On today’s episode of “End of Day Drinks,” we’re finally going to get into it — yep, we’re going to talk about canned cocktails. We’re sitting down with Julie Reiner and Tom Macy, the owners and founders of Social Hour. Social Hour came out of an idea the two of them had while working together at Clover Club, one of the amazing bars that Julie founded and owns.
She’s also really well known for Flatiron Lounge and Leyenda, and Tom was one of her head bartenders. They’re going to talk to us about what is causing this canned cocktail boom to happen right now, where they see the white space in what is becoming a really crowded field, and how Social Hour sets itself apart.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, this is “End of Day Drinks,” where we sit down with the movers and shakers in the beverage industry. So pour yourself a glass and listen along with us. Let’s start the show. Hey, everybody, I’m Adam Teeter, co-founder of VinePair. On today’s episode of “End of Day Drinks,” I’m really excited that we’re talking with Julie Reiner and Tom Macy, the co-founders of Social Hour. Before we get going and introduce both of them, I’d love to introduce who is with me today from VinePair. First, I’ve got Josh, my co-founder.
Josh: Hey, glad to be here, Adam.
A: I’ve got Joanna, our executive editor.
Joanna: Hi, Julie and Tom.
A: Tim, our senior staff writer.
Tim: Hey, everyone. How’s it going?
A: And Katie, our associate editor.
Katie: What’s up, guys? Excited to be here.
A: Julie and Tom, I will say I had the cocktails, I tried them all last Friday and really found them very delicious. I’m really curious to talk about how you came up with the idea and what drove you to do it in the first place. Then, how you see people consuming them, whether it be out of the can directly or in another form, like a glass of ice. But we can get to all that later. First, I’d love it if you could just start the conversation by introducing yourselves and your backgrounds to everyone listening. Julie, we can start with you.
Julie Reiner: Sure. Hi, everyone. My name is Julie Reiner, and I have been in the bar business for a very long time, over 20 years. Over the course of that time, I’ve opened five cocktail bars, all in New York City, starting with the Flatiron Lounge in 2003, followed by the Pegu Club in 2005, and then in Brooklyn, Clover Club, Leyenda, and Lani Kai, which is no longer open. I was on the forefront of cocktail culture when it kind of blew up again; people actually started using fresh ingredients in cocktails and really thinking about the process with drinks, while bringing back a lot of classic styles of cocktails. I helped to train a lot of the bartenders who went on to open their own bars all over the country, and I have since started working with Tom Macy, who is a longtime employee at Clover Club, who then became a partner. We tasted some cocktails in a can and thought, “We could do this better.” So we went on that journey. That’s what we’re doing these days, as well as teaching cocktail classes on Zoom (my new job.)
Tom Macy: I’m Tom Macy. I came along on Julie’s journey in 2009. Now that I’m actually looking at my calendar, I think tomorrow is the 12-year anniversary of my first training shift at Clover Club as a barback. I pretty much have become Julie’s partner in cocktails over the years. I started as a barback and was really enthusiastic to learn more. It was at the right time when the industry was about to explode and there were not a ton of really well-trained cocktail bartenders. I was able to move up by being in the right place at the right time. Julie’s bars were staffed with the best bartenders out there. So I just learned from this incredible group of people how to bartend and how to create cocktails. It’s crazy to think again how lucky I was. I was just able to move up really quickly to bartender, then head bartender, and then an opportunity to become a partner came about at Clover Club in 2014. I had just gotten married and my wife had become pregnant. I was like, “What does a life in cocktails look like?” And it all had happened so quickly. I was making a gin and tonic at home and obsessively micromanaging every element to try to make it perfect. And I was like, “Gosh, it’d be so cool if you could get this perfectly premade in a bottle. Why can’t I get that?” That was kind of that entrepreneurial moment that everyone who starts a business has. It’s sort of like, “Hey, maybe I should do that.” That is where the story of Social Hour begins.
