Howard Sturm working with the owner of the boutique beverage company on the Amalfi coast where Dumante is made.

Is this the year Howard Sturm makes Dumante Vendenoce pistachio liqueur into a household brand, up there with Cointreau and Grand Marnier?

Dumante is such a fixture in Louisville — sponsoring dinners at expensive restaurants and “Du the Night” performances at the Kentucky Center for the Arts with artists such as Norah Jones –  you may have assumed that a global distiller with big marketing dollars is behind the brand.

And of course, that’s the whole idea.

The reality is, Dumante mainly is Sturm, a Louisville-based tax and M&A attorney, along with a group of investors who’ve poured a lot of money into creating an alcoholic beverage brand from scratch, something even huge multinational companies rarely do.

“The big companies – more often than not, they do not create new products,” Strum said. “They buy them from lunatics like me.”

This all-important 2010 holiday season, Dumante’s third, Sturm et al will launch a celebrity-driven, 15-second national television advertisement he hopes will go viral.

In early October, he wouldn’t say who the celeb is or let Insider Louisville see the ad.

But Sturm promises it will be big. Really big.

“I going to start robbing gas stations if I have to to get this thing funded,” Sturm said in his typically understated style.

“It’s going to be shown in 11 cities during the Christmas season. We’re probably going to buy two or three hundreds spots in each city.

“That’s what’s going to make Dumante a household name. “

The goal is to build Dumante into a group of liqueurs and products, then find a global alcoholic beverage firm looking to round out its portfolio.

Dumante could sell for a stupid amount of money– even if it seems like Sturm is spending $10 million to make $5 million.

“I’d love to create multi-product line, a Dumante product that people know and love, and we’re working to do it,” Sturm said.

“But let me tell you something. If someone were to say, ‘We need Dumante in our portfolio and here’s a zillion dollars, there’s nothing I wouldn’t not do to make that happen. I’m a realist when it comes down to it.”

To be sure, more than a few people have been inspired by the ultimate brand home run Hpnotiq, a blue liqueur developed by a guy in New York, then sold to Louisville-based Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. for a reported $50 million.

And Dumante already has a lot of big-brand cache:

  • That quirky custom sawed-off bottle with the expensive label screened on the glass, complete with an expensive, hexagon stopper.
  • That concept — a high-end, European liqueur a la Chambord from Brown-Forman Corp., or Grand Marnier, selling for $45 per bottle.
  • That marketing, with advertising campaigns using art by the brilliant if demented New York painter Chuck Connelly and Louisville-based artist Jeaneen Barnhart.

But for the moment, it’s all Howard. Sturm smiles and says, “When you see all that marketing, we’ve made some good deals. We’ve learned how to be the little guy … and we’re learning how to do brand building.

“You’d be shocked to see the shoestring (marketing) budget we’re on.”

If nothing else, Sturm has survived the entrepreneurial test by fire with his sense of humor intact.

It takes Sturm and his boundless enthusiasm for all things Italian to tell the story of how he went to Italy to find a boutique company to make this handcrafted pistachio-based liqueur he dreamed up.

And they did. And it was great, Sturm said.

Then nothing. Not a word. Because the Italians, ahhh, forgot how they made it.

“I’m saying, ‘Where’s my product?’ And they’re saying. “Signor, we don’t know what we did to make it so good,’ ” Sturm said. “I’m almost crying. I’m ready to drink poison.

“So, I get on the phone and call Flavorman, and Dave Dafoe says to me, ‘I wondered when you’d be calling me.’ “

Dafoe, founder and CEO of “beverage architech” Flavorman, (formely Pro-Liquitech International), helped Sturm formalize the Dumante formula, which was no picnic.

“Howard, more than any customer we ever had, wanted to be part of the development process,” Dafoe said.

Usually, if someone wants to develop a soft drink, fruit drink or alcoholic beverage, technicians at the Louisville-based Flavorman send the client samples that represent a range of options within the client’s flavor profile, then the client helps tweak the final taste.

Not with Dumante.

“Howard came in a dozen times. He was driving us completely crazy,” Dafoe said.

The Dumante recipe that Sturm had developed with his Italian friends turned out to be a very complicated formulation. “Finally, we took all the ingredients and put them in a conference room and let him have at it,” Dafoe said.

Sturm absolutely would not cut corners on a formula that – strictly speaking – is not commercially practical.

Dumante is based on pistachios, which are very expensive and time consuming to use, Dafoe said.

To get the flavor, pistachio have to be put into an extraction procedure, then filtered to get out particulates.

“It adds lots of extra steps and cost,” Dafoe said.

When Dafoe suggested a method that would be less expensive and take less time, Sturm wouldn’t budge.

“He was determined. I tried my hardest to talk him out of it,” Dafoe said.

To this day, he says, no product has been as complicated and challenging for Flavorman, he said.

No stock bottles. No inexpensive labeling. No stock graphics.

“He didn’t go into anything stock. He did everything custom,” Dafoe said. “He never backed off. For (Sturm), it’s all about the heritage and the band, and he’s stuck with it a lot longer than most people.

“I started (as Pro Liquitech) in 1992, but I’m telling you, (Sturm) used more resources than anyone we ever worked with,” Dafoe said.

Asked if it’s been worth it, Sturm just smiles.

“You have no idea what it’s like to walk into a nightclub and see (Dumante) on the shelf. I did it because I love it. I wanted to see if we could do this.

“Well, we did it.”