The Man, the Myth, the Brand

How Willie Nelson’s vision continues to shape the brand that bears his name

In person, Willie Nelson is exactly what you’d expect.

He is soft-spoken, but direct, and his voice is as strong as his country roots are deep. He weaves stories into the conversation with ease, and even the ones you can tell are the greatest hits he’s told over and over are delivered with an undeniable freshness and a twinkle in his eye.

The man is an authentic American legend, an instantly recognizable folk hero. Everything about him is iconic, from his braids to his smile to the scratched and beaten guitar known as “Trigger,” which he’s owned for nearly 50 years.

Within the cannabis community, Willie’s legend is even larger. He’s the self-described “canary in the mine” who has been touting the benefits of the plant for almost as long as he’s been alive. So it only made sense that he was one of the first celebrities to put his name on a marijuana product, launching the Willie’s Reserve brand in 2015.

“I don’t think it surprised anybody,” he says with a quick smile and a laugh. “I’ve been associated with marijuana for as long as I can remember. With as many times as I have been to jail for smoking the goddamn stuff, at least now I can try to let people know it’s not the horrible animal they think it is.”

Together with his wife Annie, Willie laid out the vision for the company, but serves mainly as a figurehead and guiding star to help keep the company as grounded as the man himself.

“It started with Willie and we continue to keep Willie right in the middle of this,” says Elizabeth Hogan, vice president of brands at GCH, the company that oversees the Willie’s Reserve brand.

But the 85-year-old Country Music Hall-of-Famer still has an important role in the company: chief tasting officer. It’s the only way to make sure the product continues to live up to Willie’s standards.

“I sample it frequently,” Willie says with a laugh.

“He really does,” adds Annie, nodding.

“And I make sure it’s a good product or we won’t be selling it,” he finishes.

Willie’s Reservations

The Willie’s Reserve creation myth begins at the Nelsons’ kitchen table in Texas in 2014. Colorado and Washington had legalized recreational marijuana and the Nelsons were thinking about jumping into the game.

“Somebody had my chocolate and wanted to go into business,” Annie says, referencing her renowned infused chocolate recipe that she used to make for Willie when he was on the road. The Nelsons met with several groups, “but the only ones that had the right attitude and integrity we wanted to move forward with were the GCH people,” she adds.

Hogan was part of the team that visited the Nelsons and made the deal. She says the four-day visit served two purposes: first, to see if the GCH team could “keep up” with Willie (“We could, barely,” says Hogan); second, to meet with the Nelsons about moving forward with the brand.

“We came in with a presentation, a pitch and a business idea,” Hogan says.

The Key Ingredient

Willie and his stash are not the only legendary members of the Nelson family. For decades, Annie Nelson’s infused chocolate recipe has been a go-to for Willlie while he was on the road and it has always helped keep the singer on track.

“He’s a happier dude if he has some at hand,” says GCH Vice President of Brands Elizabeth Hogan.

Annie perfected her recipe over the years, down to the source and percentage of the chocolate used and the Willie’s Reserve brand works hard to make sure consumers in the legal states get the same delicious experience that Willie and his band shared for decades.

According to Hogan, Annie’s chocolates were one of the main reasons the couple wanted to get into the legal cannabis business. She says one of the things that is different about Annie’s chocolates compared to others on the market is the insistence of using a whole flower, low-temperature infusion as part of the recipe.

“The effect is a little bit different than if you use oils for those edibles,” she says.

The chocolate is also sourced specifically through Fine and Raw Chocolate in Brooklyn, which imports beans directly and has a progressive approach that Hogan says limits the environmental and human impacts of its beans. They also import the chocolate raw, which Hogan says is “key.”

The exact same recipe is used across all of the states to ensure consistency in the product.

“We make the Nelson family chocolate,” says Allan Abramovitz, director of infused products for Willie’s Reserve in Washington. “Everything I do has to go through the family.”

Abramovitz says the goal is to create a product that has the full profile of both the cannabis and the cocoa plant in order to create the best edible product on the market.

“It’s a top-quality chocolate, with cannabis in it,” he says. “It’s the essence of goodness.”

This fall, as part of the Willie’s Remedy line, a CBD-infused line of Annie’s chocolate sourced from American hemp will hit the market.

“The chocolate is good,” Annie says. “It’s nice because it’s an entry point for people, even people my age who used to smoke. I feel good about what I’m doing, that it’s helping people.”

On the fourth day, they all gathered around the Nelsons’ kitchen table and the GCH team made their pitch, which Hogan says was well-received. But Willie was also prepared and laid out some ground rules.

“He quickly let us know that while we had a smart plan for how to get in and make some money, there were four things he cared very deeply about and he wanted to get them on the table before we went any further,” Hogan says. “They’ve been the pillars of our company.”