A: Obviously, canned cocktails now seem to be exploding everywhere. But I would assume when you started thinking about it, that wasn’t the case. Now, can you take us through the process of how you guys thought about doing it, and what the development process was? Prior to this last year or two, the only canned cocktails any of us knew of were not actual cocktails. It was Smirnoff Ice, like malt beverage. I remember going to Europe and you would always see canned cocktails. They were like Jack and Cokes, but still, they were actually spirits. Did you know when you thought about the idea that you could do this? What went into figuring out how to do it?
TM: So I had this idea, and I immediately went online. It was one of the things I thought must exist. I started Googling. The only thing I could find was in Europe. It took me a while of digging around to figure out that it has a lot to do with taxes in the United States. Beer, spirits, and wine are all taxed at different levels. Spirits are the most, and beer is the least. I’ve heard this, I can’t say that I’ve actually confirmed it — but I heard from a reliable source that Smirnoff Ice, for example, around the world is made with Smirnoff Vodka. But in the United States, it’s malt-based, which is essentially beer, because it’s a lot cheaper. That sort of confirms that the reason that market didn’t exist was just because spirits companies didn’t think there was a large enough market for it, and it was just too expensive to try to break into. I just sort of kept tinkering around, and I just felt like it was going to happen. It just seemed like too good of a thing to make a perfect gin and tonic, which seemed entirely doable. I knew, somehow, that someone’s going to do that and it’s going to be a success. So I just kept following along down the rabbit hole. I definitely talked to Julie about it over the years and started experimenting at the bar with things because people were doing bottle cocktails at bars and they were playing around with carbonation. If you looked around cocktail blogs at the time, like Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Dave Arnold and those guys were doing that. So I just sort of followed that lead — we eventually put a bottled Paloma on Leyenda’s opening menu, which was sort of my pet project. It was great, and very popular. That was kind of the moment we were like, “Hey, like we should sell this in stores right now.”
JR: We also realized that with the Paloma, Tom was using essential oils— grapefruit oil. In the past, we had always been making Palomas with fresh grapefruit juice, simple syrup, club soda, and tequila. We realized that we actually liked this better, because it was almost like we were making a grapefruit soda without the juice. So that was kind of an “aha” moment where we realized we could really do this. We could create Highballs and put them in a can, and give people real spirits and not these malt beverage drinks that they think are cocktails, but are really just beers in disguise.
TM: Right. Because Lime-a-Ritas and all that were just crushing it. It was like, “It’s not a Margarita, people!” I don’t think I was the only one that was thinking about how to do it. Julie started this revolution of great cocktails, and then everyone’s like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could have all these amazing fresh juice cocktails in a bottle ready to go?” But then, of course, you’re like, “No, you can’t, because if you pasteurize fresh juice, it changes the flavor and it’s not stable.” So the two ideas didn’t really compute. Then when we sort of figured out a way to use the bottled format to our advantage. Creating ingredients from scratch that do behave well was the key to making the concept work. Initially, it was Highballs. It was gin, and things that don’t rely on fresh ingredients. You know, a vodka soda, a Jack and Coke, or a gin and tonic. That was initially the first idea.
T: I’ve got a quick question that may be kind of slightly obvious. I hope not. It’s the question basically that you were asking yourself in the beginning — why, apart from the taxes, didn’t these products exist? What is it about a canned gin and tonic, for example, that’s difficult? Why can’t you just place those two ingredients together, and package them, and sell them? Is there an inherent challenge there? Can you explain that for us?
