Cheers! South Florida’s Spirited Startups Serve Up Innovation

By Nancy Dahlberg The Miami Herald.

As you are toasting the New Year, chances are you can thank a South Florida startup for that libation.

While Miami is well known for the bars, restaurants and party culture serving up the drinks, the vibe doesn't stop there.

Local startup companies are creating concepts in just about every aspect of the spirits industry, including brewing and distilling, packaging, selling and dispensing -- even creating the perfect ice for each glass.

Made-in-Miami apps simplify placing and paying for orders at crowded bars and can have wine, beer and spirits delivered to homes on demand. Many were founded by millennials, meaning their friends and neighbors are their test markets.

Take Miavina, for example.

Cindy Diffenderfer of Miami Beach and her Silicon Valley partners have come up with a sleek but simple "smart" appliance.

Think Nespresso, but for wine. Branded wine pods will be more affordable and environmentally friendly than buying wine by the bottle, she said, and Miavina's proprietary technology will dispense the wine at the proper temperature and store it for finishing later. The machine will pair naturally with the Miavina app, directing its owner to online wine education, wine descriptions, reviews and a Miavina wine club.

"Prohibition made wine distribution laborious, expensive and inefficient. We plan to minimize waste, streamline the delivery process and engage with the consumer on a level they understand," said Diffenderfer, who has been working on concepts for the beverage industry for eight years. "We will break through the mystique of the wine industry and teach the consumer about wine through technology in-hand and in-home."

The entrepreneur recently pitched her new company to investors participating in Miami's first UberPITCH (just like it sounds, a pitch competition taking place in the back of Uber-driven cars) -- and won. As her prize, she will work with Rokk3r Labs, which co-builds and invests in startups. She hopes Miavina will hit the market in about a year.

Just launched is the Craft Spirits Exchange or CSX, an online community and marketplace aimed at helping consumers discover unique and hard-to-find spirits. Its platform combines a national marketplace selling more than 800 spirits with user reviews, tasting notes, cocktail recipes, news stories and event notices.

Luis Troccoli, founder and CEO of the Delray Beach-based CSX, believes that much like the craft beer awakening of recent years, craft spirits are going through a boom of their own, with micro-distilleries in the United States growing from 50 producers 10 years ago to more than 1,000 today. Yet most of these products are difficult or impossible to find in most local stores, he said.

That's where drinkCSX.com comes in. Since its Oct. 15 launch, the site has already found a following, registering nearly 3,000 users, about 40 percent of them women, said Troccoli. The company has partnered with more than 50 spirits brands through its CSX Brand Partnership Program, a cross-promotion platform for craft producers.

"Just like you saw in wine and craft beer, people are moving more and more to interesting spirits, they want to find something new, a hidden gem. They are looking for their own spirit to identify with," said Troccoli. "We want to build a destination site, not just a store."

To be sure, beverages for grownups are big business, racking up $100.6 billion in 2014, according to food service consultant Technomic. And it's no easy task for upstarts to get their names out there.

Miami-based Atlantico Rum, for instance, launched five years ago during the economic crisis. Despite that challenge, the company focused on younger consumers and the resurgence in crafted cocktails and drew a cult-like following, said co-founder Aleco Azqueta, who formerly was a director at Bacardi. "Because we don't have the resources of the big companies, we have had to be very creative in our brand-building approach," he said. That has included community events, social media, brand ambassadors and relationships with influential mixologists. "One of our partners is Enrique Iglesias, which allows us to leverage his music activities to market Atlantico in an organic way. It's a brand he believes in."

Craft beer makers are following Atlantico's recipe for success with events, tastings and social media campaigns. The newest brands include Concrete Beach and J Wakefield in Wynwood, MIA Brewing in Doral and 26 Degree Brewing in Pompano Beach. Other startups are stirring innovative approaches into the alcohol industry.

LIQS offers premium vodka and tequila shots in four flavors, including Vodka Lychee Grapefruit; its products are sold at liquor stores, bars and clubs, hotels, golf courses, festivals and many other venues in seven states. It was founded in Miami three years ago by Michael Glickman, a South Florida resident, and Harley Bauer of New York. "RTDs (Ready to Drink products) got a bad rap in the last 20 or 30 years, but they are making a very big comeback in the spirits space because of the quality products now out there, and we are happy to be part of it," said Bauer.

LIQS initially thought its target market would be young professionals, 21 to 35, but found the product skews with all demographics. "We use top quality spirits and all natural fruit juices, we're low sugar and low calorie," said Bauer. Its top seller: Tequila Cinnamon Orange.

The company started out selling in the liquor stores figuring the product would be a fit for home entertainment, boats, pool parties and tailgating, but in the last couple of years LIQS has also found that music venues and festivals have been hot sellers. It has participated in Miami Music Week, Ultra, Art Basel events and the boat shows. "Miami being our launch market, it's always near and dear to our hearts," said Bauer.

Friends Fun Wine, based in Aventura, pioneered wine in a can, with flavors like Chardonnay Coffee Cappuccino, Cabernet Coffee Espresso and Peach Moscato, according to its website. Blend Craft Wines, winner of the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in 2012, produces "a wine-making experience" on MSC cruise ships.

Another product born in South Florida is Beyond Zero, which is developing a machine that dispenses liquor-filled ice to prevent drinks from becoming watered down. Alas, Kentucky lured the company away to join Louisville's famed Whiskey Row, said founder Jason Sherman.

Fort Lauderdale-based SpeedETab, co-founded by Adam Garfield and Edward Gilmore, helps users skip the line at crowded bars and restaurants by letting them order and pay directly from their smartphones. Users receive a notification through their iOS or Android app when their order is ready. It's available in nearly 75 locations in South Florida, including Coyo Taco, Pasion Del Cielo, The Wynwood Yard, Brick House, R House, Better Days, Mister Block, Drinkhouse Fire & Ice and Señor Frog's.

Klink's app, available on iOS and Android, brings the party to the customer, who can order beer, wine and spirits for delivery in under an hour. The two local app companies have several national competitors also targeting the Miami market -- Velocity, Thirstie and Minibar among them.

And who can blame them? It's Miami after all.

Cheers to that.

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