Philly’s Premium Beverages
Start-up liquor business off to a promising start

By Laurie Arendt - News Graphic Correspondent

Feb. 10, 2015


  Phil Orlenko, owner of Philly’s Premium Beverages, shows off a T-shirt developed to promote the business.
Photo by Laurie Arendt

When most people lose their job, they dream of becoming their own boss, of doing something rather cool. But few do it.

Grafton’s Phil Orlenko is one person who actually is.

“A friend of mine told me to get off my "." Orlenko easily finishes this sentence with a grin and a word that can’t be used in newspapers. “He told me to do something.”

Orlenko’s friend even had a suggestion: Bottle the Old Fashioneds that Orlenko was known for when entertaining friends.

“I’ve been making them for 35 years - my dad taught me at 14 so I could make them for the family,” he said.

Orlenko founded Philly’s Premium Beverages in August 2013, using his own 401(k) to fund the business. He didn’t have a choice: 16 banks turned him down for funding.

“It is also extremely difficult to be a start-up in the liquor industry,” he said. “There are so many rules and regulations, and they exist on the local, state and federal level. But I had the help of some very good people in the industry. We are three steps ahead of where we normally should be.”

Grafton’s Phil Orlenko displays his bottled Old Fashioneds and seven flavored egg creme liqueurs that he has started marketing with the business he formed, Philly’s Premium Beverages. He said he hopes to employ up to 15 people locally once he gains approval to bring the bottling part of the business to Grafton, which he hopes will happen later this year. 
Photo by Laurie Arendt

Whipping up a pitcher of Old Fashioneds to enjoy down by the river - something Orlenko does with friends - is a far different process than producing it for mass consumption. His backyard adjacent to the Milwaukee River also provides the inspiration for his brand - friends kept sticking plastic flamingos in his yard, hence their appearance on the brand’s labels.

“I actually mixed up a bunch of Old Fashioneds in my kitchen, sealed them up and sent them off to be analyzed,” he said, noting that a Kentucky-based company does the hard work of identifying the components and then, once approved, scaling the recipes for production. “They sent me back samples and ultimately, we traveled down to Kentucky for some final taste testing.”

Philly’s released its line of four “Wisconsin-style” Old Fashioneds just before Thanksgiving, and consumer response has been strong. Unlike other similar-sized bottled adult beverages on the market, Philly’s actually contain brandy or whiskey and are not based on flavored malt liquor.

“The Old Fashioned is now actually a federally recognized cocktail that must be made with real brandy or real whisky to call it that,” he said. “So we don’t have a lot of competition out there.”

Each bottle of Philly’s Old Fashioneds is two servings, so each four-pack contains eight cocktails.

“It’s hard to find a good Old Fashioned at that price,” he said. “All you have to do is pour them over ice.”

The company has also released a second line of beverages, officially know as egg cremes.

“When I was in college, a friend of mine used to make her grandmother’s recipe from the old country - it was eggs, sugar and vodka - and everyone just drank it up,” he said. 

That inspired Philly’s second line, seven flavored egg creme liqueurs, which was released a little more than two weeks ago.

“The only other real choice on the market for a long time was Baileys Irish Cream,” he says. “But now there’s also RumChata, which is also a Wisconsin business. But Philly’s egg cremes are fairly unique and face little competition.”

“We have one of the only peanut butter-flavored liqueurs on the market,” he said. “And people who hate banana flavoring love the Naked Ape Banana Egg Creme. Once people taste them, they love them - we sold 500 cases in the first two weeks.”

Customers are also mixing the different flavors of egg cremes to create different recipes, which can also be found on the Philly’s website. Orlenko also says they can be poured over ice cream, added to coffee or used in place of milk when making instant “adult” pudding.

While Philly’s is actually based in Wisconsin, production occurs elsewhere. It’s a short-term situation that Orlenko hopes to change once he’s obtained the proper licensing.

“The plan is to bring the bottling here by the end of 2015,” he said. “When that happens, we’ll be able to employ 10 to 15 people, hopefully somewhere in Grafton.  I want to be a good employer and give back to the community.”

In the meantime, Philly’s four-person office occupies the top level of the former Grafton State Bank building.  The stuffiness of the bank is gone, replaced by purple walls, ubiquitous flamingos, an air hockey table and a pint-sized canine mascot named Wilbur.

“It’s been fun,” says Orlenko of the experience so far, which recently included a last-minute road trip to Nebraska to deliver 10,000 pounds of liquor. 

“We’ve had such great support locally - Mike’s Citgo in Grafton and the Sendik’s stores picked us up before anyone else really did,” he said. “Now we’re in almost 300 retail locations - and you’ll be seeing us a lot over the summer, too.”