Willie’s four principles are personal freedom, medical efficacy, social justice and sustainability.

Hogan says the GCH team took it all in and began to detail how the company would meet those principles, but they had already won his trust.

“He at one point sort of grinned and I could tell maybe wasn’t listening to every word and he reached across the table and handed me his vape pen,” Hogan says with a laugh. “That really sums up how the rest of our relationship has come to be.”

Today, Willie’s Reserve products can be found in most of the legal states including Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada. A second brand, Willie’s Remedy — a line of high-CBD products derived from organically grown American hemp — is set to launch nationwide this fall with a line of coffee. Hogan admits that sticking to the foundations of social justice and sustainability — reminders that there are still people in prison for doing exactly what Willie’s Reserve was about to do and that all of the choices the company makes will impact the environment — can be difficult, but she says Willie’s Reserve works to support as diverse a group of growers as possible and works to make sure the supply chain and packaging are as Earth-friendly as possible.

“Our vision was set that day and it remains the same today,” Hogan says of the fabled kitchen table meeting.

To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before

The stories of Willie’s stash border on the mythical. There’s even a song by Toby Keith and Scott Emerick called “I’ll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again,” extolling the power and potency of his personal supply. There are also strains from around the country and world that seem to be named for him, from “Red-Headed Stranger” to “Highwaymen” to countless others.

Hogan once asked him if those strains were named after him.

“He said, ‘I claim ’em all,’” she says, adding that the idea behind Willie’s Reserve — and one of the company slogans – is sharing that stash, like the man himself does. “My stash is your stash” is one of the phrases highlighted on the company’s website.

And the secret, Hogan says, is that for 50 years Willie and his band have been touring the country and pot growers always seem to want to gift their crop to Willie. Which means the stash he shares is mostly from the local community. For Hogan and the GCH team, that was an “a-ha moment.” 

“When we think about the legendary stash, what we want it to represent is that idea: What is some of the best the local market has to offer?” Hogan says.

But unlike the (mostly gifted) stash, Willie’s Reserve products and farmers are vetted by the company to make sure the cannabis is not only a good smoke, but also a good product, grown as organically as possible and tested to ensure its safety.

“We had an incident where there was a mold spore or something, so it was making him sick. It wasn’t intentional, but it just happened,” Annie says. “But having things tested means when you tell someone it’s okay, you know it’s okay and you are not recommending something that’s going to counter the actual benefits of the cannabis plant. So that’s a huge deal.”

Willie Wisdom

Additional words of wisdom from Willie and Annie Nelson

Annie Nelson on integrity:

“Our three family rules are don’t be an asshole; don’t be an asshole; and don’t be a goddamn asshole. So we have to do our business practice that way too, otherwise we’d be lying to our kids.”

Willie on the dangers of pot:

“The only people I know that got hurt by marijuana was a friend of mine — a bail fell on him.”

Willie on quitting smoking:

“I was smoking two or three packs of cigarettes a day and drinking a lot. When I quit, I realized my lungs were killing me. I’d had pneumonia four times. And I realized the cigarettes were killing. I’d seen them kill a lot of my friends and family. Same with alcohol. So I had a pack of Chesterfields and I took out all the Chesterfields, threw them away, rolled up 20 big, fat joints and stuck them in there and that’s how I quit smoking cigarettes.”

Willie on the quality of modern marijuana:

“Well, some pot is better than others. I remember the old Mexican rag weed. But we’re sending pot down to Mexico now because we grow it better than they do.”

Willie on family farmers:

“Farmers are sort of taking care of themselves because they’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for. Just because they drive a tractor don’t mean they have no brains.”

Willie on buying organic:

“And if you want to buy from your local farmer and get organic whatever-it-is, you can save your health and a lot of other things by buying organic locally from people you know.”

Willie on personal freedom:

“You know, if you don’t want it and don’t like it, cool, it don’t bother me at all.”

Willie on the business of cannabis:

“It’s like alcohol; if you’re going to drink you’re going to drink; might as well make a little money off it.”

Willie on going legal:

“I could name right off-hand maybe 10 or 20 people I know that have been growing it illegally all their lives and all my life. I think legally is better. On the other hand, there’s a lot of guys out there who hated to see it legalized because now they have to pay taxes on it.”

Willie on goals:

“There’s a lot of counties around with a lot of cops that will bust your ass in a minute so it’s not safe everywhere and until it is, we won’t be happy.”

Farm Aid

While selling top-quality, organic cannabis is the primary goal of Willie’s Reserve, one of Willie Nelson’s primary focuses has always been supporting farmers. He and Annie see the brand as a way to use Willie’s celebrity to continue his mission of supporting agriculture.

“Absolutely,” he says. “It would be great if all farmers could grow it — hemp, marijuana. The amount of products is unlimited.”

