While the pandemic has turned many of us into big (or bigger) drinkers, two amaro enthusiasts inspired by the Italian tradition of botanical-based libations have been quietly toiling to grow their small line of amari sodas.
Launched in 2018 by Jason LaValla, Casamara Club is a line of sparkling amaro soft drinks (or “leisure sodas” as the brand calls them) attractively designed for a discerning group of trend-seeking drinkers. The concept for the amari-based sodas came about when LaValla, a former corporate lawyer, sat down for a beer at his local watering hole in Brooklyn and the bartender shared his secret stash of astringent, alpine herb-driven Braulio, sending LaValla down a rabbit hole of Italian amari and bitters. From there, LaValla got the idea for “bitters & soda” and began tinkering in his kitchen, playing with botanicals to create a balanced, non-alcoholic riff on a Campari soda. These experiments with Italian chinotto extracts, macerated citrus peels, floral roots and Mediterranean sea salt grew to be a curated lineup, drawing on unique Italian classics from Chinotto sodas to Aperol Spritzes. “I did about 400 variations of [Chinotto & Juniper] heavy Alta over six months, trying to figure out not just the botanical profile, but how to strike a balance between tart, bitter, sweet, and salty,” LaValla tells me. “Once I figured all that out, the next three [flavors] came a bit quicker.”
Just after LaValla sold the first cases of Casamara Club, he decided he wanted to bring in someone with food production and sourcing experience, whom he could trust to run the business with him. Over coffee on New Year’s Day 2019, Erica Johnson, LaValla’s longtime friend and an Eataly communications alum, came on as a business partner and an integral part in propelling Casamara Club’s mission forward. “Erica was the first and only person I talked to since she was so supportive of the club soda idea from the start. … She was one of the first people to try my early amaro experimentations,” says LaValla.
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LaValla and Johnson’s goal has always been to show their appreciation for Italy’s amaro and bitter liqueur culture with their thoughtful line of easy-drinking sodas. And while the concept didn’t initially catch on, the pair’s persistence and smart marketing has since landed Casamara Club in a number of specialty shops, restaurants, and bars around the country.
Read on to learn how these two are on the forefront of the new booze-free drinks movement and about the path they’re paving for the future of leisure soda.
1. What inspired you to create a line of alcohol-free drinks? What place do you think they occupy in the industry?
Jason LaValla: I was working an office job, and often found myself disappointed by around happy hour, since the non-alcoholic options were never as special as the alcoholic drinks. I don’t mean to be glib, but none of us should be drinking alcohol 100 percent of the time! That inspired me to start experimenting for myself in the kitchen, mixing plain soda water with bitters, lemon juice, and simple syrups so I could drink something that tasted just as good but without the alcohol.
What makes my favorite beer, wine, and spirits taste great is a combination of thoughtful sourcing and careful flavor balancing, but so few people were doing either of those things in the non-alcoholic space back then. I wanted my non-alcoholic drinks to taste as good as my alcoholic drinks, and got tired of having to mix them myself every day.
2. What is the mission of Casamara Club, and how are you achieving it?
Erica Johnson: We aim to make thoughtful non-alcoholic drinks with sophisticated profiles for the curious drinker. We are sticklers about sourcing, but at the end of the day, our main goal is to make sure that they taste great.
Sourcing real ingredients is incredibly hard in an industry built in the image of Coca-Cola. So much of what is available are “natural flavors,” which are constructed in a lab from a blend of mystery extracts to taste like someone’s idea of a particular botanical.
Unlike most non-alcoholic beverage producers, we source and extract every single one of our ingredients separately, and list each one on the bottle.
3. What challenges or setbacks have you faced in running your business and how did you get past them?
JL: Being one of the first premium soft adult beverages to market was really hard. The first year especially it was difficult to show grocery buyers and bar managers that there was already a need for high-quality non-alcoholic drinks. It had hardly been done, and nearly all of the early producers in the space were trying to replicate existing flavor profiles from the world of alcohol. But we were doing something a bit different, leaning into the unique benefits of making something alcohol-free and trying to make something brand new.
