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Business Rx: Will their cocktail mixes make it beyond the backyard barbecues?

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, July 5, 2010; 20

The Entrepreneurs

What do you have to do to get a good cocktail in this town? Brian Walsh and Landon Shoop are working on answering that with their new venture, Arlington-based Blind Pig Cocktails. With a name that harkens back to a nickname for Prohibition-era speak-easies, the company will offer premixed cocktails with a twist -- cutting out corn syrup and chemicals in favor of all natural, unique ingredients and liquor in a single-serve or 750-mililiter, old-fashioned mason jar.

Shoop is a self-described "foodie" who left a consulting job to enter business school with his sights set on a new career in the food and beverage industry. Walsh has a mechanical engineering background but has experimented with home-brewing small batches of beer for the past 15 years. The pair cooked up the cocktail business idea for an MBA entrepreneurship class project and ran with the concept, filing to become a limited liability company this spring. The test batches they concocted were met with great enthusiasm from friends at backyard barbecues and get-togethers. They are now in the process of applying for federal and state distillers' licenses, and they are looking for a commercial kitchen to mix their drinks.

The Business Pitch

Walsh

"Ultimately, we see our target market catering to the 25- to 45-year-old age range. We will initially target metropolitan areas, first Greater Washington, D.C., but with plans to expand. We want to sell in any retailer that sells alcoholic beverages, ideally in the beer aisle. We also see a large market in bars and restaurants that do not have their own signature drinks, have inexperienced bartenders, or want to have premium cocktails on the fly so that their bartenders do not need to spend time making cocktails from scratch."

Shoop

"Our cocktails are not just ordinary cocktails, either, but reinvented versions of classics that add new dimensions of flavor and fun. For example, our twist on a margarita is made with four different citrus fruits and all-natural hot pepper-citrus syrup. We will sell our products in mason jars, which make for a fun, laid-back drinking experience. Simply pop off the top, add ice and a garnish and your drink is ready to enjoy. The mason jars are eye-catching -- in a sea of bottles, our product will stand out.

"Gaining an understanding of regulatory and compliance issues and access to the distributor network are the main hurdles at the moment. These two components are particularly difficult and significant issues because liquor laws differ from state to state, as do the associated rules of distribution."

The Feedback

Brent Goldfarb, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"You are limited with the unique licensing problem in the liquor business. Until you can actually distribute and get your license going, you're doing what you should be doing -- testing your product with friends and potential customers. I really like the idea of the mason jar -- that strategy will build brand recognition."

David Kirsch, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship

"You want to figure out the elements of your brand that really matter to your market -- is it the all-natural ingredients and unique recipes, or the edgy brand that resonate most? Try to use the time while you're waiting for regulatory approval productively to increase your ability to target your product.

"Also, along the lines of packaging, I'm just going to throw this idea out there -- I took my kids to Benihana [a hibachi steakhouse] a few weeks ago, and they were infatuated with a Japanese drink that you crack open, push a marble down into the bottle and shake. Obviously, you're dealing with an older market, but you may want to play with the idea of having an aspect of the product that brings the consumer into the 'performance' of mixing the drink for themselves."

Goldfarb

"The other idea -- you could explore licensing your brand to an existing manufacturer and let them produce and distribute it."

Entrepreneurs' reaction

Walsh

"I really liked the idea of trying to figure out something that people have to do to the product. We're not sure what it would be, but agree that people like interactive packaging -- people like 'toys.' "

Shoop

"We have considered the idea of licensing our product to an existing distributor. Like Coca-Cola, our recipes are just 'trade secrets' and can't be patented or trademarked. For now we're taking the route of building the brand and talking to distributors."

Walsh

"For now, we're working on the graphic design for the labels. Next steps are finishing the paperwork for licensing, finding a place where we can produce this commercially, finalizing the recipes and bringing samples along to as many barbecues with friends as possible this summer. If all goes as planned, we could be on the shelves of liquor stores sometime this fall."

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