By Gary Dinges
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the sisters who are creating ready to drink cocktails that are sophisticated and fun. Kelly Gasnick and Jill Burns of “Austin Cocktails” have four products on the market right now — a cucumber vodka mojito, the Paradise Found cocktail, a bergamot orange margarita and Fred’s ruby red cocktail — with more on the way.
Ready-to-drink cocktails haven’t always had the best reputation.
For decades, they were tucked away in a dark corner of most liquor stores, with few shoppers brave enough to take the plunge.
But a new generation of better-made ready-to-drink products has consumers — and retailers — rethinking their preconceived notions.
Among the companies looking to reshape the industry is a Central Texas startup, Austin Cocktails.
“Most people used to look at the ready-to-drink aisle and say, ‘That’s nothing I want to touch,'” said Kelly Gasink, who co-founded Austin Cocktails with her sister Jill Burns. “All they know is this neon bottle full of sugar. It’s not appealing.
“We’ve changed that. We spent a lot of time sourcing ingredients. We’re getting them from four different continents. This is a high-quality product and, as we’ve already seen, it’s a concept that really does have legs.”
Those ingredients include tea from Kenya and Italian oranges, among other exotic finds. Sugars and syrups aren’t used.
“We’ve used beautiful ingredients to create a beautiful product,” Burns said.
They’re an unlikely pair to shake up the multibillion-dollar liquor industry. Gasink, a graduate of Harvard and Stanford, is a veteran of the dot-com era, having previously launched a pair of startups that were later sold to publicly traded companies, while Burns has an extensive marketing and public relations background.
Austin Cocktails has four products on the market — a cucumber vodka mojito, the Paradise Found cocktail, a bergamot orange margarita and Fred’s ruby red cocktail — with more on the way. Gasink said she expects more options to hit store shelves next year.
The timing is perfect, according to Ivan Perez, executive vice president and chief digital officer for CP+B, an ad agency that has worked with a number of Fortune 100 brands.
“Their product is as on-trend as it gets,” he said. “There is nothing more popular in alcohol than craftsmanship and nothing more culturally relevant than convenience. What distinguished them is that they spent a lot of time developing their product, and it shows. They nailed the liquid.”
The Austin Cocktails lineup, which is produced at a shared bottling facility, has been picked up by two of the nation’s largest beverage distributors — Republic and Southern — putting Austin Cocktails in liquor stores across the country.
In the Austin area, Austin Cocktails products are available at a number of stores, including the locally based Twin Liquors chain and Total Wine & More. They’re priced at about $16 per 750 ml bottle, with each bottle containing the equivalent of about six cocktails.
“We’ve seen firsthand that the modern drinker is changing,” Twin Liquors president David Jabour said. “This new wave of premium, bottled cocktails appeals to a completely new consumer that has not otherwise shopped the ready-to-drink section. The ready-to-drink shelf now has a craft subcategory with drinks made with premium, natural ingredients. Austin Cocktails is at the vanguard of changing the space, and we are not surprised this concept was born in the town that pioneered the emergence of craft spirits.”
Debrah Gilham is one of those shoppers who’s been helping sales of Austin Cocktails soar.
“I love cocktails and am always looking for something clean, easy and different beyond martinis and vodka sodas, but I also don’t want them to be too complicated to make or too sugary,” she said. “This is craft without the craft fuss, and we are serving it everywhere from UT tailgates to nice cocktail parties.”
It’s not just liquor stores, though, where you’ll find Austin Cocktails products. They’re being served at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in a number of high-end hotels and at several bars and restaurants here in Austin and elsewhere.
Christin Rowan, owner of Nightcap on West Sixth Street, said the Austin Cocktails lineup has proven to be a good addition to the menu.
“Austin Cocktails have been a huge success on the Nightcap brunch menu,” Rowan said. “Fred’s Ruby Red is by far our biggest seller. Guests love the fact that Austin Cocktails are made from fresh fruit juices. Nightcap is thrilled to be a part of the Austin Cocktails brand and we can’t wait for more interesting, delicious concoctions to come into play.”
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. Inspired by a family tradition of “cocktail time” when Gasink and Burns were growing up — the kids had virgin Shirley Temples, the adults had drinks that were a bit stiffer — the idea for Austin Cocktails finally came together in 2012 after years of discussions.
“The heart and soul of our business is built on that tradition,” Burns said. “Our grandfather was this hardscrabble farmer and every day at 5:30 in the afternoon, he’d stop everything for ‘cocktail time.’ It was his way of making time for joy. It’s the backdrop of all our memories growing up.”
Making their mark in an industry that’s largely male-dominated wasn’t easy. Convincing investors to commit to the idea took considerable time, Gasink said, but the duo made it happen. In a Series A funding round this year, they raised $2 million from three private equity firms and a group of Texas angel investors.
By 2014, their first concoctions were on store shelves, first locally then slowly expanding.
“We liked the idea of launching first in our own backyard so you can see what people think,” Gasink said. “That was definitely the right way to do it. Some people said great things. Some people said horrible things. We adjusted accordingly.”
A vodkarita, for example, was ultimately discontinued.
This year, Austin Cocktails is on track to bring in about $1 million in revenue, Gasink and Burns said, with continued growth and expansion projected in coming years.
“There’s nothing casual about this for us,” Gasink said. “We spotted a trend and we’ve moved a whole lot of mountains to get where we are today.”