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Drake asks fans to take a shot at investing in whisky IPO

Drake’s partnership with spirits producer Brent Hocking will soon use a ‘crowdfunding’ approach to the musician’s top-shelf liquor brand in an effort to further sales and marketing plans.

Virginia Black

At 25, Drake said he was sitting on $25-million. Now he's 31 – and inviting the public to get a $30-million bite of his ever-growing brand.

The well-diversified rapper and pop star – who just this week launched a new restaurant, Pick 6ix, on Yonge Street in his hometown of Toronto – launched his own sleek-bottled liquor brand, Virginia Black Decadent American Whiskey, in 2016 with spirits producer Brent Hocking. Now the hip-hop entrepreneur is offering the fruits of his passion to the masses: This week, he and Mr. Hocking announced plans to file for a $30-million (U.S.) initial public offering.

The move would help Virginia Black expand globally while redoubling its focus on sales and marketing – including its goofy ad campaign featuring the rapper's father, Dennis Graham, a musician in his own right who adorned the cover of Drake's most recent album, More Life. But it would also take care of brand awareness, the company and its IPO underwriter say, by drawing in more Drake fans to come along for the ride as investors – and, in turn, as brand ambassadors.

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"When a lot of these celebrities come to the level that Drake is, they tend to forget about where they came from and who their fans are," said Mark Elenowitz, chief executive of TriPoint Global Equities LLC, which is underwriting the offering. "And he's taken the complete opposite approach. Instead of looking the other way and neglecting them, he's actually reaching his hand down and pulling them up with him – and giving them a chance to participate in his success indirectly by being a part of this exciting venture."

Virginia Black, an 80-proof blend of two-, three– and four-year-old bourbons, broke single-day sales records at Ontario's LCBO stores when it launched in October, 2016. Drake and Mr. Hocking are partners in the company, and its distributor, Proximo Spirits – which counts Jose Cuervo tequila among its brands – is also an investor.

Through TriPoint's online division, BANQ, the owners will allow fans who aren't familiar with investing to buy into the company, effectively through crowdfunding. Mr. Elenowitz said the company hasn't determined whether it will list on the Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange or be non-traded, though he said the offering is open to traditional retail and institutional investors, too. "We're going to determine what's in the best interest of the shareholders," he continued.

Drake, one of the most-consumed musicians of this streaming-centric decade, met Mr. Hocking a few years ago and struck a rapport over another consumable product: spirits. The musician, Mr. Hocking said in an interview, was a fan of his DeLeon tequila brand, which he'd sold to Diageo PLC and rapper Sean (Diddy) Combs within a few years of its launch. Mr. Hocking was in the market to make a new spirit; Drake showed signs of interest in partnering with him. Their thoughts eventually turned to whisky – and finding a niche in the market where they believed nothing was the same.

"The proof keeps getting higher and higher on whiskies as a benchmark of quality," Mr. Hocking said. "When I look at the whisky market and the taste profile, reducing the proof back to 80 and allowing the sweetness of the corn flavour to come out, I didn't really understand why I needed to bring it up into the 90s for some level of quality."

Stephen Rannekleiv, a global strategist for the beverage sector with Rabobank, said Virginia Black's crowdfunding-style model is "likely going to attract a lot of interest from people who are not your typical investor." The move leverages Drake's status as a megastar, he continued – "not only to capture funding, but it's almost like free marketing."

Small, successful liquor brands are getting big valuations these days, Mr. Rannekleiv said, with a tendency to go zero to 100, real quick. He pointed to George Clooney's tequila company Casamigos, which last year sold for $1-billion. "By our estimates, it was somewhere in the vicinity of 20-times revenue," the strategist said. With Virginia Black intending to go public, he continued, "it creates a structure that makes a sell process easy – or at least to bring in other strategic investors."

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Virginia Black is targeting a broader market than traditional bourbon consumers, including women, by taking a less serious approach to marketing. "Our whole intention was just to be, like, 'Relax and enjoy,'" Mr. Hocking said.

Joel Gregoire, associate director of Canadian food and drink reports for Mintel, a market intelligence agency, said whisky is in the midst of long-term growth in Canada, even among younger adults. "Broader market forces along with the brand's celebrity-backing suggests the IPO is not ill-considered," Mr. Gregoire said in an e-mail.

Drake has long taken an innovative approach to music – his most recent album is branded as a playlist and hit No. 1 on Billboard, foreshadowing changes to how music is consumed on streaming services – and has been branching out into other lines of business his whole career. He was the de-facto face of Apple Music when it launched. He's been the global ambassador of the NBA's Toronto Raptors. He built brand relationships with Nike and Sprite. He's built a studio in Toronto. And now he's letting fans buy into his own brand. They can thank him later.

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