TM: I asked someone who knew a lot about the industry the pointed question: Why doesn’t this exist? What am I missing? They just said, “I think because the market doesn’t exist, and a big company doesn’t want to waste the time if they know they’re going to sell 70,000 cases the first year.” I saw that as a huge opportunity. It was like, “Well, we don’t need to sell that much.” We just need to sell some, and sort of trailblaze the concept. At that point, I thought it was going to be totally easy to make a gin and tonic in a can. But as Julie will also attest, it was not. We spoke to Allen Katz at the New York Distilling Company. We’ve had a relationship with him for many years, and it seemed that was the obvious first choice — he had gin and whiskey, and they were great products. We spoke to him about supplying us with his products in this venture. He was totally down, and that was great. But once we started formulating with the flavor house, where you give them a prototype of what you want to do and they go about recreating it, we realized creating something in a can is a totally different animal than it is from scratch behind a bar. I mean, the goal is the same, but the tools and the techniques are different, and it took us a while to learn how to apply those things. So we were building a tonic water from scratch: the acidity, the bitterness, the sugar content, the ABV, the carbonation levels, the flavor levels of the tonic, the quinine — it was all in play. Every time you would change one thing, it would change something else. It took a long time to get our arms around that. In the end, there was no silver-bullet trick. It was the same process that Julie’s gone through, and that I’ve gone through, and any bartender that knows how to make cocktails has gone through: You just have to make cocktails a lot of times badly to learn what doesn’t work. Then you can get your arms around how an ingredient behaves. So that’s what we did.
A: I’ve got two questions for you guys to build on. Tim and myself, we’ve interviewed other drinks entrepreneurs and bartenders who have said the same thing you’re saying, that citrus is really, really difficult, and the company that figures out citrus is going to make a killing just because it is so hard to master. Is that what you’d heard? Is that why you’re using essential oils? My second question is: In the development of these cocktails, how much did you think about the fact that people potentially would drink them straight from the can as opposed to pouring over ice, or is the intention that you hope people will pour them over ice? We talked to a lot of people in the canned wine space, etc. Some other spaces will say they never even thought about the fact that someone was drinking from a can; they always thought, “Well, I drink it from a wine glass, so you’d pour the wine in the glass, too.” But to me, the can always signals “drink it straight from the can.” So I’m curious about those two points.
JR: I’ll talk about the second one, and I’ll let Tom talk about the first, because citrus is something he’s geeked out about for a long time. It’s funny because we have a joke within our group that we call “Getting canned by Tom Macy” because he is so passionate about it. Sometimes we get to a point and we’re like, “Oh, God, I got canned by Tom today.”
TM: I feel like I’m a tea kettle or something.
JR: But yeah, it was very important to us. I’m from Honolulu, Hawaii, where there is a lot of outdoor activity, like going up to a waterfall on a hike, or being at the beach. So when we were talking about creating these cocktails and Tom and I were tasting all of these different variations, we would taste them straight out of the can and also over ice with a garnish and without a garnish. It was very important to us that all of them were really delicious straight out of the can and that they didn’t necessarily need to have a squeeze of lime or a squeeze of lemon. We picture people on boats, or on a hike, where you don’t necessarily have those things. We thought it would give a much broader appeal. We wanted to make sure with the gin and tonic, for example, that it had enough acidity where it almost tastes like there is a squeeze of lime or squeeze of lemon in the can. That being said, I think that if you pour it over ice with a lemon squeeze, it’s delicious. I personally like it better with lemon, but, you know, it had to be really crushable and delicious straight out of the can and didn’t require ice.
