The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. Has a Plan to Reinvent Hard Seltzer
The guitarist's new wine venture — inspired by his travels — hopes to "elevate" the booze world's trendiest category
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the simple things we once took for granted — like being able to nurse a beer or a cocktail while sitting around and shooting the shit with a group of friends — are precious. And as we slowly but surely return to normal, what was once mundane feels absolutely glorious, like a hard-won victory or perhaps even some sort of crazy adventure.
That’s the feeling that Albert Hammond Jr. is trying to bottle — er, can — with Jetway, his newly launched wine seltzer brand. The musician, best known as the guitarist for The Strokes, teamed up with winemaker Ben Parsons to launch two initial offerings sourced from the McNary Vineyard and inspired by the 20-plus years he’s spent on the road touring the world: a Sauvignon Blanc and a Rosé of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of course, if you’ve followed Hammond Jr. at all over the past decade or so, the news that he’s getting into the booze business might come as a bit of a surprise. He’s been open about his past struggles with addiction, and he was completely sober for many years. Now, however, he explains it like this: “I was sober for a long time. Now I drink occasionally. I’ve used CBD and THC. When I had my neck surgery, they gave me all these pain pills. I’m not a huge fan of them, so a lot of what helped my muscles relax was CBD with the smallest amount of THC. It really aided my recovery …To be honest, breaking open my sobriety — having a drink or even the surgery — I was just like, oh no. You feel like the only way to survive is all or nothing. I know people won’t believe it, but that’s fine, to each their own. I’ve found a balance. Whatever happiness I have does not come from substances. The things I want to do in my life are stronger than the need to get fucked up.”
That’s the idea behind Jetway; having fun doesn’t necessarily mean getting fucked up. Sometimes you just want something you can sip on casually while you sit around a campfire. With that in mind, Jetway seltzers are only 5% ABV, and as Hammond Jr. is also careful to point out, they don’t use any added sugar or artificial flavoring. You can currently pick up some cans in Southern California, and distribution will expand to the rest of the country in late 2021 and early 2022. We caught up with the musician to hear about what inspired his foray into beverage-making, how his drinks taste like his music sounds and why he wants to eventually expand Jetway into a full-fledged lifestyle brand.
I know that Jetway was inspired by the experience of having Aperol spritzes in Italy with friends. But can you walk me through how that evolved into the eventual idea of doing a wine seltzer?
Albert Hammond Jr.: It wasn’t like, “I want to make a wine seltzer.” I didn’t even really know what that would be, right? I just had this amazing evening and kept thinking about it. I was like, “Oh man, something in there should be canned, but different,” in the flavors that I wanted. Then I was at a Formula One race, and I just saw that there wasn’t anything that was refreshing and sociable that could be with you all day at an event like that … [where] everyone else who was drinking other drinks were just passing out on the couch.
If anything, I thought more of it as competing with beer, in the sense that you’re making something refreshing like a shandy, but less sweet. So I had all these thoughts mixing in my head. I tried a bunch of different ways in different places and kept bringing different people to the idea. Finally, I met Ben [Parsons]. We hit it off like star-crossed lovers. We were on the phone every day for like three hours talking, daydreaming about the product.
I keep telling him about this dream drink I have, and he loves the idea. I have sent him my failures, so he knows where I went wrong. He knew this vineyard up in Washington State, this sustainable vineyard that was just beautiful and makes great wine. We went up and over two or three days, started homing in on the flavors. Then we just got these flavors that we couldn’t believe. Even my wife, who’s pregnant, came with me. She swished it in her mouth, she got the mouthfeel.
So how did you settle on a seltzer? And where does this fit in with the greater seltzer genre, given how that category has blown up in the last few years?
What do you call something that’s new and you’re just trying to make a great drink? Okay, “spritz” works in Europe, people know it, but it’s also old-fashioned. It doesn’t come across in America. We’re a small company, and the seltzer world has created a room for a small company to exist without having to explain too much. But the explanation really is they’ve been serving you trash. Fermented sugar water, just garbage. I don’t think that this category needs to sit there. I think it could be a very elevated category. A category that’s fun and for everyone but is ultra-premium and alive and something you can bring and show people, from the art to the flavors to the colors to the smells. So that got me excited to exist in that category.
It was like no one is sitting there. But I feel like it deserves it. This category has really been trying, it’s been pushing its way since I was a kid. It’s just never worked. The low-end seltzers are really what took it off. But sugar, it’s an intense drug. I don’t hold them negatively. If anything, I thank them for allowing me the room for me. But that’s how it sat in the world. That’s how that seltzer category excited me so much. Because I felt like I could actually create a lifestyle brand in this world that could go further than even the drink. I think the drink represents all of that.
You mentioned the ingredients, and I know that a lot of them were selected because they were inspired by your travels and your childhood. Can you tell me a little bit about what some of those particular flavors evoke for you?
I would say it’s even more my childhood than my travels. Maybe the travels are the idea; the idea came to me while traveling. I’ve been lucky to experience a great part of the world through playing music, which is pretty amazing. But I grew up in LA, my mom’s from Argentina, so I had maté my whole life. My parents’ best friends were Japanese. It was my first food. Yuzu, yuzu pepper, all the ingredients that are Japanese were kind of like my comfort food. My chicken noodle soup, almost. So those were two strong staples for me. Then the other ones are just things that I love that blend well with things that add to the refreshing element of the wine. Also, those flavors mesh with bringing out the best qualities of the wine. I feel like if you just canned wine, you can’t get it as good as in a bottle. But when you put sparkling water in it and you put these flavors that enhance what the wine would have, it’s really amazing.
