On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Denetrias Charlemagne and Alex Doman, co-founders of AVEC Drinks. AVEC is re-examining cocktail mixers with its all-natural ingredients and low-sugar and -calorie products. Listeners will learn about the co-founders’ unique story and the inspiration that ultimately led to the birth of AVEC Drinks.
In addition, Charlemagne and Doman explain how most cocktail mixers are made and why their products are vastly different. The brand’s lineup includes Grapefruit & Pomelo, Jalapeño & Blood Orange, Pomegranate & Hibiscus, Ginger, and Yuzu & Lime. Finally, Charlemagne and Doman discuss the future of AVEC Drinks moving forward.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that you can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Denetrias Charlamagne and Alex Doman, who are the co-founders of AVEC, which is a line of canned cocktail mixers. Denetrias and Alex, thank you so much for your time.
Denetrias Charlamagne: Thank you.
Alex Doman: Thank you so much for having us on.
Z: Yeah, our pleasure. I want to start with the question of how the two of you met and how that got started because with all of these brands, there’s always some interesting crossing of paths that explains how it came to be.
A: Yeah, for sure. Our crossing of paths is actually crazier than most in the sense that, as you can probably hear from my accent, I’m British. Well, Australian and Canadian, and I was brought up in the U.K. I came to the U.S. with this idea for AVEC, and the idea struck me whilst I was working for a client of mine. I was a strategy consultant or management consultant, and I had gained a specialty in food and beverage. I worked with a variety of large restaurant chains, bars, pubs, etc., and I was witnessing first hand at the coalface the dramatic change that was going on in food and beverage that has been going on for a long time. I guess in two major ways: one, in premium and crafts like craft beer. Then, the second is health and wellness, which is about how we go about doing the things we love to eat and drink but do with fewer calories and less sugar. I sat at a bar one day in Manchester in the U.K. and long story short, I watched one of the customers who I’ve been talking to that day approached the bar and tried to order a drink, struggling. This is a young student, and he’d been telling me that day how he eats the equivalent of Sweetgreen for lunch and oat milk in his latte. But when he got to the bar and tried to order a simple spirit mixer, he was being offered the same thing that I was offered when I was at the university a long time prior to that. Frankly, it is similar to what our parents had been offered to mix with their spirits. I’m talking about the classic cranberry juice, tonic waters, and ginger beer as well. I was just struck, and it was one of those kinds of classic lightning bolt moments. I thought, wow, people are still mixing this way whilst they’ve changed the rest of their habits. Now, that has forced them to compromise when they ordered these drinks between a relatively healthy or less sugary vodka soda rather than something that they actually like. Most of these mixes are full of rubbish, often with lots of sugar, and I figured that we could do a better job. From that day on, I was trying to work out how to go about it. I ended up applying to business school at Columbia Business School in New York on the premise that I wanted to go and be an entrepreneur to create a better-for-you mixer company which is actually a ridiculous thing. When I say that out loud it is ridiculous. It sounds so normal, but actually, that is a crazy thing to do. I knew I needed someone who knew the U.S. market really well and Denetrias was a superstar marketer, which wasn’t my background. I was a management consultant so you can only imagine my pure luck and excitement when I met Denetrias on the first day of business school. We were actually in the same cluster.
D: And that is business jargon for a cult class.
A: You’re broken up in a year into many groups and we basically sat next to each other. Over the course of either three to six months, created a whole bunch of ways in which I could persuade her, but also not telling her I was trying to persuade her to join me. I created these entrepreneurial pitch groups, where I said, “Anyone who’s interested in selling a business and looking for a co-founder and/or joining venture capital, come down and we’ll pitch ideas to each other and try to find co-founders and chew the fat,” effectively. And believe it or not, on the first pitch, Denetrias bit. There we went and we didn’t hold another event after that. You can see where I was going with it, but that’s the story of how we met.
