Mike Paladini and Danny Polise, who grew up next-door neighbors in Basking Ridge, later became business partners. They now reside with their families in Roselle, where they operate their spirits brand, Penelope Bourbon.
In September 2019, they launched their product in New Jersey. In order to turn their idea into a reality, the two did lots of experimenting, and eventually decided that their product would be a blend of three different bourbons.
“We created this blend together, but keep in mind, we were like deer in headlights,” says Paladini. “We had never done anything like this before.”
Now, the Roselle-based brand has made its way to 23 states and to four other countries.
On October 16, Paladini and Polise are partnering with the Far Hills Races, an event they grew up watching. Far Hills will be celebrating its 100th race meeting this year, with the help of Penelope Bourbon, which will host bourbon tastings throughout the day.
We caught up with Mike and Danny to talk about how they got started, why they wanted to be a part of the races and what it’s like running a business with a childhood friend.
What did you do prior to launching your brand?
Mike Paladini: I was working in tech, Danny in engineering. We’ve always had an entrepreneurial background, but neither of us had been in the spirits space before. A lot of spirits brands have these rich, long histories, but ours was just that Danny and I have been friends forever. It was kind of a “we’re writing our story now” scenario.
How did you come up with the name Penelope Bourbon?
MP: When my wife and I were trying to have children, we had always said if we had a girl we were going to name her Penelope. When we found out we were having a girl [and later named her Penelope], I just thought Penelope Bourbon had a nice ring to it. It was a little different. Whiskey is very masculine and the name is just a different take on it.
What was it like building from an idea to a product?
Danny Polise: Mike had this idea, and he called a distillery in Indiana called MGP. The old Seagrams distillery. That’s when he asked me to partner up. He said, “Do you want to come down and taste this bourbon?” So we flew down there in July of 2018. The distillery had a table full of different bourbons that they produce, and we sat there and went through them.
Nothing really resonated with us. Mike liked more rye whiskies and I liked the corn or the wheated bourbons. We just blended them together, and we got something that both of us really liked. We ended up blending three different bourbons to create Penelope Bourbon. We use those three bourbons in all our products.
What varieties does Penelope Bourbon offer?
MP: Our primary is our four-grain with the gold P on the bottle. This is a very easy, light sip from a bourbon perspective. We went down the path of doing some limited releases. We took our blend and finished that in some 100% Grenache Rosé wine casks from France. It has been really popular as a spring/summer limited release. We also have a toasted offering, which is the same formula but put into new oak toasted barrels for a certain amount of time.
What are your favorite ways to drink Penelope Bourbon?
DP: I like it neat, but a relaxing way of drinking it is with club soda and lemon.
MP: During the day I like a good ginger beer with Penelope. I also love the staples, like our Penelope old fashioned.
How much have you grown since first launching your brand?
MP: When we started, the law in New Jersey was written where we can be a supplier but we can also obtain our own wholesaler license. We couldn’t get a distributor in New Jersey to carry our product, so we said, “Heck, let’s get the wholesaler license and we can literally sell this from the back of our car legally.” We were just selling bourbon from the car. Check that off the bucket list. A wholesaler in New Jersey brought us on in September 2019, then fast forward and now we’re in 23 states and four countries.
How did you get involved with the Far Hills Races, coming up later this month?
MP: We grew up going to this thing, and it’s a huge event, the largest international purse for the steeplechase. You think about bourbon and horse racing, and they kind of go hand-in-hand. I reached out to the races, and they showed us the grounds, and it’s really been so collaborative since then. I can definitely see this going on for many years.
And people can taste your bourbon at the races?
MP: We have a hilltop tent, number four, with a great view of the races. Anyone is welcome to stop by for a Penelope Bourbon tasting experience. We’re going to have a cooperage area that will show how our barrels are made, and people can learn more about the process. We created a very limited release just for the 100th running of the Far Hills Race Meeting. It’s not even a product that we’re selling.
DP: In conjunction with the races, we came up with three really cool signature cocktails. We have the race day mule, and we partnered with Fever-Tree to use their ginger beer.
Anything new with Penelope?
DP: We recently worked with Ironbound Farm, the cidermakers, in Asbury. We brought over empty whiskey barrels, and they filled them with honey. They’re turning them every week, and in a couple of months, they’ll take the honey and use it in a cider they make. Then they’ll give us back the barrels; we’re going to fill the barrels with bourbon and do a honey bourbon.
What’s been a standout moment for you?
MP: We live in New Jersey, so you always get a little bit of a local bump. I think one of the bigger “aha” moments was launching in Kentucky recently with a pretty decent amount of product, and it must’ve sold out in hours. People in other states are enjoying the product and don’t even know who we are or where we come from. It feels good to see that.