Jeff Popkin, CEO of Mast-Jägermeister US, has been on a mission to take a somewhat stodgy — but highly popular and profitable — old German liqueur brand and reinvigorate it for a new generation of American drinkers.
Jägermeister (“Master Hunter” in German), which has been made in Germany from the same 56-ingredient recipe of natural ingredients since 1935, is the No. 1-selling imported liqueur in the US and No. 9 worldwide.
Along with a major rebranding campaign in 2017, Popkin — who was hired in November 2015 — has led the company through a name change, to Mast-Jägermeister US, after its acquisition and absorption of another company in June 2015, the former Sidney Frank Importing Co. He also moved the company’s headquarters from New Rochelle to fancy and fun new digs in downtown White Plains and introduced a new redesign of the green Jägermeister bottle that highlights its ingredients and heritage. What’s more, he was responsible for introducing a pricier super-premium liquor, Jägermeister Manifest, to the US.
Popkin oversees the company’s 170 employees who manage the US and Canadian territories, 57 of whom are in the White Plains office. “We have 110 people in the field all over the country, managing our distribution network, calling on national accounts and working with local influencers for social and digital media,” he says.
Three times a year Popkin visits the company’s headquarters, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, which has about 800 employees. Popkin, who is 55 and on the road most of the time, is not one to brag about his accomplishments. “I’m a humble guy, to a fault,” he says. “I’m a simple guy because I live life on the road. My New York friends make fun of me because I like places like Olive Garden and Chili’s. You know what you’re getting at these places.”
“Jägermeister is a living brand that you can fall in love with…. I lie in bed at night, thinking of ways I can better introduce Jägermeister to all consumers, to where they love it like I do.”
—Jeff Popkin, CEO, Mast-Jägermeister US
Appropriately, this head of a popular liquor brand is just the sort of guy you’d like to have a drink with — funny, smart, and charming, a great listener and passionate about the story he’s telling. “I always say I’m in the people business,” he asserts. “Everything we do is about the people we work with. It’s been a staple throughout my career. I have a huge heart for people and the journeys they’re on.”
To many American consumers, Jägermeister is essentially a bar-top-shots beverage consumed by raucous groups of college kids, usually accompanied by lots of beer or Red Bull. But Popkin and his team want to tell a more complex story, one that explains how the 56 botanicals, including herbs, blossoms, roots, and fruits, go through a lengthy maceration process to extract their aromatic compounds. The recipe is closely guarded, and the exacting production process includes sourcing the ingredients in their raw, unprocessed form and aging the final brew in oak casks for a year. Along the way, Jägermeister goes through 383 quality checks to ensure its complex and balanced taste profile.
For Jägermeister Manifest, the master distillers add even more botanicals and a longer maceration schedule to the mix. “We’re trying to introduce this brand to a new generation of consumers and tell them the authentic story of what Jägermeister is, being all-natural,” Popkin says, adding that at white-tablecloth restaurants in Europe, you’ll see people doing Jägermeister shots as a digestive.
The US company also has a savvy marketing strategy involving mixology, in which they show bartenders how to mix Jägermeister with other liquors, to enhance their flavors. “You can make margaritas with it; you can make Bloody Marys with it,” Popkin says. “Jägermeister goes well with a rye whiskey. It has a tone of sweetness, of cinnamon, a tone of star anise.”
“I always like to say our demographic is anybody with a pulse who enjoys a good time,” he adds. “We’re all about celebrating life’s great moments.”
Popkin has spent 30 or so very successful years in the beverage industry, with an expertise in sales and distribution in the US. He has worked for several global brands in a range of categories, including beer, spirits, premium nonalcoholic carbonated soft drinks, and health-and-wellness. Popkin is known for his ability to grow revenue, in both developed and emerging markets, and build strong alliances with retailers and distributors.
Prior to joining Mast-Jägermeister, Popkin held senior management roles at a number of top beverage companies, including Red Bull, Vita Coco, Coors Brewing Company, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
As president of Vita Coco, from 2011 to 2015, he oversaw the years of explosive growth for the coconut-water brand. As CEO of Red Bull Distribution for three years, he was responsible for 650 employees and leading revenue growth in his territory from $200 million to more than $500 million in 18 months.