D: As Alex said, we met on the first day. My background is more on the branding, media, and communication side. I started my career working for big agencies like Ogilvy in New York and big brands like Dove. Then, I went to Hong Kong where I was buying Colgate-Palmolive, where I got my CPG understanding there. Then, I moved to Vice, which was not the Vice media company that it is today but just as they were launching. I started getting into advertising and media because I wanted to create. I believe that brands create a culture in a lot of ways. They create beauty standards. They create what we drink, and they just create the standard, whether we like it or not. What we see advertised to us sets the bar. I grew up in the Bronx and went to fancy schools like Harvard and Columbia. I always tried to advise brands on how to make these two worlds combine and how to think about it. When I heard the idea for AVEC, I’d gone to business school because I was tired of advising brands. I’d worked for Starbucks, which is the most beloved drink thing you can think of and knowing the power that they have in creating a culture, so when Alex pitched this idea, I thought, “Wow, this idea of a better-for-you mixer.” It is true. In New York, people are ordering bottles for like a thousand dollars for a fancy club and then pairing that with orange juice, cranberry juice, soda, Red Bull, and feeling that we’re settling in some ways. For example, what I call the vodka soda default, I guess if I want to be healthy and have a drink, I am just going to have a vodka soda with a splash of this or a splash of that. They say an advertising idea that is stupidly simple is a great one and that’s how I felt the first time I heard of AVEC. It was a better-for-you product in a category that was super sleepy. There is not a love brand like Starbucks or Coke in the mixer category in the U.S. in my experience. I worked for Vice London, and there you could see the tonic boom. People select what they mix with their alcohol, with their spirit. And in the U.S., we were still on the drip coffee version of what a mixer is. It’s similar to that espresso edition where the rest of the world is thinking about the other 75 percent of the drink.
Z: Very cool. I want to talk a little bit about some of the initial forays and how you developed some flavors. One of the things that’s interesting to me here, as you recount this, is were you both at all interested in cocktails beyond the spirit mixer? Or you liked what you drink, but would really like to have additional options? For those who are unfamiliar, some of the flavors you guys have are Grapefruit & Pomelo, Jalapeño & Blood Orange, Pomegranate & Hibiscus, which are definitely not flavors that you would find in every bar in the U.K. or U.S. Were you interested in that more elaborate cocktail culture, or as you mentioned, focused around clubs and places where the options are very limited?
A: I think when we talk to industry people, everyone says it’s interesting that you guys have come up with this idea because you’re not industry people. Neither D nor I are mixologists, but I have a standing passion for eating and creating food and drink. To a degree, I am a frustrated chef where I am trying to figure out a beverage where I can be a chef, and to that extent, I am actually bringing a totally different perspective. We don’t have mixology backgrounds, but we love food and beverage, and we’ve been lucky enough to travel a bunch. D lived in Hong Kong and around the world, and I always had to travel and go to some of these places where these ingredients are from. I’ve been to Japan and tasted yuzu, and I was blown away by the citrus fruit in Japan. Why have they been hiding all this citrus fruit from us? Why doesn’t the rest of the world have access to all these different fruits? When we are thinking about those flavors, which we’ll get into, that was the perspective we were bringing, was that of a consumer and one that tasted a bunch of really exciting ingredients. We were really excited about the flavor rather than being mixologists, per se.
D: Again, it is that nasty taste, vodka soda situation. Why do I need to compromise? Why can’t I have a delicious drink with a better-for-you profile than we expect? We compare ourselves to brands like Oatly, Sweetgreen, and HaloTop, which are delicious, but also better for you. I think that was the balance. When we started thinking about flavors for AVEC, it was in parallel with what some of the world call “White Claw Summer.” We have these mixologists and they say, “Hey, drinking is a vice. Cocktails are cocktails. People don’t care how much sugar I put in there because they’re already drinking, so who cares about health?” Then, White Claw took off with this whole low-calorie, better-for-you message, and we haven’t heard that since. Having that perspective of the consumer really put us ahead of what people were really thinking was possible in the category. There’s already premiumization with better tonics, fancier sodas, and things like that. The flavor profiles — and we’ll talk about how we got into them — are totally different. They are made to be delicious and to be interesting. Each of them has a story behind it with the health profile and the values that we expect from it. A brand that’s a bit more modern. The question around cocktail culture, again, it’s another place where culture is being formed and made, so how do we get different voices in there that aren’t just the bartending community, too? We love the bartending community, obviously, but there are lots of different ways to drink. My family drinks around a rum punch. I’m West Indian. That’s how my culture was formed. Alex talks about the citrus in Japan, so there are all types of different cocktail cultures but how do we bring a different perspective?
