A family tradition of afternoon cocktails helped inspire a pair of Texas sisters to create their own pre-mixed cocktail brand that’s now sold in New York City stores and at venues like Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre.
“We both loved the idea of creating a new product and bringing it to market,” says Austin Cocktails’ Jill Burns, who handles the creative side of the business, while sister Kelly Gasink is in charge of all things finance. “It’s so important to have fresh eyes so you can see how to best disrupt the industry,” she adds.
Austin Cocktails’ roots go back to their childhood summers, when they escaped the blistering heat of their native Texas and went to their grandparents’ Minnesota farm.
Their grandfather, Fred, would invite family and friends over at precisely 5 p.m. to enjoy one of his own, homemade cocktails. Quickly dubbed “cocktail time” by the sisters, these daily moments formed memories that would last a lifetime and a connection that would connect the family to their grandfather’s farm and to a love of cocktails.
Jill and Kelly carried this passion with them through adulthood, to Ivy League schools and careers in marketing and tech entrepreneurship, respectively, and continued the “Cocktail Time” tradition with their own families. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that the sisters considered turning their penchant for yummy drinks and Fred’s legacy into a brand of their own. Both had seen professional success and had come to a place in each of their fields where they were ready for a new challenge.
“We always wanted to work together, and all these things really came together very serendipitously,” says Jill.
At the same time, the sisters came across the statistic that female-founded companies account for just 4 percent of private sector revenue (it’s now 4.3 percent, according to an American Express report) and that only 2 percent of these businesses had a valuation of more than $1 million. “It helped us realize just how much work still needed to be done,” says Kelly. They knew that it was time for them to go into business, and when it came to determine what exactly that business would be, cocktails were an obvious choice.
“We’re not curing cancer or anything, but we know that we can play a big part in the progress of women in this arena and in business more broadly,” Kelly adds.
The sisters spent the next year and a half evolving a few basic ideas for cocktails into full-fledged products, using the best ingredients available and vetting every fruit, herb and spice around. “One of the things we wanted to do,” Jill explains, “was create really accessible drinks while maintaining craft quality and using only natural ingredients.”
She and Kelly landed on five cocktails for their launch in 2014. There was “Fred’s Ruby Red,” an homage to their grandfather that blends vodka with grapefruit, lime, mint and a bit of agave; the “Cucumber Mojito,” a mix of vodka, cucumber, mint, lime, and once again, a little agave; the “Perfect Bergamot Orange Margarita,” a bestseller that sees tequila combined with bergamot orange, triple sec, lime and agave; and the “Tea Twister” and “Paradise Found,” which are no longer available.
Since its launch almost five years ago, Austin Cocktails has also introduced two new cocktails: the “New School Gin Mule,” which fuses gin, lime, ginger, natural spice, tonic and agave, and the “Peppered Maple Blood Orange Bourbon Cocktail,” a blend of premium 21 percent rye bourbon, blood orange, maple, pepper, sea salt and agave. The drinks are all crafted in Austin.
Each bottle is branded with Austin Cocktails’ simple label, which features Texas’s signature lone star and lists each drink’s ingredients in a cocktail-corresponding color. “We wanted our drinks to be something that both men and women could enjoy,” says Jill. The cocktails retail for $13.99 at most stores and contain enough for four or five servings.
By the end of 2019, Austin Cocktails will be available in 14 states, from California to Connecticut, and the pre-mixed drinks can be found at stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“We never anticipated the fascination with our family story,” says Kelly. “People have really become interested in the background of Austin Cocktails and look to our grandpa Fred’s tradition as inspiration.”
Jill and Kelly still find that many of the people they interact with on a decision-making level are predominantly male, but they’re hopeful for the future of the industry. “We remain ruggedly optimistic about how much progress can still come about,” they say.