TODAY'S PAPER

Raising the bar: Empower Cocktails brings feminism to the booze biz in the #MeToo era

Tiffany Hall left behind a legal career to found Empower Cocktails, a ready-to-drink beverage company that aims to be inclusive of female consumers. / Empower Cocktails

Empower Cocktails, a ready-to-drink NYC-based beverage company, focuses on empowering and celebrating women through its branding, marketing and charity partnerships, a mission that has become painfully relevant in a post-#MeToo world.

Following a successful career in what she considered to be a male-dominated marketplace, Tiffany Hall, New York lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, decided that if no one else was going to make the distilled beverage industry inclusive of women, she would. She left her legal job at big industry player Pernod Ricard, and soon after beginning a new role at a corporate law firm, founded Empower Cocktails.

“I saw so many different target consumers and not a lot for women,” Hall said of her time at Pernod. “The idea for us was to create something for women as the preferred group.”

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Before working in the alcoholic beverage industry, Hall held several jobs in marketing, at various advertising firms and an auction house, so she felt well-versed on the branding side of the business, in addition to the legal.

“I had experience in the liquor world, and I felt it was within my realm,” she said.

Empower partners with several nonprofits that focus on women's initiatives.

“The wine and spirits industry is very unique,” Hall said. “It’s really fun, but it’s also a great place to see how to market to different consumers.”

With no prior experience in manufacturing or production, Hall set about building Empower Cocktails with a launch date of late 2015. She quickly learned that “every little piece counts—from cap to bottle.”

She funded the new business entirely on her own. Her legal background proved invaluable when it came time to maneuver through the thicket of regulations that govern the alcohol industry.

Empowered branding

Hall’s mission of female empowerment was not an obvious translation to the company’s branding. While she wanted to celebrate women with the bottle and product, she did not want to isolate male consumers or fall victim to any stereotypes of what women seek.

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“We wanted to do something different,” said Hall. “It was all about attention to detail, and we wanted the cocktail to be great inside and outside the bottle.”

She decided on a “hefty but attractive” glass bottle that features a prominent inky, pink “w” on its white label.

“I wanted it to be nice enough to display on a shelf after you’ve finished it,” the founder said of the 750ml bottle, which retails from $20.99 to $25.99.

The sweet (potato) life

When it came to choosing the actual liquor for Empower, Hall knew she wanted to do something untraditional that would give customers another option when buying booze. “I wanted to use a sweet potato vodka that was produced in the United States,” Hall said, noting that most vodka is made from wheat or rye.

In her search for such a producer, Hall came across a family-owned sweet potato farm in northern California. After learning more about the farm from afar, the Empower CEO decided to go across the country to pay a visit.

“I had no idea who they were,” said Hall, whose family and friends were rather skeptical about her journey. “I even remember my mother asking me to call her once I’d arrived so she’d know I was safe!” she said.

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After arriving to the farm, situated an hour outside of Fresno, Hall knew she had found the right producer and has been working with them ever since.

Cosmos all around

Determining which cocktail would be Empower’s first, however, was not so easy. “When dealing with a new brand, you want an easy, familiar point of entry,” Hall said.

After a good amount of field research and some help from family and friends, the classic Cosmopolitan was the clear direction to go, she said.

Empower debuted its first cocktail, the “Cosmopolitan Martini,” nearly three years ago and has welcomed resulting growth in both its sales and reputation.

When the brand first launched, Empower was sold only in select New York and Connecticut stores. The “Cosmopolitan Martini” is now stocked in 30 stores across five states and was recently featured in the MTV Video Music Awards gift bag.

Hall hopes that Empower will soon be available nationally, especially as it launches additional cocktails, and her friends and family are working diligently to help her meet this goal.

“I think my mom is my best salesperson,” she said, noting how proud and supportive her parents are of the company.

Giving back

At the core of Empower’s message is helping women, so it seemed only natural that the brand would partner with various nonprofit organizations that focus on women’s initiatives.

Empower has worked with the Voss Foundation, Dress for Success Boston, Kicked it in Heels and the Metro-Manhattan Community Foundation over the last few years and plans to expand that list in the future.

“Early on, it’s been monetary support and product supply for their events, but as we grow, I’d like to help create each organization’s programs as well,” said Hall.

#MeToo and more

Empower’s mission seems perhaps more timely than ever, in the near year since the #MeToo movement began, and Hall said she could not be happier to be a part of such an important point in women’s history.

“I launched before this wave of women’s empowerment began,” she said, “but I think women should always be vocal and have their voices heard. I’m happy to finally see a forum for it.”

Although Hall built Empower Cocktails after noticing a dearth of female-driven beverages while working for Pernod, many of the big players in the liquor business have since caught up.

“I think we are more aware as an industry and starting to see a positive change in the spirits industry in terms of gender balance,” said Paula Glickenhaus, vice president & Women in Leadership global lead for Bacardi.

She believes balanced marketing lies first and foremost within balanced employment.

“At Bacardi, we want to make sure our employee make-up reflects the markets and consumers we serve,” said Glickenhaus. “In the U.S. alone, women make up half of all spirits drinkers and account for one third of the volume…so the gender balance not only makes business sense, but successful marketing of spirits today is dependent upon appealing equally to women and men.”

Bacardi has launched a number of in-house initiatives—including Spirit Forward, which celebrates outstanding individuals in the trade, and Women in Leadership, which focuses on female leadership within the company—to combat the “man-centric” reputation of the industry.

Diageo, another leader in the alcoholic beverage world, boasts similar gender parity. Earlier this year, the company announced that 40 percent of its executive committee is now composed of women. Its recent introduction of Johnnie Walker Black Label: The Jane Walker Edition donates $1 for every bottle made to organizations that champion women’s causes.

Despite industry progress, though, Empower Cocktails remains one of only a few liquor brands targeted entirely to a female audience, and many women identify not only with the company’s mission but with Hall as well.

“I hope that my story empowers women to follow their own dreams,” Hall said.