Words by Sammy Hemmings
Dragos Axinte is the founder of Novo Fogo, a cachaça made in a carbon-negative Brazilian distillery from organic sugarcane.
When Dragos took the jump into the spirits industry, his entrepreneurial experience was in a cordless heating tool company with international potential. In fact, Dragos anticipated a business venture that would bring him closer to Brazil, but a cachaça brand was never on the cards.
"I actually wanted to be a doctor for a long time," Dragos says. "It turned out I wasn't going to be a doctor because I had some business endeavours in mind."
Born and raised in Romania, Dragos and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 18 years old. A year later, they settled in Seattle, where Dragos enrolled at the University of Washington to study a double major in chemistry and English. "I love organic chemistry, but along the way I realised all the chemistry I was studying, all the science I was studying in university, I had already done in high school in Romania, in little league, literally, so I was bored," he says.
Dragos describes his childhood as both creative and burdensome. He found communist Romania oppressive towards his family, but his committed and hardworking approach to education shines through.
"When I was growing up we had 5,000 books in our apartment. Writing and reading were important to us," Dragos adds.
While university helped Dragos improve his English, he leaned towards creative writing, read Shakespeare and Chaucer, and wrote his own poetry. "I found myself taking these English classes and doing a lot of writing and learning the classics through imitation," he says. "I decided I wanted to finish my English degree, have some fun with all these writing pieces, and then move on and start a company."
For Dragos, writing has become a true passion. "My lifelong dream is still to be a writer. Actually, specifically, a screenwriter. I'd like to make movies, because I think they are a wonderful venue and platform for teaching people important stories," he says.
Dragos came out of university and leapt into an entrepreneurial venture alongside his family. The business? A soldering tool his father had invented in their garage. The company, ColdHeat, was a quick success.
But success is not always everlasting. "These days there's so much competition from a lot of smart, hardworking folks who have exceptional products that stand out," he says. "Everybody has a shot, but not everybody is going to make it."
A Brazilian love affair
"When I was eight, in the early 80s in Bucharest, Romania, I read a book about Pelé, the great soccer player. I fell in love with the Brazilian soccer world, so I started reading every book there was about it," Dragos explains. "It became one of my favourite topics in the world, World Cup history, I still think I'll do something with that, creatively, at some point."
Brazil stuck with him. "I made this mental note when I was a kid that at some point I'd go to this faraway country I'd see for myself," Dragos says.
ColdHeat was expanding, which gave Dragos the opportunity he'd been waiting for. "We were growing really fast and our main production partner said that we were running out of capacity in the U.S., so we needed to go somewhere else; and then we found these three factories in the south of Brazil," he recalls.
In 2005, Dragos flew to Brazil for the first time, landing in Porto Alegre. "It took me more than a day to get there and more than a day to fly back, but I was there for two days and I fell in love with Brazilians and Brazil and cachaça," he says.
He came away feeling hopeful. "I was able to connect and endear myself to the locals by reciting the 1958 Brazilian soccer team line-up".
The opportunity to support the community in Porto Alegre was momentous. "Brazil was going through a really difficult time, a very high unemployment rate," he says. "They were really thankful that our partnership gave them these jobs; but even people who weren't associated with us professionally were still very nice and unassuming; I just thought that was so genuine and fresh."
The trip had planted a seed, which continued to grow once he was back home. "For the next few years, I paid attention to which bars had cachaça, and what cachaça. Some years later, after having looked for it everywhere, I realised there was probably an opportunity to create a business around it. I knew how much cachaça there was in Brazil, literally tens of thousands of brands, and some of it was really good."
Home is where your heart is
Following a change in management and ownership, ColdHeat's success slowed and eventually declined. Dragos wasn't deterred and looked towards his next opportunity.
"What better way to start a business than by bringing all your passions together," Dragos says. "You're going to be good at that. You're going to work harder because you love it."
At a meeting with the Washington State Liquor Board, he presented his concept of a cachaça brand - without a bottle, without a design, and without a liquid. It still resonated with them, so they told him to go to Brazil to "find a nice liquid."
Dragos and Emily Axinte
His wife Emily joined him in the venture. "I was concerned that it would be just my dream and not hers, but she came right along because she has always had an interest in the rainforest and in rainforest preservation. She is in many ways an environmentalist," he says. "She's an anthropologist and a wildflower photographer, so she cares about these things."
The pair began preparations. "We started a process and looked at every distillery that we could find that was organic," he explains. "We created a list of 7 distilleries which were on our shortlist and then we went to Brazil and drove around that big country for 3 weeks to meet them all."
"We met seven wonderful families, all of whom we loved, but it was clear that our kindred spirits were in this town called Morretes," Dragos recalls. "In the middle of the jungle was this distillery. It literally takes 30 hours to get there from Seattle."
