Airing between regular episodes of the “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at [email protected].
On this episode of “Next Round,” Adam invites Brooks Reitz, the founder of Jack Rudy, on the show to discuss how his beloved tonic syrup recipe was the impetus for his successful cocktail accessory brand. Jack Rudy, which is about to celebrate 10 years of operation, grew from being a locally produced mixer brand to an online enterprise that offers kitchenware, bar materials, and craft cocktail garnishes.
Tune in to hear how Reitz develops his tasty syrups and mixers, using a dash of personal preference and a whole lot of restaurant experience. According to Reitz, nothing’s more important for a cocktail than being bright and fresh. It’s clear this philosophy carries over to his business as well, since he works tirelessly to make accessible, ready-made classics with a modern twist.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations during our regular scheduled podcast to give everyone a better idea of what’s going on during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m joined by the founder and CEO of Jack Rudy, Brooks Reitz. Brooks, thanks so much for joining me.
Brooks: Thank you, Adam, for having me. Honored to be here.
A: I love your products. Some people may not be familiar with them, though. So before we jump into anything we want to chat about today, please give me a rundown of what Jack Rudy is.
B: So in October of this year, we’ll actually be celebrating our 10-year anniversary. We are a producer of cocktail mixers, bar tools, and accessories, and we distribute those across the country and internationally. That’s the easiest way to describe what it is we do, although that is changing a little bit this year.
A: How did you found it?
B: So I came up in the restaurant business. I’m actually still in the business. I own three restaurants here in Charleston. But before I opened those restaurants, I was working for other people and was managing a restaurant here in Charleston called Fig, which had a lot of James Beard attention. I was there as the general manager and when I joined Fig — this is probably about 11 years ago — they were very well respected on the culinary front, but their bar program was a bit staid. That’s because Charleston had just transitioned from airplane bottles to full bottles; it had been previously illegal to sell full bottles of booze in South Carolina. You had to work with airplane bottles. Because of that, all of the restaurants in Charleston were behind the times. I had moved to Charleston from Louisville, Ky., and I had worked at a property there that had quite a progressive cocktail program. Part of my undertaking as a general manager was to reinvent our bar program. To make a long story short, I noticed that there were a number of domestic gins and even international gins that we were beginning to stock and that our customers were really starting to be interested in, but there was no premium mixer. So I set out to essentially offer the customers an upgrade and up-sell to their gin and tonic by making tonic syrup. It was never my intention to turn it into a business until I noted the reaction of our customers. That’s when I realized I could bottle this, turn it into a proper company. If people like it at this restaurant, I believe people might like it outside of this restaurant. That’s really how it all started.
A: For those that aren’t familiar with tonic syrups as opposed to tonic water, what does it bring to the drink? What are you using instead of tonic water when you’re making, like, a gin and tonic?
B: We make a tonic syrup, and we also make carbonated ready-to-drink tonic water. You can, of course, use a tonic syrup for a traditional gin and tonic. So in that case, you would take gin, you would measure your tonic syrup, which is effectively a concentrate of the flavor of tonic water, and then you would add soda water to dilute it and add the bubbles. That makes a great gin and tonic. The beautiful thing about it is you can really control the intensity of the tonic flavor that you’re getting when you’re using the syrup. The most special thing is the application outside of a traditional gin and tonic. So, for example, something we make that’s become immensely popular is the frozen gin and tonic. We serve that at my restaurant, Leon’s, and it’s the best-selling cocktail. We have sold it for years. In that case, you wouldn’t be able to use tonic water and put that with gin into a frozen drink machine because the flavor wouldn’t be concentrated enough. So we use water, gin, tonic syrup, and then it freezes and turns into this beautiful frozen gin and tonic. We’ve also collaborated with Sipsmith in England, which is a great London dry gin, and we created a drink together called the Gin Toasty, which is a hot gin and tonic. It’s gin and tonic syrup, and then you add hot water, and serve it in a little teacup. Folks who’ve never had it that are always like, “I’m not sure this sounds good.” We serve it at another one of my restaurants, and it’s a huge hit. People love it. So for those kinds of uses, the tonic syrup is really great for. But if people prefer to pop and pour, we have options for that as well.
A: How did you decide to create the business, and what did that look like for you? Did you just decide to sell it locally in Charleston? Obviously, now you can find the products all over the place. I’m really curious about the story of how you went from “people want to buy this tonic syrup” to “I’m going to create an entire brand.” I also really want to know about the name.
