There’s nothing cute about this success story: In a little over a year, the peanut butter whiskey brand has grown its reach from Ocean Beach, California to states across the nation and picked up an impressive following along the way, including Foo Fighter’s frontman Dave Grohl.
Few people realized that peanut butter and whiskey would be a combo to rival PB&J, except Brittany Merrill Yeng and her husband, Steven Yeng. Together, they launched Skrewball, a brand of peanut butter-flavored whiskey that has been making waves far from its home base of Ocean Beach, California. It’s picked up awards since its debut—and was a topic of great discussion at last year’s American Craft Spirits Association judging in Los Angeles—but even more compelling is the creativity of the product and its modern approach to branding.
So, what exactly does peanut butter whiskey taste like?
In a word, decadent. At the outset, the Yengs somewhat naively believed the process of infusing peanut butter flavor into a whiskey would be an easy one (though Merrill Yeng credits that naivete with their decision to move forward with the brand). “If they can create jelly beans that taste like popcorn, why can’t you make a peanut-butter flavor and add some whiskey to it?” she jokes. Merrill Yeng and her husband quickly learned that the reality was a different story. “I think that peanut butter is such a common flavor that we think that it’s very simple, but if you really break down the flavor profile you have a sweet, a savory, a creamy component, and peanuts don’t necessarily taste like peanut butter, so it’s really about getting that perfect combination.”
The Yengs focused on striking a balance within their spirit. Merrill Yeng says that their different backgrounds—he was a successful restauranteur with culinary knowledge, she a more analytical lawyer working at a prestigious firm—were paramount in helping them to develop the spirit’s flavor profile. The whiskey element is there, but it’s impossible to ignore the sweet, slightly salty character of the peanut butter, which immediately inspires visions of ice cream sundaes drenched in Skrewball.
The idea for Skrewball came to them after witnessing the enormous success of a cocktail served at one of Yeng’s restaurants. “One of his signature cocktails was this peanut butter whiskey [drink]. He had been doing that and it was really out-performing any of the other brands or cocktails or anything else that we had on the menu,” Merrill Yeng says. The cocktail gave them the opportunity to do a sort of long-form focus test, a luxury not afforded to most brand owners, but it wasn’t just this initial interest that spurred them into action. “We had wanted a project, first of all, to bring us back together—I think we were expecting our first child at the time, so it was kind of born out of that passion to work together but also really seeing the success of it and seeing if we could bring that to more people.”
That sense of bringing people together is palpable in the marketing for Skrewball. Photos on their social media accounts feature unmistakable Californians, skating in the setting sun, their tanned fingers firmly gripping the neck of a bottle of Skrewball. It’s a modern take on spirits marketing, especially next to the majority of whiskey adverts. But no one ever accused Skrewball of being traditional.
Even its brand is something of an oddball. The label, which is simple and straightforward, features a black sheep’s head against an oozing, marbled brown background. Merrill Yeng says she “came up with the idea and the concept for a logo of a black sheep and the name Skrewball. It was really reflective of the culture that we had created at our restaurants, the culture we had kind of grown up in in Ocean Beach.” This was a culture of acceptance, of embracing people for who they are, which does seem typical of a West Coast attitude. “At the core is friendship, acceptance, and diversity, so that was kind of where it all started.”
So how does the black sheep fit into all that? “The way I kind of explain it is the quintessential Skrewball moment to me is that you’re sitting around with your friends and you admit something embarrassing, like ‘I just walked into a glass door’ or something like that, your friends will be the ones that will admit that they’ve done it too. You’re not alone, so having that courage to put yourself out there allows other people to similarly do that and that’s where you get that real connection with people.” Those that were once considered a black sheep can find connection and acceptance with Skrewball, which is itself a bit of a black sheep within the spirits industry. The established whiskey producers in the U.S. often have a focus on a long tradition of whiskey distillation. The Yengs didn’t have a typical narrative, but it was still a story with value. Skrewball’s success wouldn’t be forged through connections or the family name; it would depend entirely on consumers and their reaction to the spirit.
From the beginning, the Yengs knew the task they were setting out to accomplish was a difficult one. “It was even harder for me to convince my husband to enter this industry, having had experience in the alcohol industry and knowing how tough it is—especially Mom and Pop, smaller businesses—to break those barriers because it’s not like you get to sell direct, right? You have to go through distributors.” Peanut butter whiskey was totally out of left field, which put the brand and the distributors they were approaching in a difficult position. Fortunately, once Merrill Yeng got Skrewball into people’s hands and actually had them try it, the response was often one of overwhelming positivity. “I think as soon as people try it, they see it’s not a gimmick, it’s not another flavor, there’s something to this.” Despite any initial reservations, the passion for the project and for a family venture ultimately proved too great to ignore, and this year both Yeng and Merrill Yeng have stepped away from their previous careers to focus entirely on Skrewball. “You’re not going to become a success by doing something part-time, you’re not going to become a success by doing 40-hour work weeks,” Merrill Yeng explains. “We’ve both made that commitment to fully grow this, so it wasn’t just me leaving, he had to leave as well.” They’ve packed up their little one, and with another on the way, set out to travel around the country, bringing the story of Skrewball to all manner of weirdo, maverick, and misfit. It may not be your typical life with a toddler, but the folks at Skrewball like it just the way it is.