PHOENIX, N.Y. — With their popular orange liqueur Cuse Juice ending its production cycle by Oct. 1, following a back and forth trademark battle with Syracuse University, Phoenix’s Lock 1 Distillery owners say they’re looking to the future and ready to “turn the page.”
Located across the street from the eponymous lock of the Oswego Canal in the village of Phoenix, Lock 1 traces its roots back to 2015 and a hobby of owner Brenden Backus and his friends. Backus said going from distilling as a pastime was aided in part by New York’s push to showcase upstate food and beverage producers through the Taste New York initiative.
“It kind of happened organically,” Backus said, adding the idea kept growing from him and his friends’ fascination with whiskey and bourbon. “I did it as a hobby and I just really liked the science of it and I played around with it. Then, I really looked into the legislation and when I realized that it was much less red tape than there had been in years past, that's when I kind of thought: ‘well maybe this makes sense as a business.’”
Backus said he and his two business partners wasted no time in establishing their business. They were aided by his uncle, who owns the current 17 Culvert St. building where the distilling and bottling happens, and the group embarked on a multi-year-long process of acquiring federal and state licenses to produce alcoholic beverages.
Before brewers and distillers can apply for those licenses, they must demonstrate they have the necessary equipment to produce said beverages, according to Backus.
“Something that's pretty unique about us is we built all of our own equipment,” Backus said, noting basic distillery equipment can often times start at the $100,000 pricetag. “(One of my partners and I) own a fabrication company as well, so we actually crafted all of our own distilling equipment.”
After a year of experimenting, the company launched Ryze Vodka, its first and most successful product to date.
“Ryze Vodka is made from locally grown New York winter wheat and rye,” Backus said, noting the spirit has won multiple regional and national awards over the last two years.
Following the success of their first homegrown liquor, Backus said he got the idea for an orange-flavored spirit that could represent the company’s central New York roots due to the rising popularity of flavored vodka.
Upon much testing, Backus said he eventually ended with a version that resembled more of an orange liqueur — known for being saccharine — than flavored vodka, thus birthing Cuse Juice.
Backus said the company consulted their legal team before launching to marked in 2018 to check for trademarks and other potential legal hazards.
“We did our due diligence,” he said. “We had trademark attorneys do research and we applied for our trademark and everything pointed to the fact that we would be fine.”
The orange liqueur flooded local stores and bars in the fall of 2018, following what Backus called a successful debut at that year’s New York State Fair. Initially, Backus said Syracuse University — colloquially and in collegiate sports known as the “Syracuse Orange” — seemed on board with the idea, noting a member of the athletics department ordered four cases of the spirit to hand out to donors.
The situation turned sour when in November of that same year the company heard from the university’s legal department.
“it seemed like it was a win, that Syracuse had no problem with it,” Backus said. “Based on some of the other products that were out there in the alcohol industry, other beers that were out there that seem like they could maybe be tied to the university, it seemed that she was okay with these things. Later we found out they weren't”
The following months brought with them a back and forth dispute between the company’s legal team and the university’s attorneys.
“We talked about licensing it and paying royalties to the school,” Backus said. “Their initial response was positive. It took them about three months to determine that they would not have any affiliation with our product, to the point of saying: ‘not only will we not have affiliation with it, but we are going to oppose your trademark and come after you for common law rights if you continue making it.’”
Backus said they were given a date for the cease of the liquor’s production and upon some deliberation, they decided not to further pursue a legal battle.
“We figured it would be about a quarter of a million dollars to try to fight the university,” he said. “From a small business standpoint, it just made much more financial sense to do away with the product. So we spent the next couple of months negotiating with how the product goes away.”
With the company scheduled to halt production by Oct. 1, Backus said the company wants to “turn the page,” noting a rebranding of the beloved orange liqueur is not in the cards.
“We've had a huge demand for and a huge amount of people reaching out to us, telling us how we should rebrand it and what we should change the name,” he added. “Most people just don't realize it's not that simple. It's about a six month process to formulate, rebrand and bring a product to market.”
Now with a look toward the future, the distillery is set to fulfill one of their main goals and one that brought the ownership group together in the first place.
“We're a year deep into our bourbon and our empire rye whiskey,” Backus said. “So starting next July, we'll be releasing our bourbon for the first time. We’re really excited about that.”