On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter invites H. Joseph Ehrmann, chief mixologist officer for Fresh Victor, a cocktail mixer brand, on the show to discuss how Fresh Victor is making at-home craft cocktails possible with fresh juices.
Ehrmann, a former professional bartender who has brought his expertise to Fresh Victor, explains how Fresh Victor has evolved as a business during the Covid-19 pandemic. You will hear Ehrmann’s ongoing story in studying the process of creating fresh, refrigerated cocktail mixers — something that has proven quite the challenge.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes to give everyone a better picture of what’s going on in the world of alcohol and mixology. Today, I’m joined by H. Joseph Ehrmann, the chief mixology officer for Fresh Victor. H., thanks so much for joining me.
H: Thanks for having me, Adam.
A: I’m familiar with Fresh Victor. I’m obsessed with your products, actually.
H: That’s great.
A: I make delicious cocktails, thanks to your products. So I’m aware of it. For those who are not aware of Fresh Victor, can you give us a bit of history on the brand, the company, how it was started, all that good stuff?
H: Yeah, we are a fresh juice, cold-pressed, juice-based cocktail mixer. All fresh juice, nothing but a very clean label. For ingredients, it’s just fresh juice, fresh, cold-pressed juice, filtered water, fresh produce, four flavors, organic cane sugar, and/or organic agave nectar as a sweetener. It is refrigerated, and we have seven different flavors that are available nationally through direct-to-consumer, through freshvictor.com. We started as a consumer product with the idea of making fresh cocktails easier for consumers, just a very straight-up simple concept. Ken McKenzie is the founder, and Ken came up with this idea a while back and came to me. He and I have been friends for about 20 years. I had made my name at my bar Elixir in fresh produce-driven kind of culinary-style cocktails in the early 2000s, mid-2000s and was doing all of this processing of produce to make great drinks on the menu, as well as a prep at the bar and have lots and lots of recipes. We kept it simple. It just had to be some nice fresh juice that people could mix with. But in a format that’s a mixer, not a juice. Everything has a premixed sugar source to it. Our two core, what I call the workhorses of cocktails, a Lime Sour and a Lemon Sour. We’ve got a Mexican lime and agave, which is just lime, agave, cane sugar, and water. Then our lemon sour is just lemon juice, organic cane sugar, and water. Those are the ones that you can build all kinds of stuff for every bar. Then, we have five other products that are a little bit more complex in that there’s one more layer of flavor to it. They all have a little lemon and/or lime in them for the sour component.
H: Then, we’ve got Cactus Pear Pomegranate and, quite frankly, I didn’t know cactus pear as a term versus prickly pear. Ken had some Texas background, and in the South, they call it cactus pear, which really is the fruit of the cactus. Then, pairing that kind of nice red fruity with the pomegranate red fruity, which is a little more bitter, and makes a really great, unique combination. Then, we have pineapple and ginger root, cucumber and lime, jalapeno and lime, and three citrus and mint, which is just lemon, lime, orange, and fresh mint. There’s a tertiary flavor level there, and all of them are designed to be mixable, so Fresh Victor and a spirit or soda water or some nonalcoholic ingredient to make a nonalcoholic drink — whether you want to call it a mocktail or a kid’s drink or an agua fresca, they’re great for that as well. Basically, we position it as they mix with anything, and everything pretty much across the board mixes on a two-to-one basis. Say an ounce and a half of tequila, 3 ounces of Mexican lime, and agave are shaken with ice, and you’ve got a perfect Margarita.
H: Whiskey and lemon sour, you get a perfect Whiskey Sour. It’s really simple to move drinks like that.
A: I think what’s amazing to me about Fresh Victor, what I found to really enjoy until the pandemic, I was making cocktails, but my typical cocktail at home would be a Negroni. Then, early on in the pandemic, I started talking to my wife, and I was going to go out to buy a bag of lemons and a bag of limes. I’ll juice a bunch of lemons and limes at the beginning of the week so that we had the ability to make fresh Margaritas and Daiquiris. Then, when I got Fresh Victor, it was super convenient. I’m also able to make a lot more cocktails with them, and what people don’t realize about cocktails that make them so delicious is the fresh juice. To me, that is what is so life-changing about a cocktail. I’m curious if that is what you also intended to allow people to be able to make some of these more intricate drinks at home. For example, recently I made a Jungle Bird. I would never have made a Jungle Bird at home. Now, I’ve made them two Fridays in a row.
A: I have this stuff, and it’s delicious. I totally see the use case for it. Was that also part of the goal?
