I just got back from Tales of the Cocktail and was inspired to write up a little bit about what I learned there, what I’m thinking about, and what I’m planning. Plus a general update because they’re so few and far between, particularly in season.
First up, what I’ve been up to. This summer has been crazy for me with the Happy Camper. Around the end of last year my cofounder and I realized we weren’t working well together and needed to do something about it. I was working a solid 60 plus hours a week (often very plus) and she felt she didn’t have that much time to devote to it.
When starting a business, there’s this rule of thumb that you should be able to live for three years with no income from it, and it’s really not a bad one. I probably should have talked more with her about finances and expectations going in. She felt she needed to work a full-time job and do the Camper on the side, and I felt like it’s too big of an opportunity for that.
So I found myself doing 80% of the work and feeling like she wasn’t even doing a very good job at her 20%. She felt unappreciated for the stuff she did do. Something had to give. We came to an agreement and I purchased the rest of the company, making me the sole owner.
And then things took off. I had finally gotten over the hump of making the drink end of things work. My first year was a lot of developing recipes, finding an equipment solution to let us do thousands of cocktails on draft out of a tiny camper, getting a rental kitchen setup, etc. I knew my time commitment was so high that I had to find ways to be more efficient and boy did I. Maybe I’ll go into that more later.
Suffice it to say I managed to automate more hours away than my previous partner was even working. And between that and the off-season (I have very few events between November and April) I stepped up my networking and marketing game.
In any business you start with the product you think people want, and then you if you are really smart and/or lucky the product you start with is close enough to something people actually do. If you’re then limber enough, you can figure out what that actually is, and you end up improving. As Paul Graham points out, Microsoft started off making an Altair Basic interpreter. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry, Microsoft is the third most valuable corporation in the world and Altair and Basic interpreters are long gone, which illustrates my point.
Probably only 25% of entrepreneurs know that going in, and what most of them don’t realize is that you do the same with your marketing channels. You probably go in with an idea of how to reach your customers that, if you are lucky, has a passing relationship to what actually works.
I spent much of the off-season and early busy season working on that and I made a lot of headway. Some of the channels I thought would be great really weren’t, some of the ones I didn’t know much about turned out to be awesome. I won’t bore you with the details, because unless you’re doing a mobile bar too you probably don’t care, but suffice it to say it isn’t easy!
I started off the year hoping to be kegging and selling my ginger beer but quickly ran into problems. It turns out that while you can make products with unpasteurized juices for sale at retail with no problem (like a restaurant, juice store, etc.) making it for resale requires using a juice HACCP plan, and taking a class for developing said plan. I figured out a reformulation that doesn’t involve juice (though logically is neither more nor less safe) but just haven’t had time during the season to get it going. It’ll probably have to wait until October.
I’ve also finally developed my own tonic from quinine sulphate. The people who know me have probably heard the stories of my three year ordeal in acquiring that stuff. It is unreasonably hard. Nonetheless I’ve found a source, and all those years of reading obscure soda manuals are finally paying off, as tonic is really just a soda with quinine in it.
I’ve aimed for an opinionated, citrusy tonic that really plays well with a gin lover’s gin. I’m hoping to get both of them on draft at finer local establishments during the off-season. I might also make a grapefruit version if I can get a cost-efficient, clarified grapefruit.
I’ve got a handful of cocktail experiments I want to try.
1. Figuring out the dilution added by using a Yarai glass rather than a shaker tin when stirring. I’ve already shown in the past how much more the thermal mass of a pint glass dilutes a drink. I’d like to show that next to a Yarai, and then also do shaken drinks with the various shaker solutions (Boston with pint glass, Boston with cheater tin, cobbler, etc.). We know that basically the less glass and the less mass, the less dilution.
2. More playing around with tinctures, extracts, food-grade essential oils (not the stuff you get off Amazon), etc. I like the idea of building cocktails from the most elemental flavors on up. Bitters are a very broad tool, as they’re 30 flavors in one dash. Tinctures, extracts, and oils allow almost surgical precision.
3. Unusual ingredients and techniques. Admittedly, this has been the weakest part of my game over the last two years. Don’t get me wrong, with the Happy Camper I get to really push the limits of what someone can do, cocktail-wise, in large format, high-volume, off-the-grid settings. I’m proud of what I do. I give people the best damn mojito they’ve ever had at a wedding or street festival, and serve 2,000 drinks in about 4 hours that way. That ain’t nothin’!
But I don’t get to play like I want to. I probably couldn’t get away with a carbonated negroni variant. The formula for street festival success is usually something like seasonal fruit + classic cocktail. Blueberry Collins. Blackberry Mojito. Etc. Those things kill because they’re approachable, and by being properly-balanced, rather than cloying (like you probably expect when you hear Strawberry Margarita) you can walk through the crowd and hear people raving about it.
4. Make my own cola. I have some great ideas there, and it’s always one of the more popular requests to get on draft.
5. Carbonated cocktail draft system. More on that later.