Zach Brinley grew up in two vastly different locales: New Jersey and the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. After his father started doing business in St. Kitts in the mid-80s, Brinley visited once a year, developing a love for the lush, rugged countryside and and its people.
In his twenties, as St. Kitts grew into a tourist destination, Brinley and his father found opportunity in selling rum at the cruise ship ports. Brinley left his Wall Street job to pursue this new venture.
“It almost helped,” Brinley says, “that we were a little naive to the challenges [of the business].”
When they introduced Shipwreck Rum to the US in the early 2000s, infused and flavored spirits weren’t popular yet. Now, he says, Shipwreck has grown into one of the best-selling rum brands in the US. “Sometimes,” he quips, “I should pinch myself.”
Brinley, who lives in Atlantic Highlands with his wife and three children, says the business has enabled him to meet the likes of Tito of Tito’s Vodka and Jim Cook of Sam Adams Brewing.
As for the rum, it’s still bottled in St. Kitts.
Table Hopping: Why did you decide to base your rum business in St. Kitts?
Zach Brinley: The start of St. Kitts goes back to when I was seven years old, and I’m 43 right now. My father needed more manufacturing for a business he was working on. It was basically a ceramic kit that measures temperature in phones, cars and that stuff. In the mid-80s, St. Kitts [became] independent from the UK. My dad read on the back of a magazine that there was a free trade deal and development group helping businesses set up down there. I was a lucky kid from New Jersey—all of a sudden, dad started doing business in the Caribbean. In 2000-01, he had to close the operation down, but tourism was growing. He was laying off hundreds of people but also seeing an opportunity.
TH: And that opportunity was to start a rum company?
ZB: The rum company on the island was going through hard times, we were looking for something to do, and my dad said, “Zach, you have the personality and energy to do this business.” The idea was more of just opening a rum shop on the cruise port because if ships come, [passengers] all need to buy something.
TH: How often did you travel to St. Kitts as a kid?
ZB: Growing up, once a year. Then after we started the company, I was basically back and forth all the time. I moved in with my parents in Montclair because I needed a place in Jersey.
TH: What made you want to jump from a Wall Street job to starting your own company?
ZB: I think the easiest way to put it is I went from selling hope to selling a bottle of rum. I love the camaraderie of Wall Street; I didn’t like the idea that it’s stressful and you can’t control everything. I was so excited to jump into something, and we didn’t even think of failure because it seemed so cool.
TH: What was it like introducing your rum to Jersey?
ZB: When we first started selling it, we were going door to door, around 2009-10. People would look at me like, “Is this legal? Are you making this in your bathtub?” Of course it was [legal], and we were just so excited to help this beautiful island out. Craft spirits were very small at the time, and the idea of a new product coming in wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. It really started from the ground up, going door to door in New Jersey.
TH: Are you still operating out of St. Kitts today?
ZB: We are! We still produce about 70% of our product down there. We’re shipping about one to two containers off the island a month. We also bottle some of our products in Rochester, New York, because we started our coconut rum cream. Obviously we are a New Jersey–based company, so we like to call ourselves bootleggers.
TH: What is the difference between your rum cream and your regular rum?
ZB: Cream liquors were popular, and there were a lot of requests for doing creams. We thought it’d be cool for our fanbase that likes those flavorful and delicious products. All the dairy is sourced from Upstate Niagara. It tastes like coconut heaven. We started doing that one a couple years ago, and it really changed the business. And let us bottle in two locations at the same time.
TH: What other flavors do you make?
ZB: It’s kind of crazy that we have eight different varieties now, and I always say I love all my children equally. The first product we ever blended was our vanilla rum, made with natural Madagascar vanilla. That’s one of our top sellers, along with our four-year aged spiced rum, a regular coconut rum and, of course, the coconut rum cream. The other four, which are equally delicious, are mango rum, coffee rum, lime rum and our straight white rum.
TH: Where can people get your product?
ZB: We sell all over the US now, which blows my mind. We also sell in Western Canada, a couple of the Caribbean islands and a little bit of Australia and Europe. New Jersey is number one, as we’re probably in 1,000 locations. Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands does a Ship Wreck Porter every year, which is pretty cool.
TH: Are you on the menu at restaurants and bars in the state?
ZB: We’re probably in 300 to 400 bars in the state. This is our high season right now. All the places up and down the coast that are serving rum buckets and cocktails on the water. But we are in a lot of places in the state, and we’re starting to get into those typical pubs and bars.
TH: What’s been a standout moment for you?
ZB: For three years in a row we got the Rising Star Award from Beverage Dynamics for cases sold. That’s one of those where you actually feel like the blood, sweat and tears is worth it. We were just the little guy, and we were just trying to bite at the heels of the big boys. Then it feels like you’re actually making an impact.
Brinley Gold Shipwreck Rum is available nationwide. To find it in a store near you, visit brinleygoldshipwreck.com.