Joe Grasso wants to change the way you think about liqueur. The founder of Mario’s Hard Espresso launched his liquid last year less as a booze brand and more as a high-end Italian espresso that just happens to pack a 50-proof punch. This is something engineered for coffee lovers. It’s built off of 100% Arabica dark roast that undergoes a gentle steeping process through triple-distilled spirit.
Enhanced by organic Madagascar Vanilla and a light touch of cane sugar, the flavor profile pays homage to Joe’s father. The eponymous patriarch used his “secret Sicilian recipe” to produce small batches of his own hard espresso as a gift for friends and loved ones back when Joe was growing up.
In an era where espresso martinis are as popular as ever, Mario’s Hard Espresso is making its own long list of friends and loved ones. Pour it over ice and you’ve got a cocktail onto itself. You can find it in liquor stores up and down California for $37 a bottle, with Grasso planning for broader distribution in the year ahead. In the meantime he chats with Forbes about his journey from familial inspiration to ready-to-drink realization.
Tell us more about the birth of your brand.
Joe Grasso: “The Mario’s Hard Espresso story is really all about my dad, Mario. Once a year, for over 55 years, he made and bottled his hard espresso in small batches from his secret Sicilian recipe for friends and family. If your were lucky enough to get a bottle, you cherished it as long as you could, knowing it would be a whole year until you got a shot at another. I was lucky enough to make it with him for the last few years of his life, and when he passed away about 10 years ago, my son Aaron and I continued the tradition in his honor.”
When did you consider going commercial with it?
JG: “I saw real potential for our little family recipe, and so I gathered up the family and for the last four years we’ve been working to bring Mario’s Hard Espresso to market. We finally launched a year ago, in November 2021, and the response has been fantastic. We’re currently in just over 90 establishments throughout California, including some of the most respected bars, restaurants and retailers. We’re also heading west as we recently secured distribution in Nevada, and so now Mario’s is currently being sold or served in about 10 locations in Las Vegas as well.”
How has the reception been?
JG: “We were honored in 2022 with a gold—95 points at the New York International Spirit Awards, a gold at the Los Angeles International Spirit Awards and platinum at the SIP International Spirit awards. Pretty cool stuff for our first year.”
What separates the brand from others in the market?
JG: “First off, we’re not mass-produced in some factory somewhere. We’re a small family artisan-spirit brand doing pretty much everything ourselves. Each bottle of Mario’s contains my dad’s secret recipe and is handcrafted in small batches with the same love and care he put into every one of his. We use only the planet’s best natural ingredients including triple-distilled neutral grain spirit, 100% Arabica dark roast espresso. People comment all the time at how balanced it is, and we’re very proud of that. Not only is Mario’s great as a true espresso martini and in an amazing variety of other cocktails, it’s also crazy delicious on it’s own. In fact that’s how we usually enjoy it in our family, Mario’s on the rocks or ‘Originale’ as we like to say.”
Why do you think hard espresso is having such a “moment” right now?
JG: “Generally speaking, people who like coffee love espresso. A well-made espresso is rich, flavorful, comforting and romantic. These cocktails can be sweet, stimulating, savory and soothing, simultaneously! When people are out for the evening, settling in for a great meal, or capping off a night out, Mario’s Hard Espresso just makes for some really delicious and surprising cocktails, and that’s just more fun.”
Tell us about the versatility of the product. Why is this a spirit to have on your bar?
JG: “We make Mario’s Hard Espresso using triple-distilled neutral grain spirit. It’s basically flavorless, with a silky smooth mouth-feel and a just little bite on the back of the palette. This allows the rich flavors of the other ingredients to blend extremely well and come forward, which in turn makes the spirit incredibly balanced and versatile. Unlike other coffee liqueurs that use rum or tequila, or are a cold-brew-low-proof-vodka blend, Mario’s Hard Espresso opens up a whole new world of cocktail possibilities. We’ve watched mixologists using Mario’s to create entirely new cocktails like the ‘Oaxacan Wake-Up’ with Mezcal or the ‘Tiki-Tom’ with Spiced Rum. We’ve also seen them re-imagine classics like the Espresso-Negroni, Espresso-Old Fashioned and the super delicious Espresso-Infused Black Manhattan. For anyone that keeps a well-stocked bar, adding Mario’s Hard Espresso just lets you be much more creative, which usually translates into a lot of fun for everyone.”
Mario’s is tied to family tradition, how will you maintain that as the brand continues to grow?
JG: “Mario’s Hard Espresso is first and foremost about my Dad. He’s truly our North Star. Nothing made him happier than people getting together, spending time, sharing a drink, a story and a laugh, and truthfully it’s what motivates us to this day. Everything we do, we do to honor him. And so I’d love to see Mario’s Hard Espresso in every bar, restaurant and store shelf across America, it would be amazing, but mostly because it would mean that I got to tell his story to everyone. I think as long as we always honor my dad and use his integrity as our guide, we’re going to be just fine.”
What is the expansion plan for the brand in 2023 as you enter your second year?
JG: “We’re a small family brand based here in Southern California. We live, and work and raise our families here, and we want to be an integral part of this cocktail community. So first I want to tell our story and pour Mario’s for as many establishments as I can right here, and hopefully find a home on their menus. Also, we have amazing clients in the Sacramento area where I grew up, and I want to continue to support our bars, restaurants and retailers there, and to expand the offerings in that market as well. We recently secured distribution in Nevada, and we’re starting to see real demand in the Las Vegas market, so that’s looking super exciting for next year. There’s also been some talk about bringing Mario’s to the East Coast, so I’ll certainly be exploring those opportunities as well.”
What can other brands learn from your family-driven approach?
JG: “I once had to make a decision about a fake ingredient someone was trying to get me to use. It would have taken the place our organic Madagascar vanilla—which is not cheap. They said, ‘Use this, it’s cheaper and no one will know the difference.’ All I could say was, ‘You realize that’s my father on our label, right?’ There was absolutely no way I was going to do that. And so if another brand was going to learn anything from us I’d say, just think really hard and have a clear understanding of who you are, what your brand represents, and what motivates you. Stay true to that ethos, be passionate, work hard, show gratitude and be nice. Find your North Star, and follow it relentlessly.”