TM: Having tasted some of the other products out there, it’s like it’s clear that they are meant to be poured over ice. The whole thing is interesting because everyone — consumers, retailers, producers, distributors — are all figuring out what people want and how they drink these things. We always wanted it to be great out of the can. I also think I’m realizing more, too, that I want people to think about bringing Social Hour home, pouring it over ice, and fixing themselves a nice cocktail. You can put a garnish on it and it really does enhance the experience. It gives it that “fixing yourself a cocktail” feel. I don’t want it to only be outside on the go. As for juice, I just didn’t want to touch that at the beginning because the cocktail renaissance has been built on the back of freshly squeezed juice, because it’s just so amazing. When you’ve never had a Daiquiri made with fresh lime juice and then you do, it’s just this revelatory experience. So we didn’t want to touch it. And I mean, nothing is completely set in stone, but we are working on some new things for 2021. I’ve acquired a bunch of ingredients and I’ve been formulating in my own personal lab in my parents’ basement all winter long. Because I’ve spent all this time working on formulating cocktails in a can, I feel like I’m a little more emboldened to take more chances. I am trying to push like, “How can we figure out these problems instead of just trying to avoid them?” Everyone’s kind of doing a lot of the same ideas. Everyone’s using flavor extracts, which are high quality and all natural. Some of them are really great, and totally at the level of quality that we would use behind the bar at Clover Club. But I think that is limited — I am definitely interested in exploring what else we can do with a cocktail in a can. In 2003 at Flatiron Lounge, Julie was like, “What’s possible?” Now there’s been 20 years of all this amazing experimentation in cocktail bars. I feel like we’re kind of at that point again now with cocktails. So it’s exciting to try to rewrite those rules. I know that’s sort of vague, but I feel like I don’t have any big announcements yet. But we’re working on something.
Katie: I was wondering how you ended up coming to the conclusion of which cocktails specifically you were going to offer. How did you come to these three specifically? Also, how did you decide on which spirits brands to use for the G&T and the Whiskey Mule?
JR: Well, Allen Katz at New York Distilling has been a friend of mine from the early Flatiron Lounge days, and we are big supporters of his products. When we first started talking about doing the cocktails, we liked the angle of it being Brooklyn through and through, being that his Ragtime Rye and his Perry’s Tot Gin is all made in Brooklyn as well. So it really fit with our story. He was very helpful when we originally went to him to just get some advice and talk to him about what our ideas were. He was really excited about it, and he was open to letting us use his products, so it fit the bill. We originally were talking about doing a Paloma, but acquiring tequila was a little bit more complicated. So we decided that we would start out with a gin and tonic, with his gin, and the Whiskey Mule. Then the Pacific Spritz is a wine base that Tom acquired the wine for.
TM: Yeah, up in the Finger Lakes. Julie and I have built a lot of design, a lot of menus together, and we always think about the slots to appeal. We want to appeal to the widest possible group of people. Not everybody likes the same kinds of cocktails. So it was important to us that we cast a wide net with the styles. So we had the gin and tonic and the mule pretty much locked in from the beginning. We knew we wanted those two. Then for the third one, we threw a few ideas around, and then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh — a spritz!” It doesn’t need fresh ingredients. That is how we went down that path.
JR: Tom and I do the Jazz Age Lawn Party every year. We do all of the cocktails for it, and we do a ton of spritz cocktails there. It is really one of those summery and delicious drinks. It’s actually something that people drink all year long. People are kind of obsessed with spritzes these days, with different types of Italian bitter spirits. So we really wanted to head in that direction, and also add a little bit of a tropical flavor to it. We went with passionfruit because we really liked the way that it played in the drink.
JM: I had a question about the spritz: Since it is wine-based, is it easier to distribute? Is it something that you’re able to get out there wider, versus the difficulty of a spirit base?
TM: This gets into the wonderful world TTB wonkiness. It’s actually technically spirit-based in the eyes of the U.S. Federal Government. It’s classified as a “distilled spirit specialty.” That’s because the aperitivo has a neutral grain spirit as its base. It has to do with proportions of ABV and stuff, but we kind of nudged in the direction of a distilled spirit specialty purely so that we could keep everything under one roof. Not everyone has a wine license and a spirits license, and it just seemed like it was going to create too many problems. Had we only gone with the wine base — yes, there are some places that have a beer and wine license, but it’s still honestly kind of gray to me because it’s state by state and all that. I think some places can carry the Spritz, whereas they can’t carry the other ones. I don’t fully get it. But technically it is spirit-based, but it’s still about half wine. It makes no sense — the laws are what the laws are.
JR: As you know, liquor laws are crazy in this country. Every state is totally different, which is another learning curve to figure out.
JS: So obviously you were developing the idea for Social Hour long before 2020, but what was that experience like launching in the middle of a pandemic?
