Founded in 2018 by longtime industry maven Karen Locke, the Portland, Ore., based High-Proof Creative is a one-stop shop for spirits distilleries in need of growth and getting their word out. From marketing proposals to product launches (and all else in between), High-Proof Creative and its dedicated team has the tools, techniques and talents to help craft beverage companies establish their brands and then evolve them exponentially towards their goals.
Locke, who is the author of the book, High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Craft Distilling Scene, is also a longtime journalist and writer for outlets like GQ, Bon Appetit and Thrillist. Locke also has more than 10 years of marketing experience in Portland, both as a content strategist and project manager, holding senior-level positions at companies such as Staffing Robot and Advanced, Inc. Additional experience includes positions at Nike., Left Brain DGA, and Direct Marketing Solutions.
In other words, she’s a bad mamajama. A former bartender, Locke has even taken whiskey-making classes and knows thoroughly the ins and outs of a fine cocktail. Karen also joined the Women’s Distillery Guild as a board member in 2018. We caught up with Karen to ask her about the origins of her company, how it works to help distilleries grow (like yours, dear reader) and what, at the end of the day, she likes to sip on these days.
Why did you want to start High-Proof Creative, specifically for spirits?
Funny you ask that. I often think about how amusing it is that I fell in love with a vice such as liquor, and created an entire business around it.
During my drink-writing career, I simultaneously worked in marketing, and I was working full-time in other, less appealing industries. Selfishly, starting High-Proof Creative meant I could work with spirits companies full-time, and it meant I didn’t have to work for someone else. Within the craft beverage industry, I noticed there were a lot of label and branding companies, but very few full-service companies that could help a drink brand grow after the logo and label are created.
How do you work to help distilleries and businesses expand?
I hate to say it but the craft spirits industry is a bit old school. With so many products available, we can’t market on taste alone anymore. We do a lot of work with companies through brand strategy workshops to build strong archetypes and personalities around the company and its products, so consumers can build a deeper relationship with brands.
We’ve been developing software specific to the industry like Small-Batch Maps (beveragemaps.com), which Peter David helped me bring to life in 2019. We plan to build more software like this product map that provides data on a distillery’s most-in-demand products.
Industry-wide, we’re connecting women and other marginalized people in distilling through a movement consisting of a map and editorial content (distillingwomen.com). My goal is to help marginalized people gain exposure in the industry, which hopefully results in much-needed resources and capital.
The field you’re in doesn’t have a history of gender balance, it seems fair to say. How were you hoping your woman-owned High-Proof Creative would impact that?
I don’t know that initially starting the business as a woman had a huge impact on gender balance in itself, but being a woman definitely gives me the lens to create movements like Women in Distilling, and other services that can have a deeper impact.
Your background includes journalism (with impressive bylines at magazines like GQ). How does knowing that side of the business influence your perspective as a brand strategist?
Writing about spirits gave me a deep understanding of spirits and the production process, but honestly, I learn something new every day that I’m in business from label production to glass sourcing — and all of the many nuances and laws surrounding craft spirits.
What have you learned about the business since starting High-Proof Creative and how do you hope to expand your burgeoning company in the future?
The spirits industry can be a difficult climb that isn’t always for the faint of heart. But it’s also a really gratifying industry. My goal has always been to help people and their products succeed. I don’t want to say too much but I have some in-person and digital education in the works for both consumers and the distilling industry. We’re working on some other software to help, too.
Bonus question: What’s your favorite cocktail?
These days I drink a lot of straight spirits, so I’ve gotten really into finding fun, new categories like Nixta corn liqueur, Mizu Shochu made with green tea, or Letherbee’s horseradish gin.