How, when, and why did you start distilling?
I was always really passionate about food and the desire to improve the food system or make something innovative that would be something that could bring joy to people. Prior to starting Wheyward Spirit and venturing into business, I was a food scientist and worked for nearly a decade as a product developer in the food and beverage industry. As a developer, I created unique formulas from prototype through production, gaining a strong technical background in fermentation and commercialization.
I brought a lot of my background in product development—along with a healthy dose of curiosity and creativity—into my approach with distillation. What gave me the push to launch Wheyward was being at the crossroads of seeing the problem of whey waste first hand, having the technical ability to tackle it, seeing the huge market gap for consumers like me who cared about where their beverages came from in the spirit industry, and feeling uninspired at how narrow the traditional product categories were. This inspired me that, if I took a design-thinking approach to the distillation process, I could really create something special that would benefit the consumer and the environment.
To learn more about distillation early on, I read a lot, took courses, spoke with other distillers, and wrote many grants to help fund my development. I was blown away at how lovely even my first distillation was. It really drove me to learn more about the craft and find ways to create our signature flavor naturally through fermentation, and how, through distillation, we could concentrate and refine that flavor purely through the cuts we make. I continue to learn more every day and really enjoy working with and collaborating with other innovative distillers who are experts in their craft.
When did you found Wheyward Spirit?
I founded Wheyward Spirit almost three years ago now, but it’s something I had been thinking about for a while. Being at the crossroads of the problem and having exposure to the impact I could make in the category through entrepreneurship gave me the push to proceed with it fully and make it a reality. I feel like the universe gave me signs to go, so I went!
Share a proud professional moment
Launching Wheyward Spirit was a huge accomplishment. I had launched products before but always as a part of a larger organization, so I had a frame of reference and high standards for success. What got me excited enough to jump into entrepreneurship was the opportunity to create something fundamentally different from a product, mission, and supply chain impact perspective. That meant before launch there was tons of work to flush out our concept, product, and build a “Herd” of supporters, from suppliers to consumers, who also believed in what we’re doing to get enough support to bring a product like this to market.
I was literally the person with a prototype and a story who spoke to everyone I could for several years to make this a reality. It was a proud moment to have some of those early supporters from across the country now being able to buy some of the first bottles available online and hearing their feedback on how much they genuinely enjoyed it.
What’s been your biggest challenge in 2020?
There have been many challenges, but the unpredictability of everything has certainly kept us on our toes. Coming to market this year has presented obstacles for us but also created opportunities that we were able to recognize and, being nimble, adapt too.
The impact of COVID-19 to on-premise accounts has been huge and influenced on our go-to-market strategy. We love bartenders, mixologists and restaurateurs; we feel they’re kindred spirits in their creative approaches to their craft and we are there to support them in their recovery. But many outlets are in survival mode and can’t support the same diversity of offerings they have in the past.
The challenges that on-premise accounts face triggered us to pivot our go-to-market strategy early in the year to an online sales channel. It’s turned out to be a great platform for our brand. We’re continuing to build that out in parallel with strategic retail accounts.
I think the impacts of 2020 will be long-lasting on the alcohol industry as a whole, and there will be a big shift in opening up new markets, such as online channels, which we’re excited about. I think it’s a really great platform for brands like ours, with a mission-driven origin story and speciality product, that can uniquely connect with consumers across the country.
We also think it will democratize choice and convenience for consumers. I think it will bring more innovation to traditional categories and free up retailers to diversify their product mix.
What keeps you grounded?
Entrepreneurship is an incredibly humbling road, and having to navigate all parts of the business—from fundraising to branding and technical—all in unison, to bring a product you’re proud of to market, is quite an anchor. Having all this occur while growing our team and navigating the twists and turns of 2020 really kept things in perspective. It’s helped us to keep focus on what we’re doing and the fight to keep doing better every day, because our goals are big and our mission is important.
What beverage is inspiring you right now?
As an innovator and someone who really takes a view that new products should benefit the consumer and the world they live in, I love products that are looking at existing food supply chains to add value to them. I also get excited when new beverages blur existing categories.
The introduction of things like hard seltzers gave a big disruptive push to the alcohol industry a few years ago, and I’m always excited when there’s an artisan approach to the “speciality spirit” category where we play. There’s immense opportunity to really create categories and push innovation into the industry by not having to follow narrow definitions of what a spirit must taste like. I look forward to the growth of the speciality spirit category, as that’s where I think a lot of this innovation will come from. I really like buying new products I see in this space.
Who do you admire?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have met great mentors and supporters along my journey, but many I have come to admire are the women in spirits who are some of the most creative, generous and tenacious people I have met in any industry.
Three that come to mind—for what they’ve accomplished through trailblazing their own path and their generosity in the support they have shown me—are Nicole Portwood (vice president of marketing, Tito’s Vodka), Karen Hoskin (co-founder of Montanya Distillers) and Carin Luna-Ostaseki (founder of SIA Scotch Whiskey).
How does it feel to be one of the Most Admired?
This is a huge accomplishment and I’m incredibly honored to be recognized!
Our vision was to change the way people look at spirits through our product, which has a unique yet versatile flavor and a mission-driven impact. This has meant pushing through lots of headwinds and, by necessity, created the “Wheyward mentality” to buck the status quo and do things differently for the right reasons to get here.
I hope it connects us to more customers and makers who also believe innovation and sustainability should be a part of the category, and that creating a spirit from scratch with a unique approach and flavor is the future of craft spirits.