I know Jetway is inspired by a sense of place and travel, and those are two things that have obviously been robbed of us for a long time thanks to the pandemic. How does it feel to be releasing this product at this particular moment in time?
I didn’t realize that I was creating that in the pandemic. Because the ideas for it were always there, right? So it wasn’t like “the pandemic hit, I need a place to do this.” But now that you’re saying it, and now that we’re coming out of it and it’s coming out, the timing couldn’t be better for me. Because I feel like there’s a romantic quality that’s coming naturally from people. So you almost see this drink and what it represents and you crave that too, because of what happened. That’s just one of those things that happens in life. The way you can meet someone or just the timing of things. But yeah, it’s beautiful for me because I truly really believe in it. I’ve built it from the ground up. I love it. I think it’s special and delicious. So I’m just happy that at its core it has that meaning.
I read a piece you wrote recently for Gossamer Magazine where you mentioned your past sobriety and talked about how you’ve now found a healthy balance with alcohol that isn’t “all or nothing.” Was that a concern at all when you were coming up with the concept for this? Was that behind the idea of making this a low-ABV, sessionable wine?
Yeah, for sure. Look, I’ve been through enough stuff that I don’t think low-[content] alcohol is what you should do if you’re “not drinking.” I just personally have felt, to me, modern drinking seems like it’s going to be lighter, because there’s more we want to do. The romance of the heavier drinks are just … They beat you up. No matter what you do, they beat you up. They can be delicious. But there was something that I preferred in, “is there a way to stay social with something delicious and have that euphoric element that you can have with alcohol and mingling with people?” Another option, if you will.
You also mentioned in that piece that you think the drink tastes like how your music sounds. Was that a conscious choice, or just how it naturally turned out?
I think in creation, you find things sometimes on the way. An idea starts, and it’s just like this nugget and you chase it, not knowing that you could end up in spots. You talk to other people and you bounce ideas … Sometimes I feel like these flavors and this sophistication is for everyone. Sometimes that’s a hard balance to strike, trying to create something like that. But I think what I meant with the flavors in the music is that they have a story. They have a beginning. They have a middle and an end. They all are trying to do something.
For instance, the white wine, the way it starts and how it builds, to the way it ends, is very different. If you give it enough time, all flavor disappears and you almost have a clean palate. That’s why it works with food so well. (And also why you keep wanting to drink it, because the dryness, it’s just enough to make you want to take another sip and it’s not sweet enough to ruin your palate.)
The rosé is the single you hear on radio. Everyone just loves it right away. The white peach [flavor] is big on the nose. Even though I said that as a joke, I really meant it. It’s big. Everyone thinks it’s going to be super sweet. But you taste it and it’s more subtle and it’s more like strawberries and watermelon and fun bubbles and this beautiful rosé finish. But it’s like the single: “I heard it on radio. I love this song.” You loved it right away. But the white wine one, it’s the album track that you fall in love with later and becomes your favorite. You don’t know why, it’s more complex. But when it does connect with you, you crave it. It’s very strange. Because I’ve had it with friends who were like, “No, I like the rosé.” Then they’re just like, “I can’t stop thinking of the white, can I get some more?”
You’ve got some “first pour” events coming up. What are you most looking forward to about those?
I’ve always wanted to play The Forum. We never have as a band, and it’s going to be amazing. And then just to be there and be sold there, where this drink is from, where it’s first coming out in Southern California and have the distributors there and everything, is super special. To know that fans are going to be able to try it for the first time a week or two before it’ll hit shelves in restaurants and bars and stores in LA, it’s cool. It’s an exciting time. People coming to the show can taste something before it even really comes out. Then in San Francisco, just to be able to pour and answer people’s questions and see their reactions, that process. I don’t know if it comes with touring, but the traveling kind of salesman clown guy I guess, is me. I never thought it was. But clearly I keep doing stuff that pushes me into places like that.
Every step is going to rollercoaster. I don’t even know sometimes how it got to this. I’ve let it go many times. It was like, “Well, that was fun, I don’t know if it’ll go past this.” I’m like, “Oh, I can’t believe it got here, but I don’t know how it’s going to pass this.” So I’m just enjoying each moment of it.
You mentioned earlier the idea of Jetway being more of a lifestyle brand rather than just solely a drink. Is that something you have further hopes or plans for? Eventually expanding it beyond just the wine seltzer?
I have to dream the impossible dream to be able to let reality shave off of things. If I dream reality, then I’m not going to get anywhere, you know what I mean? I feel like I have to push this thing where like, “That’s crazy! That’ll never happen!” It’s like, “Sure, but what’s the point of dreaming if you’re not going to do that?” So yeah. I definitely see many different ways it can go. I’m still trying to figure out how, because we’re a new brand. I feel like at first maybe I’ll just try to do some stuff for the local environment. Beach cleanups or stuff in that area. Then if it is able to grow like that and become lifestyle brand, I want it to — as much as it enhances other areas, I want it to give back in as many areas as possible. That’s a big deal for me, just because of my road in life in general.
What, ultimately, do you hope people get out of Jetway? You’re pouring it for someone and they take a sip. What is that reaction that would make you say “mission accomplished”?
I guess in its simplest way, the same way I feel — that it’s delicious. That something like that can be great in a can like this. It’s aesthetically beautiful. It’s delicious. I’ve had it in many different places: the beach, to a dinner with friends, just traveling in my backpack, putting it in the cooler, having it next to fancy things at someone’s dinner. It sits with everyone. I like the tagline, “Drink like a seltzer, enjoy like a wine.” Because I feel like that’s our difference, is you can chug it. You can sip it. You can pour into a glass. Each way is enjoyable and different. Some friends love pouring it to a glass, and it opens up like a wine would. Some friends love downing it. It’s pretty special in that way.
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