Who’s Tom Baker? Excellent question. He’s the CEO and founder of Mr Black Roasters & Distillers over in Sydney, Australia. And it was a chance encounter at a Gin distillery that set his passion for coffee, Spirits and product design on a crash course of wonderfully caffeinated proportions.
But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ll let Tom do the talking. So pour yourself something neat and read on for our one-on-one with Mr Baker and the origin story of a brand one Australian review simply headlined with the word, “Wow.”
Tell us a bit more about Mr Black — the company and the brand.
Tom: We started Mr Black in 2013 with the super simple mission of taking Australian coffee culture into the evening.
We love coffee in Australia. It's like the lifeblood of what we do. It's not just a beverage, it's a question of national identity for us and certainly of national pride. That's how I grew up. I grew up with parents who loved coffee. I grew up visiting coffee shops and having coffee every morning. I was a barista during college and then got quite immersed in the Spirits industry and coffee culture as I got a little bit older.
I just thought it was mental that the best we could do — you know, the coffee and liquor industry — in terms of flavor was somewhere between caramel and vanilla, and then there was coffee. It just didn’t do justice to the amazing life-changing, world-changing thing that coffee is.
We thought we'd rectify that. So in 2013, we started Mr Black and set ourselves on a mission to change what coffee meant to the booze industry and what coffee meant to drinkers. That was almost seven years ago to the day, and what a wild ride it's been.
You're a designer by trade. How did you make the jump into the coffee and Spirits industry?
Tom: I'm a product designer by trade, so I do a lot of work in the liquor space working on brands.
I was working for an agency. The predominant thing we did in our agency was new ideas for brands or brand positioning. One of the big ones we did was a large company in Southeast Asia that wanted to create a new chain of coffee shops. They hired us to invent the name, the concept behind the brand and even start to develop the look and feel for it. We did the same for a lot of liquor brands as well. I did a lot of work for Pernod Ricard and Beam over the years, as well as in the Wine industry with Jacob's Creek.
So I had done a lot of coffee work on one side, and then a lot of liquor work on the other. I was at the tender age of 26, and I just wanted to know more about Gin. I just thought craft Gin was going to be the next big thing and turned out I was pretty good at picking that one. I googled “who makes great craft Gin,” and then it turned out there was a distillery about an hour-and-a-half north of Sydney.
I turned up there one day and I met this guy named Philip Moore. We were chatting about our love of coffee and he said, "Tom, I've got something for you. Have a try at something I've been working on." And really had some early samples of a product they'd been thinking about for a while. We got to chatting and then all of a sudden there was this serendipitous light bulb moment between the two of us — I was good at making stuff in sales and he was good at making stuff that tastes great. And then, six months later, we had this amazing liquid in a bottle driven out of the passion and the desire to make delicious things to drink. But yeah, crazy, serendipitous story.
What surprised you during your journey from designer to Spirit entrepreneur?
Tom: The long list of things that we had to learn pretty quickly… After seven years, I’m still just getting okay with it. It was a bit of accidental success. We put it in the bottle and started selling it. And I mean, I still had my day job. I loved my job at the time. I used to come home in the evenings and work on Mr Black until it obviously got too popular. But, yeah, I knew nothing about running a business.
And what always surprises me is just how complex the little things are. We were selling to 15 countries around the world. That's 15 different tax jurisdictions with different liquor and packaging laws. We're a marketing company that happens to run a coffee roastery and a distillery.
Then, we got fully integrated production — from sourcing green coffee through the bottling and sticking the labels on. In the case of Australia, we even sell our bottles directly to consumers. It’s a fully vertically integrated production thing. It's just a remarkably complex little business with a thousand little moving parts, which you wouldn't probably know. I certainly didn’t. I was just blown away by how many things need to go right to get your product on a shelf.
And then when you do, it's not a guaranteed success. That's when the hard work starts. Getting the product on the shelf is years of work but that's only about 10% of the battle. Then you gotta get people to drink it.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I need a time machine. That's all I need.
2. How would you describe Mr. Black in three words?
Big coffee flavor.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I love Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The perfect drink for that is a Mr. Black Manhattan. Mr. Black Rye Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
This isn't even a difficult question at all. I think it would absolutely be a lovely, impossibly perfect Mr. Black coffee negroni with a beautiful craft beer sitting next to it on a table. And then, for an odd but an incredibly necessary flavor pairing, I would have to have some Japanese food. I just absolutely love it. So a lovely Japanese meal with a Mr. Black perfect coffee negroni and the craft beer. It's a good way to go.
5. Assuming Mr Black is your favorite, what's your second favorite liqueur?
That's such a good question. I think it has to be Campari. I honestly think it does. Yeah, Campari. I'm an addict. I absolutely love it.
Tell us a bit more about the product development process, both the initial one and what you’re doing going forward.
Tom: Absolutely. So, it's not good by accident.
