May 15, 2014
Warmer days have many of us thinking of Summery cocktails but the hassle of trying to create bar-quality cocktails at home can be intimidating to many. That was what originally led Luke Duncan, owner of Eli Mason, to create cocktail mixers for friends and family but when a friend-of-a-friend tried it at his bar and started reordering Duncan realized he may be on to something bigger than just a hobby. That didn’t mean he simply dove into entrepreneurship though – he had a careful eye towards his budget, his breakeven, and also not being afraid to spend money on the right things.
For those who may not know, can you explain what a cocktail mixer is? What’s the difference between that and a spirit-forward mixer?
A cocktail mixer is anything you add to liquor to help create a cocktail or mixed drink. Some cocktail mixers are just a single ingredient mixed with water, like simple syrup. Some are a little more complex, like a pear-mango simple syrup. And some, like Eli Mason, contain every ingredient you need to recreate specific cocktails at home. In the case of our Old Fashioned mixer, just add whiskey to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Eli Mason’s mixers are spirit-forward, which means they seek to highlight (maybe even enhance) the essential characteristics of the base spirit, not to mask its flavor entirely. Spirit-forward cocktails are bold yet balanced, which is also a great way to live your life.
It sounds like you followed a pretty common path for food entrepreneurs in that you started this as a hobby then incorporated into a business down the road. At what point did you say ‘I think this could be a business!’?
This whole thing started when I gave away bottles of my homemade Old Fashioned mixer as Christmas gifts to my friends. My friend’s roommate’s then-boyfriend happened to own two bars in Nashville. He tried my mixer and became my first customer. When he called to place his second order, I knew I was onto something.
It stayed very firmly in the hobby stage for the next 8-10 months, but as I continued to refine my recipe and give out samples, it became apparent that Eli Mason solves a problem for a big percentage of drinkers who want to try craft cocktails but don’t quite know where to start. It’s also great for bars, restaurants, and country clubs that want to offer consistent, high-quality cocktails but can’t afford a full-time mixologist.
I’m a passionate amateur. Aside from a summer at Baskin-Robbins and a very short stint at Little Caesars Pizza, I’ve never worked in food service. My background is more in teaching, marketing, and small business management, but I have a process-oriented mind and take a lot of notes, which is helpful in product development.
I’m also on a lifelong quest to smoke the perfect BBQ rib at home. I’ve got a nice smoker and a folder full of notes about past cooks: Outside temperature, times, ingredients, type of wood, even the price of the meat and how I prepared it. My wife and I are certified judges in the Memphis BBQ Network and hope to enter competitions someday.
Were there any aspects of starting up a food business that gave you pause as you made that leap from hobby to business? What did you do to prepare yourself for the transition to turning this into a business (ie – did you write a business plan, consult with other entrepreneurs, etc.)?
The legal certifications around food manufacturing are daunting. I was lucky early on to find some friends and mentors who helped push me along. Sue Skyes and Gary Dummer own a specialty food company called Tennessee Gourmet and also operate a small manufacturing facility just outside of Nashville. They were a huge help in navigating the legal paperwork. My friend Jenny Harrison has a deep food background and really helped me think through my process.
Our largest order so far has come through Batch, a Nashville-based company that selects local goods to mail to its subscribers. Batch helped validate the idea and put Eli Mason into the hands of tastemakers across the country, which was an important early boost.
Another big advantage is that my wife and I keep a meticulous family budget. When it came time to “go pro” with Eli Mason, we were able to consult the budget to see exactly how many cases of mixer I would need to sell to replace my income. Sometimes it pays to be a nerd.
You originally worked at this business part-time. What were you doing for your job at that point? How long did before you moved full-time?
It took 18 months to go from idea to full-time. In the meantime, I worked as the Marketing and Communications Manager for an education nonprofit in Nashville. Then I did a similar job for a private company that decided to close its doors just months after hiring me and several others. My severance check is providing about 60-90 days of operating expenses for Eli Mason, which I’m hoping will be enough time to push sales up to sustainable levels.
