Jill Burns, left, and Kelly Gasink (image: Wynn Myers)
Austin Cocktails may have been born in Texas, but the seeds for the idea behind the bottled cocktail company were planted on a small lake in Minnesota. It was there that sisters Jill Burns and Kelly Gasink spent their summer late afternoons with their grandfather, who mixed cocktails (and mock-tails) for his family each evening. The routine felt, even back then, like a pause button on life, something sacred that should bottled. So they did.
Today, Austin Cocktails is the only 100 percent female-owned spirits company in Texas. The ready-to-serve craft cocktail line works with premium spirits and all-natural ingredients and mixers. You’ll find it everywhere from BevMo! to Madison Square Garden to the beverage cart on Virgin America flights. We caught up with Burns and Gasink to talk about the importance of slowing down, their mutual dislike of aquavit and why there’s no better time to be an entrepreneur.
What did drinking mean in your family?
Burns: We spent our summers in Minnesota, and every night at 5 o’clock, our grandfather would wave us in for cocktail time. The kids would have Shirley Temples, and the adults something stiffer. It was a time to stop what you were doing and get together. We did these things without thinking about it, and many years later, we really appreciated our grandpa’s hard-earned wisdom: The cocktails were an instrument to get us to take the time to connect.
How did your tastes evolved from Shirley Temples?
Gasink: Like a lot of people’s. Jill and I appreciate the full spectrum of spirits, but we have very different palates. I love Bloody Marys and all their exotic iterations, and I can drink them all day, but I also really love bourbon, scotch (with a splash of water) and tequila drinks. I can genuinely appreciate beer and wine, but I think there are unlimited things you can do with spirits and flavor combinations. I’m constantly amazed at what people can create.
Burns: I’m drawn more to tequila and mezcal. We grew up with aquavit, which is having a resurgence, but I don’t love it. The Norwegian tradition is to have herring and aquavit on Christmas morning, but I could live without that.
When did the idea for Austin Cocktails come about?
Gasink: We were visiting our parents in Dallas in late summer of 2011, and we were making cocktails and thought, We could totally bottle this. Jill’s friend who’s in the alcohol industry happened to be there and pointed out that cocktails are a pain to make. We started talking about it the very next day and tried to get our heads around what we were getting into. But we quit our jobs in late fall and incorporated the following February.
Burns: We knew this solved a big problem, and as entrepreneurs, the products that solve problems are the ones that sell. The stars aligned in terms of consumer demands and operationally. Five to 10 years ago, it wasn’t possible for a small company like ours to source ingredients in Kenya or Indonesia. Technology has changed so much, and timing was important on lots of fronts, but at that moment, we weren’t aware of it at all.
What makes your product different?
Gasink: Our drink development philosophy is to find the best ingredients and make them do all the heavy lifting—that’s how we see craftsmanship. This means not using sugar or syrup to mask imperfections and really making the ingredients work to deliver a beautiful profile. That is hard to do and especially hard to do in scale.
How long did it take to develop the recipes?
Gasink: We spent almost two years working on our first four drinks; most people in this space spend months. We sourced from more than 15 flavor suppliers and sourced ingredients from four different continents. And we tweak as we go along (the packaging, the ABV), and now we’re working with brown spirits.
Have you had a really proud moment?
Burns: One moment that was very surreal was flying on Virgin America to South by Southwest and having our cocktails available on the plane.
What do you think has helped make Austin Cocktails so successful?
Burns: One of the things that keeps us alive is the craft movement. There are a bunch of socio-cultural factors that are making consumers a little bit wary of big brands, and they are unconsciously gravitating toward brands with people or ingredients that they recognize.
Gasink: I think people like supporting family-owned companies too. We hear from our distributors that people are asking for craft beers and craft brands. Nothing is more insightful than visiting retailers and seeing what’s going on in the marketplace. It’s an exciting time to be an entrepreneur!
Best advice for someone starting a business?
Burns: I think launching in a small area and doing research before you scale is so important. Even if you think you have everything right, there are a thousand things that can go wrong. Start small and learn first. No matter how sure you are of your product, start small.