B: In creating it, there were two things that happened that were kind of watershed moments for the company. So I had the realization, “OK, I’m hearing from a few customers a night that love this stuff. So I think that there might be a taste for this in a wider application.” So I sought out to start bottling it and did a lot of research about how to put it in a bottle and have it approved by the FDA so you can resell it. I started bottling it in a facility here in Charleston, just making it by hand. The big thing that set us off on the right path was that the chef, Sean Brock, was opening his restaurant Husk at that time. Husk went on to just be an absolute media smash for years, and it’s still packed, although Sean has moved on. When he opened, he wanted to taste the tonic because he had just read locally that I was doing it. He said, “I want to serve this in the restaurant and it’ll be the only tonic we serve.” That was a big boost to me because so much media was coming through Husk, and it was on the cocktail list. Inevitably, I benefited from the attention that restaurant was getting. That was a big thing. Then, because Fig was also one of the best restaurants and we were serving the tonic at Fig, randomly one day a group of guys came in who worked for a company that’s since been bought by a very large distributor. They were wine and liquor wholesalers, and they tried it. They loved it. The guy called me over and he was like, “Tell me more about this.” I said, “I’m just making it here locally.” And he said, “Do you have any distribution?” I told him: “No, I don’t. I’m just making deliveries in my car.” He gave me his card. He said to follow up with him the next week because he wanted to chat more. Long story short, we spoke on the phone. He didn’t have a mixer brand in his portfolio, and he wanted to start working with the tonic. So he placed a huge order. I very quickly had to get very serious and find a facility to co-pack the product for me. We’ve been working with them since that day, and we’ve grown on the tails of their growth. We’re still the only mixer brand in their portfolio, and of course, we’ve grown substantially. Just this week, we released our Bloody Mary mix. We’ve really diversified what we offer since those days.
A: So talk to me about what you offer now. I’ve been aware of the brand for a while, but I definitely see that you’ve grown. I’ve seen that you even have olive oil now. You’ve got cocktail cherries. I’ve got to tell you, actually, this is a pain point — I’m going to air my grievances now — even in Brooklyn, N.Y., cocktail cherries are hard to find. It’s really rare to find good ones. Myself, like a lot of listeners, have really taken up making a lot more cocktails during quarantine. I used to have my go-tos, but now I’m making Last Words and more Manhattans and I need cocktail cherries. I had to go to Manhattan, to Eataly, to get some Luxardo cherries because I couldn’t find them anywhere. So you make a lot of stuff now — is it all related to cocktails? I assume the olive oil is, sort of, but it’s also an olive oil that I could use, I would assume, for my salad. So I’m curious about where the product line is going.
B: Yeah. The mixer component of our portfolio has really grown, big time. We have a tonic syrup: extra bitter tonic, elderflower tonic. We have grenadine, bitters. We have the Bloody Mary, we have Margarita mix. Then our consumable garnishes: We have the bourbon-soaked cocktail cherries and the vermouth-brined olives. We built that portfolio out. We also now produce bar tools: things like ice molds, bar spoons, jiggers, shakers, mixing glasses. Just last year we added what we call “Jack Rudy Kitchen,” taking the same attention and care with the products that we use in the bar and looking at the kitchen. The olive oil is part of that new product line. Next month, we’ll be releasing our maple syrup and a bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup.
A: We love bourbon-barrel-aged syrup, so we have to talk about that.
B: I will absolutely send you a bottle. I have some cherries in the mail to you as well. That will help your Last Word garnishes very soon. That’s where we’re headed. At the end of the year, we’re rebranding and shaking up our ready-to-drink, which currently is just our ready-to-drink tonic, and we’re adding a diet tonic and a ginger tonic. That will release at the end of the year — some very exciting stuff. As many businesses experienced in 2020, we just absolutely just boomed last year with people at home making more drinks, shopping online, and becoming more comfortable with finding things online. It’s been incredible.
A: I’m curious about that. You own three restaurants. So on that side of the business, I cannot imagine that the pandemic has been easy, as it hasn’t been for anyone. But on the off-premise side, we have seen a lot of people turn to making cocktails at home. What trends have you seen amongst the people who are buying Jack Rudy products? Are you hearing from the customers in terms of what kind of cocktails they’re making? And where are they finding you?