TM: It was crazy. We finished our pitch deck to raise a little bit of seed capital on Feb. 28, or something like that. It was this whole whiplash thing. Not just in a vacuum of Social Hour —obviously the whole world was going crazy. I was like, “OK, so this thing that I poured my heart and soul into for the last few years is now just never going to happen.” I just felt crushed. Then the next week, it was like, “Spirits off-premise are up 120 percent and the leading category is canned cocktails.” So then it was like, “Oh, now we really got to get moving.” Then of course, who wants to invest in something? Some people who had pledged to invest were not able to because they are in the bar and restaurant world, which obviously has been devastated by the pandemic. That was an initial challenge. I have no other real frame of reference of what it would have been like to not launch during the pandemic.
JR: Actually being able to have a party and see people and taste some, getting out and selling it. It was hard because you couldn’t even go inside most liquor stores. So how are you supposed to try to sell to people with a mask on from afar? It’s definitely proved challenging. It was a lot more challenging than it should have been — we were kicking ourselves for taking such a long time because we’re such perfectionists. Had we just even six months earlier been ready to go. Hindsight is 20/20.
T: I want to follow up with one thing on the subject of funding, and also having a long-term plan before the pandemic. One thing we’ve noticed at VinePair is that it seems like there’s this new wave of entrepreneurial projects, in recent years particularly, that are notably women-led. That got us wondering (we were speaking about it in a meeting earlier today): Is there a reason for this, other than the appeal of these products, or is there easier access to funding these days? Have things changed on that front? Is that something that’s in play right now?
TM: For just female-founded companies?
T: Also the canned and RTD space. Not just female-founded, but these innovations as well. I think we’re seeing both of these phenomena hand in hand.
JR: I’m not sure why that is. I mean, opening and running bars is very challenging. I think one of the No. 1 questions I’ve received in my career is: What’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? I wonder if it was just a space that women who were into cocktails felt that they could have success with, and have a little bit more of a normal work life while being in the cocktail industry by almost turning it into a 9 to 5 job by reaching beyond your brick and mortar. With a bar, you can only make as much money as you can make inside your space. With a product like this, if you do it right, your reach is endless. As for why there are more women in this, I’m not sure.
TM: Women know what’s up.
JR: They have good palates.
TM: Clover Club has always had plenty of female bartenders, and it’s been great. I’m not trying to be political saying this, but I do feel like their palates are kind of better. At face value, they just really know what’s up, so they should be getting out there because this category needed to be reinvented. It’s amazing that it took this long, and I don’t think we’d be near to where we are if it weren’t for the pandemic basically pushing the category forward. So it’s about time. And I think a lot of people are like, “Hey, there’s an opportunity here in this wide-open space that no one’s really been developing.” Now everyone’s getting in, and it’s really intense.
A: So how much have you thought about that? Tom, you said everyone’s getting in. Obviously, it’s only a matter of time before the huge brands get in. I’ve seen Tanqueray‘s gin and tonic recently. Do you think that’s a good thing for the category? Is that going to help more people see canned cocktails? Is that a bad thing? Because maybe they may not be as delicious as the stuff that you guys are doing (because it’s more craft and bespoke) and someone may have a bad experience? I know that’s always the fear on the craft beer side — the first craft beer that someone might have is from a macro player and it may not be a great experience, so they’re like, “Oh, I don’t like craft beer.” Have you thought about that at all? Or is it just such early days, like, who cares at this point?
JR: I think the thing that’s interesting about the large brands that have released things (like Tanqueray) is that their percentage of alcohol is like 5 percent. They’re almost trying to compete with a lot of these different malt beverage kinds of drinks because at 5 percent, you can be sold in Target, you know what I mean? So maybe it’s not worth it for them to put out an 11.5 percent gin and tonic that is a real bar gin and tonic with 2 ounces of gin and 8 ounces of tonic, which is what ours is. At five 5, the percentage of gin is much less. I think that is an interesting thing, but it also makes their products very different from ours.