His longest tenure was at Coors, where he worked for 15 years, exiting as region president for the West. “I’ve had the luxury of only working for brands I love,” Popkin says. “If you love the brand that you work on, you’ll work that much harder to make the brand successful.”
He’s loyal to his brands, too. “I still drink a sugar-free Red Bull every time before a workout. I also love Coors beer.”
The fact that his background was “outside of the spirits industry was very refreshing,” says Florence Pramberger, senior vice president of human resources at Mast-Jägermeister US.
“He’s all about brands and building brands, and he has brought a different set of eyes to everything,” Pramberger adds. “He’s a dynamic leader who has put together an extremely strong and talented leadership team, yet he’s not afraid to make tough calls and tough decisions.”
Popkin shares a toast with employees at the company’s White Plains HQ.
In 2017, Popkin moved the company’s US headquarters to a 30,000 sq. ft., mostly open space in a 12-story office building at 10 Bank Street in downtown White Plains, very near the city’s Metro-North train station. It occupies the entire ninth floor.
By contrast, in New Rochelle, when the company was still known as Sidney Frank, workers were spread across three floors of an office building, so it was important to Popkin to gather everyone into a single space. “We looked all over Manhattan, all over Westchester County,” he says. “We wanted to be within striking distance of Manhattan, because I believe that Manhattan is the most dynamic consumer-packaged-goods market in the world. Eventually, we will have a brand office there.”
The open-plan space at 10 Bank St. was designed to inspire creativity and cross-team collaboration. It features lots of cool amenities, including a large bar area and a meditation room with a massage chair, water feature, yoga mats, and reclining chairs. There is also a games area, with a ping-pong table, disco ball, and a giant version of Connect Four, while another corner of the office highlights the history of Mast-Jägermeister US, with a nod to Sidney Frank Importing Co.
“As an organization, you try to create a casual environment where people can speak their mind… I call it ‘loose air,’” Popkin says.
“The best ideas come from the people closest to the business, and I mean that with my heart and soul,” he says. “We want to hear the unfiltered version of what they think. I foster an entrepreneurial spirit largely because we don’t punish mistakes.”
There is also no dress code. “We like to tell people: ‘Dress in a way that inspires you,’” he shares before adding: “So far, we’ve never had to send anyone home.”
When Popkin is in the White Plains office, which he says is about 35 percent of his time, he likes to keep half of his day unscheduled, allowing plenty of time for him to roam the halls (and the on-site bar and game room) and chat with people. When not on the road, Popkin splits his time between White Plains and Dallas, where his wife, Carol, lives and where he grew up. They have two sons, who are grown and out of the house.
In White Plains, on any given weeknight, you’re likely to find him in one of the city’s downtown restaurants. His favorites include Hudson Grille, Mediterraneo, BLT Steak, Serafina, and Freebird Kitchen and Bar.
Popkin became a career beverage man sort of by accident. He says that he just as easily could have become a professional golfer, having worked as a golf pro in college. He took a job at Coors when one of his golf students went to work at Coors and recruited him into the beverage business. Things took off from there.
Not surprisingly, Popkin still plays a lot of golf when not working. He’s not a country-club golfer, preferring instead to play on public golf courses. He also loves to take his 7-year-old grandson to a driving range in Dallas to hit balls.
With Popkin’s unambiguous love of people, it’s not suprising that he enjoys working for a family-owned company. “Everything is much more from the heart,” he says. “It’s difficult for a publicly traded company to be in the people business.”
Meanwhile, he’s got a brand to push and play with. “Jägermeister is a living brand that you can fall in love with,” Popkin says. “I lie in bed at night, thinking of ways I can better introduce Jägermeister to all consumers, to where they love it like I do.”
Bill Cary is a freelance writer who splits his time between a Hell’s Kitchen apartment in Manhattan and a former chicken farm in the Ulster County hamlet of Stone Ridge.