I’ve already been contacted by two national retailers about putting Eli Mason on their shelves and I recently shipped a huge order to a Canadian distributor, so things are looking pretty good. (Ask me again in 6 months.) Overall, I’m thrilled to be able to devote my best energies to the company, not just two hours every night after the kids are in bed.
After years of vodka dominating the bar scene, whiskey and other aged spirits are finally making a comeback, which is a relief to drinkers who want more complex flavors in their cocktails.
From talking with our early customers, we found that people like to offer quality cocktails when they entertain at home, but they don’t always want to drag out the cocktail shaker, jigger, mixing spoon, muddler, extra towels, tongs, bitters, garnishes, and everything else you need to make something from scratch. Bartending is a lot of work! When you’ve got a bottle of Eli Mason in the home bar, you can focus on hosting your party. Let us worry about the cocktails.
On the topic of marketing, your branding is very well done in that you maintain a consistent brand voice throughout all aspects of your logo, your website, your labeling, and your marketing message. Can you talk more about how you developed that brand voice and why it was so important for you to do that?
Thank you! When I was getting started, it felt strange to invest such a big piece of my startup budget into the brand and packaging, but a premium product needs a premium look. It boggles the mind how some of these food producers work for years to refine their recipes and insist on using only the finest, organic ingredients … only to brand it with a logo they designed in Microsoft Word and printed at home on store-bought labels. It’s like sending your kid down the aisle to get married in a burlap sack.
Eli Mason’s brand voice grows out of its mission, which is to introduce a new generation of drinkers to classic, spirit-forward cocktails. Could you see Don Draper sliding up to the bar and ordering an appletini? But neither would he fuss over whether his ice was flown in from a melting glacier.
I’m trying to bridge the gap between the hardcore cocktail geek and someone who drinks only light beer. Cocktails should be fun. Adults don’t have much fun. Let’s have fun with it.
What sales channels do you sell your product through? Specifically when it comes to selling wholesale, what challenges have you found and how have you overcome them?
We have a dozen local retail outlets and are available online at Bourbon & Boots. Our market here in Tennessee is about to grow in a big way because of some recent legislation that will allow liquor stores to begin selling food that pairs with wine and liquor starting July 1st. With hundreds of liquor stores in Tennessee looking for food items to stock, that’s an opportunity worth pursuing.
We are scheduled to sell direct to consumers through some spirits-related shows here in Nashville this summer. We’re also talking to distributors about letting them handle distribution outside our home county so we can focus on what we do best: Product development and Marketing.
Our biggest challenge internally has just been keeping organized. Right now we manage everything through email but are looking into tools like Pipedrive and Yesware to help automate the process. I’m also stuck on which accounting software is best for someone like me who would rather be doing anything other than accounting.
You will need a lot of support to turn your passion into a career. Friends, family, other food entrepreneurs, the media. Everyone plays a part. I’m so grateful to my wife for letting me take a chance with this venture and for lending her energy and expertise to help it succeed.
At the same time, as the owner of your company, sometimes you have to go out on your own to realize your individual vision, even if your friends and family are telling you to change it. Nobody knows your product or market quite like you do. Sometimes you have to muster the courage to swim against the tide of popular opinion.
There’s an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When you’re an entrepreneur, sometimes you do need to go fast, which means you’ll be making that trip alone. But over the years you need to cultivate a solid support system if you want to go far.
What’s next for Eli Mason? Where do you see the company in three to five years?
For one, we will be rounding out our product line with more mixers based on classic whiskey, gin, and aged rum cocktails. Watch for two new flavors this summer and a few more in the fall. There’s a chocolate company in Nashville called Olive & Sinclair that sets a good example for growing food makers. Keep focusing on quality, continue to innovate, and don’t allow yourself to get big for the sake of growth. Slow and steady wins the race when your product is handmade.
Eli Mason’s holding company is called Handmade South LLC and focuses on high-quality and small-batch products. We have an unnamed coffee product in the works and we are giving back through a little group we started called Make Good Nashville, which will host an intensive (and free) microbusiness workshop this summer to help young entrepreneurs get started.
In my personal career, I hope in five years I’m still creating and launching new products. I would also like to consult with other makers to help them in the ways that I have been helped. Your community is what you make it, and Nashville’s handmade food community is really coming together these days. Expect big things.