A: It’s almost like there’s a White Claw competitor being sold as gin and tonic.
TM: Right. It’s a nice situation for us to be in because there aren’t any classic legacy brands in the RTD space. Yes, there’s Tanqueray and there’s Ketel One, and they have their branded line of cocktails. But Tanqueray is never going to make a Manhattan. That allows us all this autonomy to be like, “Hey, we’re cocktail makers first, and we work with the suppliers and the spirits that we want to. This is like what we do. We make cocktails.” That is something that kind of shields us. At least, it allows us to come with a differentiation point compared to those larger brands. So I think it’s going to be really interesting. I think everyone’s still figuring out what people want. I also think that it’s going to split into different subcategories. We’re definitely trying to come in as a premium bar quality, proper-proof cocktail. Not everyone is going to want that, and some people are only going to want that. Consumers are still searching around, trying to figure it out. We need to think it’s important for Social Hour, and a lot of the people in our position, to try to communicate and help educate consumers on why malt versus spirit-based is a meaningful difference, and why ABV is a meaningful difference, not just in terms of how hard it’s going to hit you, but in terms of what a proper cocktail is. That’s still all being worked out.
A: Tom, you may not answer this because it’s getting to R&D, but I’m curious because you sort of hinted at other products coming. You guys have three cans now. I think, you know, we’ve had a few, two other RTD brands we talked to — we talked to Crafthouse and St. Agrestis, and both of them have gone into box. Actually, when I saw it, I was like, “This feels so obvious and also brilliant.” Have you guys thought about that, or other formats in general? Like large bottles, where I can buy it and not worry about making the cocktails when I have a dinner party (when this pandemic is over) and just know that I’m getting Julie Reiner and Tom Macy-approved cocktails?
JR: We did talk about boxes. Charles Jolie is a very good friend of mine. I judge a lot of cocktail competitions with him, and we traveled around in normal times together. So Tom and I were like, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do like boxed wine, but a boxed cocktail? And we were like, “Oh, yeah, we should really work on that.” Then a week later, I saw a picture and I was like, “Damn it.”
TM: Their cocktails are more sour style for Crafthouse, and St. Agrestis is spirit-based. So their serving size is like 3 to 4 ounces, whereas a gin and tonic is about 8, which is what ours is. The largest spirit size the TTB allows to be sold is 1.8 liters. That can’t fit too many gin and tonics. Also, carbonation is a huge issue. We want ours to be perfectly carbonated all the way through. A kegged gin and tonic would be amazing. But the TTB doesn’t allow anything larger for spirits, which ours technically is. I’ve definitely searched around, Could we do a 3-gallon keg or something like those little Heineken kegs? That’s what I want. But those I think are 3 liters, so that is a challenge. Things are still in development. There are a lot of cocktail styles out there. If Julie and I have our druthers, we really want to expand into different styles, and build out a whole cocktail menu. Everything’s still on the table.
A: That’s awesome. Well, Julie, Tom, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of “End of Day Drinks.” It’s been awesome to have you both and to hear about what you guys are building. To hear about how you got to this point has been really interesting. Can you tell everyone who’s listening how they can find the cocktails now?
TM: You can go to socialhourcocktails.com and right on the “Our Cocktails” page, you can add it to your cart and ship it to most states in the U.S. Retail-wise, we’re just available in New York and New Jersey right now. But in 2021, we’re moving to some new states, and we’ll be making announcements soon. We’re coming to serve you all drinks, so please check it out.
A: Awesome. Thank you both so much.
JR: Thank you so much for having us.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “End of Day Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends — we want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits: “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. It is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair’s tastings director (yes, he wears a lot of hats), Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to my co-founder, Josh Malin, and to the executive editor, Joanna Sciarrino, and to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, our senior staff writer, Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor, Katie Brown. And a special shout out to Danielle Greenberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program.
The music for End of Day drinks was produced, written, and recorded by Darby Cicci. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.