Z: That’s exactly where I want to go next. I would love to know how you settled on the flavor profiles and the flavor lineup that you have so far because I think you mentioned neither of you has a traditional bartending background. I mean this with all the respect in it, it shows in the flavor profiles you guys have because I think for a lot of people starting out, it would have been very tempting to go with the already existing flavor sets that people are familiar with. A more traditional Margarita mixer or something like that where it’s established. Here you have some flavors that obviously are totally unfamiliar to drinkers but are not necessarily bar standard items. How did you create the existing flavors and how do you add to the lineup?
A: It started with a really simple question, which was: “Let’s pretend that everything that has happened, let’s suspend disbelief for a minute and pretend that all of the mixes today are rubbish and need to be totally rethought. Let’s start with a blank slate. Let’s rethink this concept from scratch, and let’s rethink it with specifically the American consumer in mind and not like a lot of other mixer businesses with a European mindset in mind.” A lot of European-style mix is focused on tonic water because guess what? Gin and tonic is the big thing out there, and some of the American mixer brands are focused on ginger beer because that’s the biggest mixer in the U.S. However, other than tonic water, none of these major mixers — ginger beer, cranberry juice — were never really invented to be mixers. And so we thought, hang on, let’s go and have a look at America’s favorite mixes by flavor and have a look at what people are using and work backward from that. That’s what we did. We went and had a look at the top 10 favorite flavor profiles and took them one by one. If you look at our range, the best-selling mixer is soda water and lime. OK, how do we make soda and lime that actually tastes good, right? One that tastes good every time and has zero sugar, zero calories. This is a crazy task that is impossible to do but that was when my travels to Japan came in. I knew that yuzu had the nutritional profile of a lemon, which is very clean, but it brought a lot more flavor. We started experimenting with it and realized quite quickly that this was going to help us in combination with other things. Yuzu & Lime also has lemongrass because it makes it a much more balanced profile. If you have fresh yuzu juice, fresh lime juice, and lemongrass all together, that does the job of a really fantastic soda and lime for vodka or tequila every time. That’s what we did and we honestly do that with every one of our drinks. We took a flavor profile that was a fan favorite for the U.S. drinker, and used our experience and our knowledge and our palates to try and rethink those flavors. Make them more interesting and hopefully tastier than what they were replacing, but also remove all the unnecessary preservatives, artificial sugars, and all sugars to create profiles that are so naturally delicious, low sugar, and low calorie. We can go through all of them, but that basically was the premise.
Z: I am sure there are really interesting stories behind all of these, and I think the specific one that I’m particularly interested in — well, I guess two because I think there are two of these flavors that are interesting to me and positioned as being what the use case would be for people. I want to talk a little bit about Grapefruit & Pomelo because of the positioning as the easy Paloma and also Pomegranate & Hibiscus because of that cranberry vodka profile. In particular with the Pomegranate & Hibiscus, what is it that you think is going to appeal or what doesn’t appeal to someone who might be a cranberry vodka drinker?
