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In this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter sits down with co-founders of Crafthouse Cocktails Matt Lindner and Charles Joly. Throughout the pandemic, the BevAlc space has done everything in its power to move into the world of RTD cocktails. Nevertheless, when Joly and Lindner set out to launch Crafthouse in 2011, well-made, ready-to-serve cocktails were a hard sell.
With decades of experience between them, the co-founders began this project after sharing their cocktail recipes with regulars. Eventually, they realized there was a larger audience thirsty for convenient, specially crafted cocktails, launching their brand in the hopes of providing real cocktails that could be consumed with no hassle — or bar knowledge — required.
Many advised them against using the quality ingredients they saw necessary, but Joly and Lindner stuck to their guns. They refused shortcuts and partnered with spirits brands they believed in to ensure their products stood the test of time. Now, they can celebrate that hard work and share their craft cocktails with people around the country.
Or check out the conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to give a fuller picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m joined by Matt Lindner and Charles Joly, founders of Crafthouse. Guys, thanks so much for joining me.
Matt: Thanks for having us.
Charles: Yeah, thanks for having us.
A: So, before we get into everything I want to get into —because I’m really excited to have you guys on, especially given what’s happening in the world of cocktails right now — can you give the listeners and myself a little bit of background on who you are and who Crafthouse Cocktails is?
M: Sure I can, I’ll get started. This is Matt. So my background for the last 30 years, which dates me a bit, has been in the restaurant hospitality world, mostly in Chicago, where I started a little neighborhood bar and grill called Bird’s Nest. From there, I expanded out, meeting Charles in 1999. He and I continued to develop different concepts again in and around Chicago. Cans Bar and Canteen was one, and several others. In 2007, we started a place called The Drawing Room, which was a classic and craft cocktail bar where the idea of Crafthouse stemmed from when we were doing that classic cocktail before a lot of people nationally were — of course, in New York and San Francisco and out there maybe in Chicago. And so we have been lifelong in the hospitality industry. And this was a natural transition to go into Crafthouse.
A: Very cool. Charles?.
C: Yeah. So I too have been in the hospitality industry my entire adult life. And, I started, as many do, on accident in this business in my very early 20s and have done just about every job that you can imagine in it. I was a busboy for one day actually, before I got moved up to barback, and then I barbacked for several years before I earned a spot behind the bar and worked my way up to manager and then became the operations director of a bar group that Matt was a partner in. And I just fell in love with the energy of it. And then when we opened the Drawing Room in ‘07, as Matt had mentioned, there was no cocktail movement happening in Chicago to really speak of. It was a bit of great timing and happy accidents and being in the right place at the right time with the right work ethic. And also my finding a real niche and my love in the industry, which combined both the energy and the hospitality with cocktails and starting to research and learn about all these classic cocktails and the history behind them — using fresh ingredients, working with chefs to inspire my cocktail creations.
A: Interesting. So from there, how is Crafthouse born, and what gives you guys the idea to start this company?
M: Yeah Charles, you want to talk about this scenario?
C: Yeah, I could pick that up. It happened truly organically. I know you hear that all the time. People are always talking about “Oh we want things to happen organically.” But this really did, we did not start a bottle cocktail company with the idea of, “The next big business plan.” It was because we knew about entertaining. We knew about making cocktails delicious. And we saw a need for it from our guests at the bar, at the Drawing Room. I recall a moment that really, was seemingly mundane at the time but was pretty pivotal in that our hostess comes over to me behind the bar mid-shift and is like, “oh, hey, you have a call. And she has the phone. And I quote, “You handed me the phone in the middle of a shift and like it was, primetime, on a Friday night at like 9:30, ten o’clock. And it was one of our regulars whom I had given a recipe to for a cocktail on our menu. And we always would share the recipes with people if they had asked, happy to walk them through step by step. And she said, we’re having a party, we’re trying to make this cocktail. It’s just not coming out the way it does in the bar. And it just spurred the question, “Can we make cocktails for people with the same ingredients, the same integrity that we do in our craft cocktail bar so they don’t need to do this when they’re at home?” I love to teach people to make cocktails. I love to empower people to make drinks on their own, I think people should explore that. But at the end of the day, it’s not their job to understand the perfect balance. It’s not their job to understand exactly what spirit to reach for and to get it right every time, it’s my career, it’s Matt’s career. So we can take out some of that guesswork. And so we got to work with it, and crafthouse was born in a moment like that.
M: I think one of the things too, up late after a shift, talking about the idea of it — when we started talking, it was a lot about just what Charles is saying. There’s so many situations where people don’t have time or the ability, or they somehow mess up the balance at home to do a well-crafted cocktail. But then as we talked about it, we’re like there’s so many other scenarios where people would want a well-crafted cocktail. It’s just not even available to them. And we talk about the airlines or concerts or different hotel in-room type service, different places where because they don’t have the time needed to construct a well-crafted cocktail, or they don’t have the ability, and our eyes lit up like, wow, there really is, even though it originated from the idea that at home when people want one, this gives them an option. And we really realized that the space is so much bigger than what we initially even envisioned.