A: So trend-wise, I’m just seeing a lot more experimentation. A lot of people are back to work now, but in that two- month period that started in the middle of March, people took to Instagram and to the internet and they were learning about baking bread, and about laying tile, and they were learning about making cocktails and cooking. I think that was this incredible time when all this interest was really fomented, and people started to take a lot more risks with their drinking (and just drinking more because this has been a stressful year.) In good times and bad, for better or worse, alcohol consumption is part of our coping. We just saw more interest in general in buying online and in videos that I was making. I showed people how to make a frozen gin and tonic, and it sort of felt like we broke the internet for a day, at least in my little corner of the internet. I think that that interest has not waned. I think people have developed a comfort with mixing cocktails at home, and there’s a certain confidence, so they’re coming back to us again and again. It’s been incredible. I think they’re finding us through a number of avenues, since we’ve been around for almost a decade. We’re kind of like the smallest large company ever. We have a great website. We do big business on the website. If you’re searching for tonic or small-batch cocktail mixers, you’re going to find us. Because of my exposure in the media, through my restaurants, I’ve been fortunate in that a mention of one of the restaurants will also tie in Jack Rudy. I’m very fortunate that press features are very complimentary to the entities that I’m behind.
A: So you’re expanding into Jack Rudy Kitchen, and making more ready-to-drink beverages. One of the biggest booms we’ve obviously seen this year, and I’m sure you have as well, is ready-to-drink cocktails. You have a brand that people know that already makes mixers, and that already helps you make cocktails. Have you at all thought about actual cocktails under the Jack Rudy brand?
B: Of course I have, because I’m a restless entrepreneur. What I have found, though, is that there is so much red tape and bureaucracy and forms to fill out. We’ve certainly entertained that, and I just find that the non-alc space, it’s not regulated, and it’s a lot easier to deal with. Until we get much, much larger and we can compete with the marketing budgets of the Diageos and Pernod Ricards of the world, I think we are happy staying in our lane and kind of owning the non-alcoholic space. We have huge hopes for our ready-to-drink — that will be the line which will be reintroduced at the end of the year. I still think that until we’ve fully tapped out our potential with our core business, we probably won’t be looking to the ready-to-drink cocktails. But you’re right, it’s been very interesting. I’ve tried a lot of them. I still feel like there’s room to do it better. But it takes a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of paperwork that I’m not patient enough to fill out at the moment.
A: I totally understand. Once you add a controlled substance, it becomes a lot more difficult. I think you’re right — there definitely is space. There are some people, obviously, some who have been on the podcast, who are doing it well. For some reason, getting those flavors right seems very challenging once spirits are involved.
B: For example, a Negroni is one that several people are doing, but it’s not as easy as going and buying Beefeater, Campari, and Carpano and putting it in a tank, and then putting it in a can. A lot of these guys are reengineering the flavor of Campari as best they can, but you just can’t replicate it. Campari is absolutely essential to a great classic Negroni. So if you get into this thing of “I’m going to try to get as close to Campari as I can,” I don’t know. I just feel like the final outcome leaves something to be desired.
A: I agree with you. They’ve come close, but they’re just not that cocktail that most people love. I’ve noticed, covering the spirits world for a long time, even though we say that the Negroni is a classic third, third, third, so many different bars make it with different proportions. You may have one that you love that has a little bit more Campari in it, or it’s a little bit more gin, or it’s vermouth-heavy, and that’s the Negroni you’ve come to love. Then you have it in a box or in a can and it just isn’t that Negroni. So yeah, it’s hard.
B: I think that’s the beauty of making mixers. People can toy with the proportions, you know, but if you’re buying it in a can, effectively, you get what you get. With our Margarita mix, we have a suggested recipe, but if you like it a little sweeter, or more a robust flavor of tequila, you can go one way or the other. As for the canned stuff, I’ll be really interested to see where that goes. Same with the non-alcoholic “spirits” that we’re seeing. I’m very interested to see where those will be in five years.
A: Totally. So talk to me a little about the mixers: the Margarita and the Bloody Mary. Are you basing those off recipes you had created previously behind the bar? What goes into creating a mixer that you feel confident a majority of people will like?