H: Yeah, totally. The frustrating thing for most people that understand the difference between fresh and shelf-stable is that there was nothing fresh out there. I’ve been teaching consumer cocktail classes for over a decade, and I’ve done tons of professional bar training, too. I always said, back in the mid-2000s when I was launching Square One Organic Spirits and traveling the country for Square One, I would say “selling vodka into a sea of vodka.” I was spending most of my time on account calls teaching bartenders how to cut and squeeze limes and make simple syrup. That was something in 2006-2008 that a lot of bartenders still weren’t doing. I am teaching, telling them to take bartending seriously. This could be a career. This is a great way of life. Just getting the bartenders to make fresh juice and real syrup instead of buying it was a challenge. That lit on fire obviously pretty quickly towards 2010 and then took off from there. Then, the consumers can understand it. Now, once the bars were making fresh juice, finally, we could get the consumers to understand the value of it. But getting them to buy a lime and cut it and squeeze it was the next challenge.
H: You had all these shelf-stable Margarita mixes. You go back into the mid-20th century and you get your Don Draper-style lemon sour and a powder that was being propagated around the U.S. in the 20th century. Now, we didn’t have this ease of execution on a simple juice sour. That was the main driver. Our tagline is “Craft Cocktails Made Easy.” Let’s just make this as easy as a pour. We wondered why it wasn’t out there. You learn things launching a company and building a company. The biggest challenge is that getting fresh products to people in a refrigerated format is a logistical and capital-intensive challenge. That has been our biggest thing. With the growth of direct-to-consumer fulfillment through the evolution of Amazon and such, and the boost that the pandemic has given to that has helped get stuff to people directly right away, because as we are now growing in traditional box store retail, it takes time.
H: It just takes time to get each individual retailer on board, convince them, negotiate the deal, get it in the system, pull it through. We’re growing slowly in that, but there’s no way of really speeding that up. Direct-to-consumer is the fastest way that’s really made a big difference in getting this to people.
A: So talk about the evolution of the company. Before we started recording, you said it had initially been started as a consumer-focused business. Then you pivoted away from it to on-premise and now back. What were the reasons for those pivots, and how has the company evolved since you guys started it?
H: The original idea was for the consumer. Ken was out there slogging it out at the supermarkets, just doing your traditional sampling, telling people, “what’s this?” “Oh, here, it’s a Lime Sour. Try this. You can mix it with tequila.” That kind of old-school approach to building a consumer food product through grocery retail was another layer of difficulty in building the company. It is very time consuming, it’s the slow road to building a brand. We also saw that grocery was dying. Statistically, looking at the Amazon effect, looking at how people were starting to shop through these different grocery delivery services and through their phones and not going to grocery stores anymore. We are seeing grocery die. So why are we going headfirst into a dying industry? We saw that the potential to grow cash flow and grow volume was through the on-premise. Rather than selling, we were packaged in a quart-sized bottle, 32 ounces. Still, with that two-to-one ratio, that was about 10 cocktails. We also realized that a 32-ounce bottle, 10 cocktails was a lot for a lot of consumers. We started to redesign our packaging into a 16-ounce bottle and made the effort to get into on-premise, where we could sell gallons and pallets instead of quarts. You make one deal with national account, and it can change your company.
H: Obviously, that’s what leveraged a lot of my background better. I was able to shake the trees a bit through my network and my friends that are involved over the last 10 to 20 years in their positions. That was going quite well until last March. We were opening some really great deals. We were doing great business with Disney. We had opened up with MGM Resorts in Vegas, and we were getting into the Wynn. These concepts were happening and then just got cut off. All of a sudden it’s whoa, remember that bottle we were designing six, eight months ago? We need to go back to that. We made a very quick pivot. Fortunately, we didn’t have to change the product, and we had already made a lot of packaging decisions and design. We just had to pull the trigger on printing labels. I think it was four weeks, maybe four to six weeks before we had 16-ounce bottles in production. The first move was to get the DTC going, get direct-to-consumer. Within a month and a half to two months, we had direct-to-consumer distribution available in seven Western states, and then we had to pull the trigger on consumer marketing because when you’re just focused on B to B and you’re not worried about Instagram and other consumer marketing avenues.
H: Suddenly, we had to engage social media, engage PR, and work on design assets and photography. That stuff really wasn’t as essential in the on-premise.
A: In the beginning, when you went for the pivot, were you going after people you hoped were already cocktail enthusiasts? What was the pitch? Was it for cocktail enthusiasts who already understand the beauty of fresh juice, or were you going after more cocktail novices who rushed to start learning how to make cocktails at the beginning of the pandemic and are now still making cocktails? And you said, hey, this will make it easier for you. Also, you don’t know what you’re missing, stop buying the shelf-stable stuff, start buying the fresh juice.
H: I guess it’s twofold. The first thing is it is a lot easier to bring over the person who’s already drinking the Kool-Aid than to convert them and teach them. You look at the Margarita as the largest-selling cocktail in America. There’s a big market there, and “hey, we’ve got quick, great Margaritas for you.”
H: How many Margarita drinkers can we win right away? Let’s build that quick audience. It was an interesting exercise for me personally, because again, I’ve been teaching mixology or simple cocktail classes for consumers for a long time and always the same kind of class. I never ventured into saying “here are four of my original recipes.” I’ve been teaching Margaritas, Mojitos, Manhattans, and Martinis. It is just basic cocktail sours with Collins and Highballs because within those lessons, you get everybody to understand all of the different tools, techniques, terminology, ingredients, and that opens the door for them to understand everything else. It’s funny because now I’m working with these people in the company that have consumer product backgrounds in building these companies. I’m a bartender, and I’m teaching people. I had to curb myself from getting too complicated. Too complicated means even just measuring.
