As we rang in 2020 with the rumbles of a deadly virus still far off of our shores, our distillery felt the optimism brought along with the beginning of a new year. The first few weeks and months were consumed with the planning of future events, releasing new products, and maintaining the hustle and bustle of our Tasting Room. Our third annual winter Tiki Party was a huge success and our Valentines Day crème brûlées were again a hit with our patrons.
I had several events booked in January, February, and into March. The last was a seven-day stretch in the Topeka-Lawrence area consisting of two big tasting events and visiting accounts out in the market. By the time I was heading home, there were already rumors of toilet paper becoming scarce. On the way home, I stopped by a Sam’s Club and bought a package. So was everyone else in the store.
By the time I returned back to the distillery in Dodge City, little did I realize that not only would this be my last trip out, but also our entire focus as a distillery would change perhaps indefinitely.
Extending a Lifeline: Pivot to Hand Sanitizer
A week later, our county reported its first case of COVID-19 and we made the very difficult decision to close our tasting room to the public. The very next day the WHO, TTB, and FDA released guidelines for craft distilleries to make hand sanitizer which, along with toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, was nowhere to be found on store shelves. We immediately took up the task of finding the materials, containers, and help to start making our own hand sanitizer to give out to the public. In 4 days we went from concept to development, finally handing out finished sanitizer to the community on the 5th day.
This began a nearly 4 month long adventure of not only creating and manufacturing a new product, but creating from the ground up an infrastructure to give away and eventually sell and distribute it ourselves. In the midst of this craziness, our tasting room, a major source of revenue for our distillery, remained idle. This same scenario was being played out all over the country, not only with tasting rooms but the hospitality industry as a whole as doors were shuttered in the interest of health and safety.
Receiving a Lifeline: How To-Go Cocktails Helped our Business
Kansas, the birthplace of prohibition, is the last state you’d think of for progressive alcohol legislation. However, in just one day, nearly 100 years of restrictive alcohol laws were lifted by our Governor, if only temporarily, to allow the sale of ready-made cocktails in a to-go container. For the first time, well… ever, a customer of legal drinking age could order and pick up a cocktail from our distillery for them to consume at home. This was huge. I want to share what we did to help our business through to-go cocktails.
Prior to the executive order being enacted, we worked to figure out ways our customers could still enjoy their favorite distillery cocktails. We also had quite a bit of syrups and fresh fruit juices that were nearing their expiration date. We first came up with cocktail pre-mixes, or all the ingredients sans alcohol one would need to make their favorite drink. Take for example, our Vodka Basil Lemonade, the second most popular drink we served. We mixed fresh lemon juice with our house made basil syrup and portioned those out into 357ml bottles. A label was created and then sold along with a bottle of BHD Vodka. No laws were broken in the process.
Then the Executive Order hit and it was almost the Wild West again. We started with 5oz cups and lids ordered, and could make and portion out ready-to-drink cocktails, sealed per ABC guidelines and sold with garnish on the side. Our on-tap cocktail system proved very useful, as we used it to make 5 gallon batches of Mules, Vodka Basil Lemonade, and even Old Fashioneds to easily pour into the to-go cups.
This quickly increased to larger cups and lids to nearly cartoonish half gallon bags of cocktail. We announced each offering for the week on social media and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. This helped control not only the ingredients needed, but made the assembly process much more easy. We could pre-make batches in different sizes so all that we had to do was fill a sealable bag and send it out the door. This, combined with bottle sales and delivered curbside, soon turned a dormant tasting room into thousand dollar weekends again. Sure, we weren’t at pre-pandemic levels, but we were helping pay the light bill.
To-go cocktails also nudged along a part of our business that will change it permanently. Ready-to-drinks were not going away, and the demand for well-made cocktails that was on the rise pre-pandemic, now was beginning to skyrocket. This spurred the investment to go full scale into the RTD market.
We now not only have two bottled, high proof cocktails, but have started a line of canned cocktails as well. We hope these will be available in the market as soon as the end of this year.
Getting Your Own RTD Program Off the Ground
So what do you need to get started? First, find out whether or not local and state laws have been adapted to allow ready-made drinks to-go. In most cases this has been done all across the country, but it’s worth checking with your local alcohol enforcement agency and local laws for the guidelines.
You’re going to need containers. These could be as simple as plastic cups and lids, to ordering boxes of bottles from Uline or the like (we did it all). Amazon now sells juice pouches reminiscent of our childhoods. There are a myriad of clever containers that can house your cocktails; again, make sure you’re following local laws and regulations regarding container size.
Next, you’ll need to take a look at your cocktail menu and see what can be easily batched. Can the ingredients for your chosen cocktails be sourced for large quantities? Sure, that walnut bitter manhattan is fantastic, but can you easily and cost-effectively get walnut bitters and vermouth in large quantities? If your point of sale system allows, pull a report of your most popular drinks over a given period of time and go with that. Your best sellers could also be the easiest to make. Extrapolate the recipes for one gallon up to five gallons to see how much you’ll need in alcohol and mixers.
Finally, get an assembly line in place. This needn't be pretty, especially if your doors are still closed to the public. You just need an effective way to make, assemble, and deliver your cocktails. We found two to three people could effectively work the phones and make and deliver drinks.
At last, you’ve got to advertise what you’re selling. This is where social media shines the best; there are no gate-keepers. Take creative photos, make videos, Insta-stories, boomerangs, or even TikTocs of your drinks. Engage your fanbase and even try to grow your social media presence. The sky's the limit here on how you promote your business. Even if your fan base is far away and can't take advantage, you’re still relevant to them and they will remember your offerings and efforts later down the road. If you’re not savvy yourself, someone on your staff probably is and can take the reins.
Yes, these are difficult times for the hospitality industry and it is taking all of our creative thinking to stay afloat. Yes, we made hand sanitizer, but we also took the opportunity to keep our customers engaged and happy with the front of house side of our business as well as our staff employed.
I hope our story can be an inspiration to you.Please feel free to reach out to me with questions or suggestions if you want to know where to start!