B: That’s a great question. Both of those that you mentioned were huge labors of love. I am mad about a Margarita. I absolutely love a great, well-balanced Margarita. My favorite recipe is the Tommy’s Margarita. It’s just perfect. I never would have been the guy who would have used a Margarita mix, because I’m coming from the restaurant business where you squeeze your own limes, you’re making the syrups yourself — you don’t take a shortcut. Also, all the mixes that I’ve ever come across were cloyingly sweet, and I hated them. One, I had a baby, and I realized that I’m growing up and becoming more mature. And as your time shrinks, I realized I’m now a guy who, if there was a mix that was good enough, I’d use it. I’m no longer snobby about it, I guess. That began the conversation around the Margarita. The Margarita is 100 percent based on the Tommy’s Margarita recipe — so lime and agave, basically. It’s incredibly well balanced. What I like is equal parts tequila and Margarita mix. I’m actually intrigued to do this once we can have friends over more freely, but I want to do a taste test of a fresh Tommy’s versus our mix, because I’m just mad about our mix. It’s so, so good. It’s the same story for the Bloody Mary mix, without taking too much time. I’ll tell you, my dad has his own Bloody Mary kit. It’s a converted gym bag that he travels with. He’s been doing this since we went off to college, and he and my mother would come to visit. He’d bring his Bloody Mary kit. They have a Bloody Mary without fail every single Sunday in a big Tervis tumbler. They’re great entertainers. That’s where I got my love for restaurants and food. My folks love food. They love drinks. We grew up around that. But I’m the only one in my family who didn’t like my dad’s Bloody Mary, much to his chagrin.
A: I’m sure he loves to hear that.
B: Oh, my God, we’ve had a lot of it. We’ve gone ‘round and ‘round about it. But I do like Bloody Marys. When I’ve had them in particular places, the places that come to mind would be: Prune in New York, Bar Termini in London, The Connaught Hotel in London. And the ones that I always liked were very fresh, very bright, and had lots of lemon. Again, they were well-balanced, because I felt like so many Bloody Marys were a bit too saucy for me — a little thick, a little more like a barbecue sauce. I favor things that are light, bright, and fresh. So this Bloody Mary was inspired by the ones that we’ve had in those places. I think the thing that sets it apart is the use of lemon, which gives it just an incredible brightness, and it makes it very refreshing. It’s great in a Bloody Mary or a Red Snapper. I do half and half with beer for kind of a Michelada. It’s not a traditional Michelada, but it’s damn good. So those are our two most recent releases. They’re off to an incredible start, and I’m very, very excited about them.
A: Very cool. Well, one last question for you, because you are in Charleston. That was actually my last trip before all of this happened. We were one of the sponsors of the Food and Wine Festival there last year, right before it all. How is everyone doing there? How are your restaurants doing? What does it feel like in Charleston in late February, coming in early March, the week before the festival would begin?
B: Well, Adam, it’s crazy. We have been very lucky. There’s a lot of people on both sides of the argument about how open we should be. It’s a very nuanced discussion. But I’ll just say this: Charleston and South Carolina, we shut down for two months and then reopened. When we reopened, we could only reopen at low capacity at first. But now — I don’t recall when it happened — but for several months we’ve been at 100 percent capacity. It’s been allowed. While my restaurants are not at 100 percent capacity, we have two very great things that have happened. A, there’s a huge appetite to go out to eat, so we’re busy. And B, the city allowed the restaurants here, as they have in New York and other places, to occupy outdoor space that previously they weren’t able to. So, for example, at one of my restaurants, Little Jack’s, we’ve turned our driveway into a huge patio and it doubled our occupancy. But it’s outdoors, and those seats are full. So we have been incredibly lucky that everyone’s back to work, the restaurants are busy, and in some cases, we’re doing more sales in some of the restaurants than we did pre-Covid because of our outdoor seating.
A: Do you think that the outdoor seating will remain? In New York, we’re hearing that this is probably a thing forever now. Do you think it’ll be the same for Charleston?
B: I do sense that same energy around it. All of the stories that we told ourselves, or that maybe the city told themselves, of lawlessness because there are seats everywhere. None of that’s happened, and I think that it’s here to stay. It’s been a game changer for some of our properties. We have been incredibly lucky, and knock on wood, we’re going to come out of this whole experience much stronger even than we were pre-Covid.
A: Amazing. Well, Brooks, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really appreciate it. It’s been awesome to learn more about Jack Rudy. I wish you all the best as we all come out of this thing.
B: Thanks so much. I love what you guys do, and it was an honor to be on the podcast.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or whatever it is you get. 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 are 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.