H: You talk in ratios. Two parts to one part, that’s a great easy mix. We kept going to that “keep it simple, stupid, ‘kiss’ philosophy.” I just started to think that even shaking with a shaker is too hard for people. What does shaking do? Shaking gives you chill and dilution. If you put ice in a glass and pour in your spirit — you pour in your Fresh Victor — you just add a little water. You don’t have to shake. Now you’ve got an even faster, easier drink. It’s that simple.
A: I know on the side of the bottle, I haven’t seen any sort of instructions for that. Are you sort of getting that message across to people in terms of the idea of adding a little bit of water instead of wanting to shake?
H: I’ve been injecting that into some of my recipes and my videos lately. Every time I write a new recipe, I do the traditional. Put in a cocktail shaker, shake it hard, strain over ice. I’ll do a build versus shake, two different approaches. Then, I also try to always include a non-alcoholic version, and if possible, a low-ABV version.
A: Oh, wow. That is a lot.
H: Well, it’s just constantly developing content, showing people how to use it. Once they understand what it is, the next question is, do you have any recipes? I’ve been building recipes and then having a photographer shoot them. Getting all of these great, easy ways of doing it out there. That concept of just adding the water, I started thinking about six months ago. How do I make it even easier? How do I dumb it down even more? I don’t say dumb it down to make anybody feel talked down to it, but just making it easier because that’s what is resonating with people. I want it even easier. Even when I would teach my mixology classes, I would teach these people, and they would love it. Now they’ve got the skills that they know how to cut lime and squeeze it and turn it into a Margarita. But at the end of the day, they don’t want to even do it, even though they know it. It’s much easier just to open a bottle and pour.
A: Yeah, that’s true. Where can people find the recipes? If they get Fresh Victor, can they go on the site? I know that’s where I found a few of them. It was mostly on Instagram. Where should people go now that they listened to the podcast? They’re interested in trying Fresh Victor. If they want to make recipes that are in addition to the one I think that comes on the side of each bottle, where would you push them to discover the recipes you’re creating?
H: The best central resource for that right now is Instagram. If you go back through our Instagram account, you’ll find lots of recipes. We’ve been engaging with a lot of different people, and so you’re seeing a whole bunch of people and their recipes. I can’t vouch for all of them. They’re mostly good. They’re not always mine. We are in the process right now of having our website completely redesigned, and the idea is to have a centralized database and repository for all of the recipes. For those listening, you’re welcome to just email me at email@example.com. I can send PDFs that have lists. We’ve been around a bit, but as a growing consumer product company, we are still at a fairly nascent stage. There are those growing pains that we’re going through. We’ve got to get to the point where all of that information is more readily and easily accessible. In the meantime, that’s why I’m here. Feel free to send me an email, and I’d be glad to share everything I’ve got.
A: I’m going to ask you a question right now. I’ve made your Jungle Bird. I’ve made the Whiskey Sour. I’ve played around a bunch with the Margarita’. I was making my own Tommy’s Margaritas this summer. Then, I realized yours is a lot easier because it’s a lot easier to just use Fresh Victor. I love tequila, whiskey, and gin. What should I make next with Fresh Victor?
H: On the tequila front, I would say my drink of the summer last year, and I’m still drinking it, is what I call the Pom Paloma. Using our Cactus and Pomegranate in a Paloma, where I use either a grapefruit soda or seltzer more than, say, a squirt. I’m big on the Q Spectacular, the way they call Spectacular Grapefruit or the Spindrift Grapefruit Soda, Ruby Red Grapefruit Soda. Those have real nice grapefruit flavor, but they’re really kind of dry.
H: All of our stuff is pretty well sweet-and-sour balanced. There’s definitely sweet there. If you start pouring sodas on it, you’re starting to lean sweet. In these kinds of things, I like to lean on drier products. Tequila, grapefruit soda, 2 ounces of Cactus and Pomegranate, pinch of salt, squeeze of lime, build it and stir it. That’s a great go-to for me. My daughter saw me making them, so I just stopped making it with tequila. So I make that as a mocktail for her, and she loves it.
A: Very cool. Well, H., thank you so much for taking the time, and for telling us about Fresh Victor. Where can people find Fresh Victor if they want to order it?
H: Freshvictor.com or shop.freshvictor.com (that’s our direct-to-consumer site). That’s the fastest way to find it. We are growing rapidly in traditional retail, but that’s the way to get it tomorrow.
A: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I think it’s a really awesome product. I have to say, when I first got it, I asked, “Do I see a need for this?” Now, I definitely see the need for it, and it has helped me make a lot more cocktails than I ever would have made before. Keep up the awesome work, and stay in touch.
H: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give 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 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 shoutout to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting 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.