I don't want to pump up my own tires too much, but it is a phenomenally good product. It's the one reaction people have when they try Mr Black, which is, “oh my god.” I think Mr Black has opened people's eyes to what coffee could be in drinks.
We stumbled across a few little things early on that helped propel the product forward. The thing about making Mr Black, is when we invented it, we had to invent the liquid but also the method of manufacturing. If you want to make Gin, there are lots of books you can buy on how to make Gin. There are courses you can take, people you can talk to. If you want to make coffee liqueur, there are no books. There's no hardcover on Amazon. There are no distillers.
Our actual production process is this weird blend of brewing, Winemaking and distilling all rolled into one using equipment from all three different industries. The actual process of selecting beans is simply one of trial and error.
We broadly know what we look for when we want to make Mr Black. We source the world's best coffee — specialty grade, 100% Arabica coffees from high-quality growing regions and places where we generally know the farms that they come from or we work with people that have sourced coffee from there for a long time. There are very little unknowns about our coffees. Then, we profile them. My desk is covered in little sample bottles of new coffees that we're trying out for the final blend. It’s just a lot of work because we do everything ourselves — importing coffees, roasting them, getting the roast profiles right, cold brewing them and then finally blending them into a liqueur.
In short, we know how we want the coffee to taste. We know how we want Mr Black to taste. We understand what building blocks need to go into that, and then we choose our coffees to suit. And we have a base recipe, but it changes. Coffee is an agribusiness and a lot of the coffees we use are limited in their volume because they are limited by a certain crop year yield. There’s a lot of tweaking and changing to make sure that we're always adding that flavor of Mr Black.
Talk to us a bit more about the flavor profile. What can we expect when we have a sip of Mr Black?
Tom: In all honesty, there are very little things I can say to prepare you for just how good it is. I remember the first press article we ever got in an Australian newspaper and the headline of the review was, "Wow." it was something along the lines of, "you better be holding onto the bar when you try this to prevent you from falling over."
But the first thing you'll notice is the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. It just wafts out of the glass — that lovely, fresh coffee aroma. It's just...absolutely beautiful. The whole process of producing Mr Black is done under nitrogen, so the product that you get is always as fresh and beautiful as it was when we bottled it. That’s super important to us.
As for the taste, it has a big coffee flavor, but not so sweet. And a lot of people will say that Mr Black tastes like what espresso smells like. It tastes like the most beautiful batch of freshly brewed coffee you've ever had.
And the flavor is somewhere between a cold brew and espresso. Then the finish has a nice lingering hint of bitterness, but very high quality. It's certainly not a bitterness that's unpleasant. It’s a bitterness that makes you want to have another sip and it's a real pleasure drink.
What are some of the best ways to enjoy Mr Black?
Tom: Just pour it in a glass and drink. That is the most pure way to enjoy Mr Black and it's probably the best. I could give you a bunch of different cocktails that people love drinking with Mr Black, be it espresso martinis, cold brew passions or coffee negronis. But the thing that always resonates with me is looking at how people drink Mr Black, when they drink it and the role Mr Black plays in their lives.
And it's really interesting to talk to our drinkers. Iit sort of plays more than two roles. It's the date night special — whipping up a couple of espresso martinis for date night or if you've got a few friends coming around. But the other big one, is that it's the lovely, indulgent little reward at the end of the day. So when you turn off Zoom at 6:00 at night, after you've been staring into a camera for hours in this post-COVID world, you can enjoy having a lovely two-ounce pour of Mr Black over the rocks. It's just a beautiful way of winding down after a long day.
How does caffeine affect nighttime consumption?
Tom: It doesn't actually have a lot of caffeine in it. It has some caffeine in it. It's coffee, right? But an ounce of Mr Black has a quarter to a third of the caffeine of espresso in it. I mean, if you want to drink a whole bottle — don't — but if you want to, you can. And you'll probably feel something, but it's not like having a Red Bull. It certainly won't keep you up. The booze will get you before the caffeine does.
We don't add the caffeine, it's a byproduct of the production. We are not afraid of the fact we have caffeine in it, we are quite proud. We put it this way— if your coffee doesn't have caffeine in it, you probably aren’t using very much real coffee in the product. And we've caffeine tested every other coffee liqueur on the market and it would disturb you to know how little real coffee is used in this industry. It's a dirty little secret that a lot of coffee liqueur in all of these household names contain very little coffee. They're predominantly sugar and flavorings.
Have you thought about developing a product that doesn't have coffee in it? Like another liqueur? Is there something special on the horizon?
Tom: We're the coffee guys. But when you go to a coffee shop, there are other things to drink there. I think there are other things in our space that you'll say, “yeah, I completely get why Mr Black is doing that."
I have this genuine belief that the world and drinkers need Mr Black. It just tastes so good and fills such a role in people's life. We feel that anything that distracts from making that happen would be a bit of a disappointment, you know? We have lots of fun stuff that we'll do over the next couple of years, but a lot of our effort is just going in and making sure every person knows how bloody good Mr Black is and how much they need to bottle on their bar at home.