Legends: The Mad Man’s Next Act

He used shock ads (Charles Manson, anyone?) and a punk attitude to flip the city’s advertising community on its ear. So why is Steven Grasse now trying to return Philly to the days of the powdered wig?

Within a few years, Sailor Jerry rum was “growing like weeds,” according to Barbara Jackson, a senior executive at William Grant & Sons, the 122-year-old Scottish distiller that produced the rum for Grasse, and whose flagship whisky is Glenfiddich single-malt. Although Grasse won’t release sales figures — he’s adamant about keeping how much money he makes under wraps — in 2007 the New York Times reported that the Sailor Jerry brand was selling $16 million in merchandise each year.

When Grant was ready to create a premium gin called Hendrick’s, it charged Grasse with creating its brand image. What emerged was a floral-and–cucumber-infused concoction packaged in a squat, dark bottle whose design seemed to have emerged from the parlor of Sherlock -Holmes. With its high price and quirky another-era image, Hendrick’s became a profitable brand for Grant, and Grasse’s stock soared. This year, Grant reported record profits, attributing its success to Hendrick’s and Sailor Jerry. At the end of 2008, the Scottish company completed a deal to acquire the entire Sailor Jerry line and still retain Grasse as the ad agency.

“I got paid more money when I sold that than anything else that I’ve done,” Grasse reports, while maddeningly remaining mum on how much money that was. With those proceeds in the bank, the fledgling robber baron had a nest egg of what he dubs “F.U. money.” “What really changed was our relationship with R.J. Reynolds” — which had become increasingly demanding of his time. So late last year, he jettisoned a piece of his tobacco business — and the 12 employees who’d created it. Quaker City Mercantile now has 39 employees.

And Grasse has “complete independence,” he says. “That was when the light bulb went off for me: Why am I working for other people? I should be working on my own thing. So then we started Art in the Age.”

HAS a tendency to walk out ahead of other people.  

During my visit to his New Hampshire farm, Grasse seemed always ahead of everyone — out to the car, into the restaurant. On a tour of the property, as we trooped across fields to see a bucolic pond, or dropped into a funky outbuilding (his “lodge” contains bear and lion skins, mounted heads of large mammals, and a bowling alley right out of There Will Be Blood), he was often 10 feet in front of me. Clearly he is a man not constituted to meander, who needs always to be heading to the next place.