A: Sure, so that is one of the ones where the link is more tangential, but we started off with cranberry. How can you improve cranberry juice? How do you provide the same thing the cranberry juice provides, but make it tastier and make it dramatically healthier? What people don’t get about cranberry juice — because often they think that’s the healthy option — is a single-serve vodka cranberry has 22 grams of sugar in it. There are four grams of sugar in a teaspoon so it’s over five teaspoons of sugar, which is just an insane amount. OK, so we want something which is tart, we want something that is naturally sweet, and we want to make it much more interesting. The pomegranate brings a bit of natural sugar, but also depth to the drink. Then, we have some lime juice and some cinnamon extract. It has this floral, tart, sweet vibe that the cranberry juice could have with three grams of sugar — not 22 grams.
A: That’s how we got that. Also, I think you might place it somewhere in between the hibiscus agua fresca and the cranberry juice. What was the other one?
Z: The Grapefruit & Pomelo. And I think the Margarita positioning of the Blood Orange & Jalapeño also makes total sense to me. The plum is also a cocktail that we’ve seen a lot of increased interest in over the last year or two but it’s interesting to position as it’s not a well-known cocktail for sure.
D: To jump in really quickly is, we also wanted to do an ingredient that people know. Part of the brand is exposing people, as we said, to these global fresh ingredients. I think pomegranate is more familiar to the American market. Hibiscus is a little less well known, though, apparently, it’s the ingredient of summer. Then, no one knows about pomelo but I think there’s a bit of joy in learning about something new that comes with each one of our drinks. It’s not a straightforward thing, but each of them is inspired by something new. Alex can get into the flavor profiles of grapefruit, pomelo, and where that came from because that’s uniquely his story, too.
A: That’s absolutely right. We wanted to keep the ingredients focused and simple. You’ll notice that there’s always one or two ingredients called on the front and then on the back. You understand all of the ingredients for that, and there are not many of them, but there are more than two, enough to provide interest and balance. The grapefruit was one of the first. We knew that we needed to have a fantastic grapefruit soda equivalent. D and I both love Palomas and of course, had to think grapefruit was fantastic with mezcals, which is a burgeoning category that we’re really into, but is looking for a mixer. There isn’t a mezcal and Coke, but there is a rum and Coke, which we are going to talk about later, too. We knew we wanted the grapefruit but the challenge is knowing that all of the grapefruit products you see on the market today are super sugary because fresh grapefruit juice happens to have lots of sugar in it and grapefruit doesn’t pack too much sugar. In part, because you want to balance the tartness of the citrus with some sugar. We knew it was going to be difficult so the inspiration came from when I was a kid traveling to Thailand and watching these Thai ladies peeling these large pomelos. It’s a very random fruit, but these are large grapefruits with an enormous amount of pith. Just extraordinary amounts of pith, and I watch these ladies with their hands or tweezers extract its pith from the perimeter. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this fruit must be incredible if these people are spending all this time.” I have always been interested in it and knew that it was very pithy in comparison to grapefruit, and it brings a really interesting and different flavor. We have grapefruit juice with a pomelo extract. Then, we add a drop of vanilla and a drop of black pepper. It tastes a lot like grapefruit soda, and it is a little bit more interesting because you can taste the peppery, vinegary notes and you get the pith from the pomelo. Again, it’s 80 to 90 percent less sugar than soda or juice.
Z: OK, so let’s switch gears a little bit away from the specific flavors, and maybe D, you can talk a bit about where you’ve found traction with the products. Also, where do you envision besides everywhere, what are some use cases or venues either at home or in on-premise accounts?
D: Every single place. No, I’m kidding.
Z: Well, we know that’s the goal, understandably.
