abandoned its efforts to trademark the Gray Skies name, according to filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

Gray Skies had been involved in a protracted trademark dispute with Campari America LLC, the U.S. affiliate of Milan, Italy-based Davide Campari-Milano S.p.A., the owner of the Skyy vodka brand. 

Campari, a global spirits maker that generated about $1.9 billion in sales for 2018, opposed Gray Skies’ trademark application, saying the name was “likely to cause confusion” with its existing mark for Skyy, according to initial filings with the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board in December 2017. The two parties started settlement talks in February of this year, with Gray Skies withdrawing its trademark application on Oct. 29.

Co-founder Brandon Voorhees declined to comment on the resolution of the trademark case, saying the company sees the new Eastern Kille name and branding as a positive. Kille, a Middle Dutch word for “riverbank,” refers to the distillery’s location in the city’s Monroe North neighborhood on the eastern side of the Grand River. 

“We wanted a name that invokes a place. We take pride in where we make (our spirits),” Voorhees told MiBiz. “We’re excited about our new name; it’s a great brand for Michigan moving forward, and we’re excited for our first bourbon release. It’s all distilled and aged on our site. That’s where our passion is moving forward.”

The company worked with Highland Group, a Grand Rapids-based advertising, marketing and branding firm, to help tell the brand’s story via a new marketing and social media campaign, and to reassure customers that the products will remain the same despite the different name. 

“We set out to craft authentic spirits with quality, natural ingredients, distilled and bottled in the heart of Grand Rapids — our new name reflects that commitment,” co-founder Steve Vander Pol said in a statement. 

Voorhees noted that with Gray Skies’ products, the company name had been “one of the smallest fonts on the bottle anyway.” The overall graphic design for its spirits bottles, which features an outline of Lake Michigan, will stay the same under the Eastern Kille name, he said.

In yet another change, the company switched its distributor from Republic National Distributing Co. (RNDC) to Kalamazoo-based Imperial Beverage Co., which has built a portfolio of Michigan-based brands since becoming an authorized distributor agent for spirits in 2017.

RNDC has been the subject of statewide criticism and Michigan Liquor Control Commission scrutiny in recent weeks for a string of shipment delays and missed orders stemming from the company’s move into a new warehouse and technology-caused disruptions. 

Imperial Beverage also reps West Michigan-based Long Road Distillers, Bier Distillery, Kalamazoo Stillhouse, Iron Fish Distillery and 18th Amendment Spirits Co., among others. 

“With Imperial and our new marketing launch, we hope to become more aware in all parts of Michigan,” Voorhees said, adding that despite some prior outreach to the Detroit market, the company had focused almost entirely on West Michigan since its founding.

LANGUAGE MATTERS

Trademark disputes among alcoholic beverage producers have become commonplace and more publicized in recent years. Locally, the owners of a Byron Center brewpub agreed this year to change its name to Alebird Taphouse and Brewery as part of a trademark infringement settlement with nearby Railtown Brewing Co., as MiBiz previously reported

More often, the disputes and lawsuits stem from product names. That was the case in 2017 when Gray Skies faced a 2017 trademark infringement lawsuit over its “Breakfast Rye” product, but Evanston, Ill.-based Few Spirits LLC, the maker of “Breakfast Gin,” later dismissed the case. 

By leveraging a word in an archaic language, Eastern Kille hopes to avoid any further trademark issues with its name.

“That’s sort of the way it’s going right now,” said Joe Infante, the head of the alcoholic beverage regulation team Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC who was not involved with the Gray Skies trademark dispute. 

“We advise our clients to look to other languages and mythology because the common words are just being taken,” he said. “You’ve got to start picking names that are more unique and off the wall so there’s much less likelihood of someone out there using that word.” 

In trademark disputes initiated by large beverage producers, smaller startup companies will often acquiesce rather continue to fight and spend money on legal fees, regardless of the merits of their arguments, according to Infante. In part, that’s because a trademark applicant would have to prove that an opposer acted in bad faith in order to recoup attorney fees, and “that’s almost never done,” he said.

For his part, Voorhees said Eastern Kille is focused on remaining positive throughout the situation. 

The new bourbon, the new distributor and new focus on statewide product availability are allowing the company to make the most of the timing surrounding the name change, said Voorhees, who chalked up the company’s initial opening without first securing a trademark as an example of “traditional small business growing pains.” 

“We learned something for sure,” he said.

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