“I don’t even see it as a celebrity thing,” Annie echoes. “For him, the first thing in his head was ‘how can we help farmers — like small, family farmers — and help advance the idea of ending cannabis prohibition?’”

Willie’s support of farmers is as much a part of his identity as cannabis — if not more — stretching back to his founding of the Farm Aid concerts in 1985 and beyond. He’s performed as part of every bill, including this September in Hartford, Connecticut, which has helped raise more than $53 million to date to support its mission of keeping family farmers on their land. For him, cannabis is not only a way to help relieve stress, but also a profitable crop that can allow families to continue to work their land and even help draw new people to agriculture.

“I think it’s a good product and I think the farmers can profit from it,” he says. “I’ve been doing Farm Aid for 40 years now, so I’m interested in helping the farmers — the small, family farmers, the ones who want to grow it right and organically.

“I can see it helping a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” he adds.

Plus, putting Willie’s name on the label helps open a lot of doors to get the product in stores, something that can difficult for small farmers, even in the cannabis space.

Because each state has its own regulations, the supply chains are all independent and distinct to the market, which helps the company find the small growers that Willie and Annie have spent their lifetime supporting, yet another way his vision helps steer the ship, even when he is on the road.

“‘Willie Weed’ is local weed,” Hogan says.

The company also ensures that all of the farmers growing Willie’s Reserve products follow best practices on organic growing. She says the company makes sure growers are not using certain pesticides or chemicals, even if they are allowed by local regulations.

And though there is an obvious difficulty in ensuring that Willie’s Reserve products remain a consistent quality from state-to-state, she is quick to point out that it is a challenge the company is built for. With offices in Denver and Seattle, GCH has representatives in each state focused on making sure the quality of each Willie’s Reserve-branded product remains high, whether it’s flower, vaporizer oils or the edible line that uses Annie’s personal chocolate recipe, sourced from raw chocolate imported by Fine and Raw Chocolate in Brooklyn. 

Representatives in the individual states make the deals with growers and then GCH officials handle all the distribution, though the exact business model varies with state regulations. In Washington, for example, the company buys cannabis directly from the farmers and then does all of the processing and packaging before delivering it to stores, allowing the farmers to focus on the product instead of the marketing.

Marijuana Venture publisher Greg James and managing editor Brian Beckley pose for a photo on Willie Nelson’s tour bus following the interview.

Always on My Mind

Hogan says the company feels a “great responsibility” to live up to the standards of authenticity and integrity that Willie Nelson himself represents.

“We want to do this in an authentic way,” she says. “Our goal is to make sure anywhere voters say yes, we’re offering something consumers can trust.”

Willie and Annie are also excited to take the brand to new states and new countries. This summer, for example, a deal was signed with LivWell International to distribute the product in Canada once the legal market there opens. But Willie sees even bigger markets in the future.

“There’s a lot of places it’s legal around the world and those countries need to have a little Reserve, you know?” he asks, adding with a sly smile, “The Russians could use a little.”

But even with rapid growth, Hogan says the focus for GCH is making sure to keep in mind Willie and his vision for the company through the four pillars of personal freedom, medical efficacy, social justice and sustainable agriculture that Willie laid out years ago around his kitchen table.

“That initial meeting has really shaped what this company is and how this company has grown,” she says.

Hogan also says as representatives for the brand and for the man himself, his fan base is always on their minds, so to speak.

“When you work for Willie’s Reserve you end up being an earpiece for people’s Willie stories,” she says. “The number of important life moments that get shared … is wild and beautiful.”

On the Road Again

But Hogan says it’s easy to keep Willie in the picture because he’s not just a figurehead or the type of celebrity that simply licenses his name and moves on to other endeavors.

“He’s much more involved than just endorsing,” she says. “Music is still his job, but he stays up-to-date and opinionated.”

Hogan also likes to say that she gave Willie Nelson his first-ever business card, proclaiming him the “chief tasting officer,” something the singer takes a tongue-in-cheek pride in.

“He definitely is game to continue to do all kinds of tasting,” she says with a laugh.

For his part, Willie Nelson, even at 85, continues to tour the country every year connecting with fans and spreading the gospel of cannabis.

“I’m the guy who’s been experimenting all these years and I know what’s good for me and what’s bad for me. After 85 years, you begin to realize cigarettes are bad for me, alcohol is bad for me, cocaine is bad for me; there’s a lot of things I can’t do, I don’t want to do,” he says. “But I found that I can smoke a little pot and it relieves tensions and keeps me from killing people.

“But not just my product,” he adds. “I see it eventually being legal everywhere when people realize that it’s better for you than what they’ve heard. And that information is going around the world pretty quick. That’s what I want to see.

“And I haven’t met anybody that didn’t like the product.”

 

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