D: Well, what we didn’t say is that we launched in the summer of 2020, so in the middle of a pandemic. We graduated in May. We’re in the cannery the next day, and we’re surrounded by 40,000 cans while our peers were getting fancy business jobs, so we really launched at a time when people were at home. That was the occasion that we really focused on so we launched as a D2C brand primarily. We started trying to sell to bars and the original strategy was to be more like Red Bull, where we would be part of the culture in different communities. At parties and things like that, but the world had shut down, even when you’re pitching to bars and people are trying to figure out what’s going on. We really had to focus on the at-home occasion to start out with. Empowering that consumer that is the at-home mixologist or just wanted something different. They couldn’t go to their bar, they couldn’t figure it out, or wanted something healthy or were interested in the flavor. We are seeing lots of traction in that way. As we’ve grown, now close to a year in, what we’ve learned is that we basically attract two kinds of core customers. One is this host, right? If you think about lovers of food and wine, they know what to get when it comes to what they’re going to get for dinner — what’s going to be the spread and all that stuff. They know what booze to get that won’t be embarrassing. When it comes to mixers, there is this awkward moment where it’s like, “Am I buying Coke, Sprite, ginger ale, juice? Or am I my setting up a whole olive bar?” Even for the guest, if you have the fanciest ingredients, no one’s going to make a craft Martini in someone’s home.
Z: Probably not.
D: Or you are going to do this Margarita for everyone and you just spend the whole night shaking Margaritas for people, which is very unfun. AVEC really does bring this at-home, easy-to-make elevated cocktail. Also, the second consumer we really found was what we call “flexi-drinkers.” Someone who is sober-curious, more interested in zero-proof on occasion. They may still drink, but are looking for healthier alternatives for that adult drink moment. For the host, they can put out AVEC and everyone has a choice and it’s not a choice that’s different from ours. It’s really a moment where literally everyone can come together and have a drink. It’s a moment that feels more adult than saying, “OK, just have a Coke if you’re not drinking tonight.” As we expand, we expect at-home will continue to grow. We don’t think this summer people are necessarily going to bars the same way. They’re really going to be socializing and hosting a bit more. Then, that whole world of no-alc has totally exploded and then the world of premium spirits, even in the pandemic, those were the ones that were being sold. People are splurging for that $25-plus bottle and we pair well with that. I think all of those worlds come together. Then for restaurants, bars, etc., we’re really focused on more specialty grocery stores, where people are doing a bit more discovery, not just going in to grab eggs and bread then head out. Hotels and mini bars have been really good. There’s a really fun moment when you actually put out AVEC and everyone’s like, “Oh, my God, what flavor did you use? What did you mix with?” There are so many combinations that it becomes a really fun experience for people because, as you said, it’s not the typical, “Oh, I have a Margarita mix.” No one cares about that. It’s a conversation piece in a lot of ways.
Z: Yeah, that makes total sense to me. I’m also curious, in these “Next Round” conversations, we talk to a number of different people who are working in this RTD space with alcohol included. In general, there are challenges or have been challenges with incorporating citrus in a way where there’s real shelf life. How is that something that you guys have dealt with?
A: Well, it is this thing that is talked about a lot with the citrus flavor in light of the citrus. It is more difficult to use, especially from a shelf life perspective because it tends to fade. For whatever reason, we haven’t had the same issues, and I think it’s largely because we use real juice with a bit more volume to it. I think that you can get into that more if you’re just using extracts. I think if you end up using your all-natural flavor, you would have to put on a lot of sugar to help fortify the product, but I’m not an expert. It really hasn’t been too much of an issue for us. One of the issues that we do have — but it hasn’t really been a problem for citrus — is if you’re going to get any shelf life whatsoever, you need to pasteurize all you can. If you’re going to carbonate as well, it makes the whole process somewhat tricky because you’re cooking a can full of carbonated liquids. You’re going to get some explosions if you carbonate too high. The pasteurization can affect your product, but it hasn’t been a problem for us.
Z: That’s good to know. I think you mentioned one of the other mixer elephants in the room, which is cola — Coke or otherwise. And so far from what I’ve seen, your line is very fruit-focused, or I suppose also ginger, which is not a fruit. But not earthy or savory. Is that an area that you’re interested in exploring, or are you content to be more in this fruit space?
A: I think we are in the fruit space because those are the people’s favorites. I mean, you’re right. Coca-Cola is a huge one. I think we looked at Coca-Cola for a second and knew we couldn’t do a better job. It’s really tasty, and many people have tried to do Coca-Cola equivalents, so we’re staying away from that flavor profile. However, we definitely will be experimenting a lot with vegetables.