4. What’s a significant shift your business has made in the last six months that you had never considered before or never thought possible?
JL: Our initial focus for the business was to be in every bar and restaurant that we might ever want to eat or drink in. Although we continued to work really hard to keep a consistent supply of our drinks to the restaurants and bars that changed their business models to stay open, we also had time to start figuring out how to sell our drinks online once the pandemic hit.
There are so many factors that make selling online hard for us. First of all, bottles are super heavy and expensive to ship. Not only do we need special packaging, we also have to compete with online stores like Amazon that offer “free” two-day shipping.
We were very lucky that when the pandemic hit, we’d just moved into a new fulfillment center, one that was willing to work with a business as small as ours, but still established enough to grow with us.
There’s also the issue of, how do you actually find people to sell to? Before the pandemic, if I wanted to reach people in a certain place, I’d stop by a few grocery stores, bars, and restaurants with samples, and have a conversation with the buyer. When you’re selling online, all of that goes out the window. We had to learn how to do social media, we needed a ton of support from our wonderful PR team, and we needed to always have enough inventory in stock to get people their orders on time.
To put it simply, the pandemic didn’t translate into a successful online presence — it was simply our only option for survival.
EJ: As a new company, we’re constantly coming up against things that we never thought were possible. Every new milestone we hit is a surprise, whether it is the sheer volume of orders we received in January, which led us to sell out way ahead of our next scheduled production date, or the number of people that actually read our Friday newsletter that mostly details the dumb action movies we’ve seen that week.
In the spring, we changed the name of one of our most popular flavors in response to a trademark dispute, and it was a complete surprise. Who knew we were big enough to be threatened with frivolous litigation? Behind the scenes, we were pretty nervous about how the new name would be received, but our community blew us away with their support, and took the change in stride. We’ve started to adjust our thinking on what “possible” means.
5. How are you using your unique position in the drinks space to push forward on racial equity in the industry?
EJ: Racial equity has been on our minds since the moment we started working together. We’re doing our best to reflect that in how we source and who we collaborate with.
Our corner of the industry is small but growing, and it’s been heartening to see so many of our peers committing to change the status quo. But to be honest, it has been somewhat frustrating that the industry for the most part has not been having these sorts of conversations all along.
At the start of our working relationship, we were trying to figure out what kind of company we wanted to be and baked racial equity into our mission, with the plan to incorporate and reflect those values from the start. We knew that once we grew big enough to build a team that we would hire equitably, and that we would try to source and collaborate with Black growers where we could. It’s an ongoing conversation for us, tied to ideas of food sovereignty and justice, and the visibility of these issues.
6. In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing that has come out of the pandemic for your business? For the drinks industry as a whole?
EJ: I’m not sure we can separate our business from the industry as a whole. Everything that’s made running the business hard has also made us more resilient and more adaptable. It’s showed us we can lean on our community, and put us in a position to be supportive in return.
7. What opportunities are there for up-and-coming talent in your area of the industry?
JL: With more alcohol-free beverage producers working on smaller-scale production models and trying to get away from the Big Soda model of year-round availability, I see a lot more opportunity for unique collaborations between producers and local bars and restaurants. We just finished working with a local brewery to build out a “microbrew” production line specifically for non-alcoholic drinks, and are super excited about how that will allow us to bring in smaller, more interesting suppliers from our community.
8. What’s your long-term vision for Casamara Club?
EJ: The same thing as our short-term vision. To remind people that everything they eat and drink was grown somewhere. For right now, that means everything from highlighting the real ingredients that go into the sodas to working with small vendors and collaborators, to sourcing from local farms for our micro-batch products. We’re already working on new ways to extend all of this out, creating drinks that both support and are evocative of local food economies across the country.