Tucked away in the Atlantic Rainforest, the pair were swept away with this zero-waste distillery. "We could hear the birds outside," Dragos recalls of their first meeting. "The birds are attracted to the property by all the fruit trees, intentionally planted; the birds eat the insects, and if they do so, we don't need to worry about the insects, and we don't need to worry about insecticides, and we can stay organic and chemical free."
The place certainly left its mark. "It's an inspiring place," Dragos says. "We went forward on the rest of the trip, but we left our hearts here. We knew we'd be coming back to these folks and doing business with them, and so we did."
Following the trip, Dragos and Emily partnered with the distillery founder Fulgencio Torres Viruel and master distiller Dr. Agenor Maccari Jr. to produce the Novo Fogo cachaças.
Novo Fogo distillery
With a sparkle in their eyes, and their hearts in Brazil, Dragos and Emily launched Novo Fogo in the US market and were readying to catapult the brand across the globe.
But the pair would have to battle a life-threatening disease first. "Within months of starting Novo Fogo, Emily was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancers and had a very difficult treatment plan; that took two years," he says.
Happily, Emily made a full recovery. "She works with me side by side but she has a much quieter role in the company, which matches her personality. "We have the same vision. We move in the same direction. She's my spiritual advisor."
In the beginning, Dragos was involved in all aspects of the business. "I ended up doing everything from product creation to branding to sales and marketing and logistics, operations, forecasting and financials, and getting capital, and working with banks," he explains.
His previous entrepreneurial experience proved invaluable. "I was lucky I had the background from ColdHeat to be able to address all these things," Dragos says. "I could learn the liquor industry, but I already had the foundation of what it takes to build a business and that helped a lot."
His role has continued to be all encompassing. "When you're an entrepreneur, you have to be involved in everything," Dragos explains. "I do a lot of brand creation. There is quite a bit there that engages my creativity but at the same time I still have to do financial projections, and inventory forecasts, and I have to work on analysing sales reports and so the analytics are still there too. I'm engaging both sides of the brain, which is an intentional, sharpening tool."
His role as CEO is diverse and supportive. "I kind of jump around from one aspect of the business to another, depending on what needs the most attention," Dragos says. "That's just the life of an entrepreneur. I don't have a vision that I will ever be a specialist in any one thing."
Initially, the bottles were sold to Dragos to be distributed in the U.S. "We owned the brand, Torres and his partners owned the distillery and the cane fields," he explains. "Half way through this journey, in 2015, we actually brought the companies together... we merged them and became one family."
Dragos considers his journey a success. "I'm really pleased we took the path that we took, although it was longer. In the beginning, we did not want investors, because of the experience we had with the previous company," he says.
Further still, in March 2020 they celebrated Novo Fogo's 10th anniversary. "In a field that sees 99% of businesses fail, it's good," Dragos adds.
Looking to the future
"When we launched the brand 10 years ago, the vision was exactly the same. We have not altered it, we've enhanced it. But everything we've wanted to accomplish, we have accomplished, and more, so that gives me a lot of satisfaction that it was the right path," Dragos says.
It was their vision of sustainable cachaça that led them to where they are today. "We wanted to do something that was organic," Dragos explains. "We wanted a story of sustainability, which is still a word that everybody uses but nobody understands, and there are just so many nuances of it."
And it was a vision that started close to home. "We wanted to tell the story of a simple life. We were coming out of the global recession and people were bummed everywhere," Dragos says. "Let's teach people ways to live within that space...we can find those stories in rural Brazil, we can find organic sugar cane, and we can find stories of sustainable production."
Novo Fogo is a brand that prides itself on its story. "In the early days, we went off to the mountains and spent a weekend in a cabin, until we came up with the right name for the brand."
The name has roots in Brazilian culture. "The words 'novo fogo' mean 'new fire' and it has to do with the fire within, the fire inside of you," he continues. "There are so many amazing Brazilian folks who are trying to achieve their own American dream, trying to do well by doing right. It's exactly the opposite of the fire that destroys the forest - which is a big part of our story as well."
"We wanted to go to Brazil and find the leaders who were doing well by doing right," Dragos says. "The ones who were taking care of the ground resources while also trying to create a livelihood from it."
Novo Fogo embraces preservation, from the liquid, through to its name and design. "The tree in our logo is the pine of Paraná," Dragos explains. "This tree is endangered because after World War II there was a surge in immigration to the south of South America, especially from Europeans. This growth in population led to a lot of these trees being cut down to make room and materials for houses."
"As a result they became endangered. They are a symbol of the state and a symbol of the preservation efforts in the state," Dragos says. This offered the company inspiration to start its own reforestation program.
Dragos planting seedling
Through the Un-Endangered Forest project, Dragos and his team are able to support native Brazilian tree species that face extinction. The team are committed to preserving the environment, which includes sourcing rare and native tree seeds from the rainforest, which are then grown in their rehab centre. Through support from forestry experts, they are able to plant these fostered trees on their property and a growing number of partner properties.
Dragos, an entrepreneur who considers preservation and sustainability imperative to his business, believes positive change can have a ripple effect. "You do the right thing and people will follow," he says.