Z: Oh, OK.
A: There’s a lot of vegetable-based products in our pipeline. The reason why we haven’t done one yet with our recent line is that it wasn’t near the top of the list. You think about cucumber, elderflower, beetroot, all of these things. There will be a time when we’re the size of the Fever-Tree or a Q Mixers where we’ll have to approach doing an AVEC version of a cola. Given what we’ve done today, it will probably be dramatically different and probably won’t be called a cola, but we’ll do something along those lines eventually.
Z: Cool, this has been super interesting. I’m going to have to seek them out now because I’ve gotten a lot of pitches. I’ll be transparent here and say that with a lot of other things in this space, you guys are one of the very few ones that I’ve actually thought I was interested in tasting, which is a good sign. Just one last quick question: You mentioned that it’s been a lot of direct-to-consumer, and I know that on the site you’ve got a sample and all that, but which one is the top seller today?
D: I think it’s really seasonal, and there’s a lot of intrigue consistently around Jalapeño Blood Orange because it has jalapeño. I think people have a spicy factor. I think in the summer, grapefruit is very light. I think yuzu is among a certain crowd, especially the health conscious. That’s a really popular one because it’s zero sugar and zero calories. It goes really well with mezcal, actually. Then, ginger and hibiscus tend to perform better when it’s colder, so I think it’s really seasonal. Our most popular thing, honestly, is the sampler, and then one or two other products depending on their favorite spirit or the time of year. If you’re a whiskey drinker, you’re likely to go for ginger. If you like tequila, you go for something else, so I think people just pick their favorite spirits and go from there.
A: Nice try in trying to get an answer about what the best seller is from the market. That was a good attempt.
D: I’m curious about the other mixers you have been pitched, because I really think we’re the only ones.
Z: I would say actually no, I haven’t necessarily been pitched mixers, but a lot of RTDs that are aiming at the low calorie and low sugar. I think some of them are doing interesting work as well. I think there’s a real benefit in what you all are doing in terms of really trying to get the mixer part down because when you start incorporating spirits, you remove that potential audience that you’re talking about, which are people who are totally sober or sober-curious or just want to have something that is flexible in that regard. Obviously, you’ve cut them off if you are putting alcohol in. The producer is then making a determination for the drinker what exact spirit they want and what, frankly, quality level. It makes a lot of sense to me to give your consumers that choice. So, yes, it makes sense to me. No, I haven’t seen another thing that’s an exact competitor.
D: Yeah. A lot of people ask, “Why don’t you guys become an RTD?” And I think we just have so much love for spirits, I would even say at college age, I couldn’t afford to try and understand the filtration process to get to an expensive spirit.
Z: I think we all thought that would work for us with our cheap vodka.
D: Yeah, there is so much in the process of making a really good spirit and making a really good mixer on top of that, I think our model would be more like La Colombe and Oatly, where you have a premium coffee with the premium spirit.
A: I think the thing that we haven’t touched on as much as we would have done otherwise, because of the ways that you’ve asked the questions, but our mission. We’ve touched on it, but I think the thing that we’ve seen some of by design, somewhat by happenstance, and stumbled into is we are day zero for rethinking the adult drinking occasion in the U.S. at the moment. That ranges everywhere from THC in cans, to CBD in Recess. And we’re really happy in being the modern mixer brand where you can have us by ourselves or drink it with a zero alc — we have amazing partnerships with Seedlip and Ritual, making fantastic non-alc cocktails. Or you can mix it with the latest greatest spirit. That’s where we’re headed. How does AVEC help the flexi-drinkers choose which alcohol or non-alcohol to go for at any given time?
Z: Very cool. Well, D, Alex, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate learning a little more about AVEC and hearing the backstory and where you see yourselves going. Again, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
D: Thank you.
A: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be on.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.