A: So questions for you guys. So what year was this?
M: Oh, boy, this was like nine years ago. At least nine years ago, we started talking about it.
A: So, we’ll get to “now” hopefully in a little bit, RTD or RTS or however the industry is choosing to call them are kind of “the rage” right? But at that point, no one’s really doing them. You would go to Europe and see this. But I think a lot of people thought that they were illegal in the U.S. How did you figure out how to do cocktails to-go? What was in your process? Obviously you had this idea of like, “Okay, we have these customers we give the recipes to and they’re not loving how those recipes are coming out at home. They want our help.” How did you then go from that point to “We have a product on the shelf.” What research did you do? Who did you partner with in order to make that happen? Because like I said, if you had come to me in 2011, even though I was a cocktail enthusiast, I would have told you that I thought that RTDs were illegal in the U.S.
C: I think our biggest challenge, not not that we thought it was necessarily illegal. We were just told it couldn’t be done. We couldn’t use real juice, and we couldn’t use real ingredients. We had to be an elevated “SkinnyGirl” or something. Where it’s going to be something that mimics the flavor of a cocktail, as opposed to being just a true cocktail. So for us, that was the biggest challenge, like we know this can be done. We know you can make an authentic cocktail and put it in a bottle. And we worked with somebody that was heavily involved in the wine industry, obviously, as wine is a real juice that’s preserved, and working with them and understanding different techniques of how to best keep the integrity of the cocktail. But we were told constantly it just won’t be shelf-stable. It just can’t be done. You can’t develop a cocktail like that. It won’t taste the same. So definitely a lot of naysayers, but we were just super committed to the idea that it actually could be done.
M: Yeah, there’s no shortage of prepared “something” in a bottle on the shelf at that time. But the bar was absurdly low, with bad Margarita mixes or cloying cocktails, as Matt said, that simulated a cocktail but were nowhere near close to what you could get, if you were to come to a bar. So I think that’s the deal. All these people are approaching it from a manufacturing standpoint. We were approaching it from a bartender standpoint. “Okay, I know I can make one cocktail delicious right in front of my guests. I know I can have a party or an event or do a charity event and batch up a thousand cocktails and make them delicious still.” So what’s it going to take to make it stable, to make ten thousand of these and put them in a bottle without screwing with the ingredients, without putting anything in the bottle that we weren’t going to be proud to talk about? So it was expensive to do. It was difficult to find a facility that would bottle for us that wanted to go that route, because there wasn’t a lot of precedent for what we were doing. And so we are going through some uncharted paths to get to where we are today.
C: And I mean, we were definitely a real pain in the a** to work with. We started at a facility up outside of Montreal, a little hard cider facility. So, again, had experience with the juice. But man, we made a mess of their plant trying not to filter the ginger and do everything the way — and it was often suggested to us, “Well, hey, you could just do this. This will be cheaper, easier, quicker.” And our response would always be like, “That’s not what we’re doing.” You’re still not necessarily understanding the fact that we’re doing the cocktail the same way we would do it behind the bar. It can be done. So we may have burned a few bridges along the way, but people just weren’t worth seeing our vision fully. But at the end of the day, it was achieved.
A: So, yes, the question there, which I think is really interesting, I would assume that at that point in time you were being told by people, “Oh, there’s other people, like Smirnoff is getting away with this, with just malt” right? They’re making basically a malt beverage that people think is a cocktail. Was that one thing that was offered to you guys, and you just said no immediately?
C: Every shortcut that you can imagine was offered to us. It was. And it is, even to this day. And now it’s maybe just changed in the last year or two, because honestly, we helped to set the precedent when no one could wrap their head around it. They couldn’t wrap their heads around why we would want to make simple syrup and not use corn syrup. They couldn’t wrap their head around why we wanted to bring in real citrus into the mix and not use citric acid — there’s not a gram of citric acid in any of our products. It was “Why would you want to use a spirit of that quality? Nobody is going to be able to tell the difference. The average drinker is not going to be able to tell the difference”. Well, it’s like that’s not who we are, you know? And from day one, Matt was super on board with this. And it was like, hey, Charles, the cocktails are your area of expertise. You have final say on flavor profiles, on ingredients, and then we’ll figure out a way to make it make sense from a business aspect and move from there.
A: One of the things I’m curious about first, before we get into the spirits, is I have heard from certain people who’ve also tried to do cocktails to-go is how hard citrus is to do. What is it that makes citrus difficult? Is it it just as you guys were saying, it doesn’t stay shelf-stable as long, or there could be issues with citrus inside the packaging? Like why is it that everyone has this belief that citrus is so difficult when it comes to doing canned cocktails?
C: I mean, it has to do with, first and foremost the balance of the cocktail, getting it to taste right. Nothing is going to be quite like citrus that I squeezed for you fresh that shift and right in front of you. That being said, you have to worry about preservation issues. You have to worry about real world stuff like microbial issues that might happen. It’s the same thing if you can something at home and you’re using a Mason jar, making sure that those jars are clean and sterilized and all that, so that works for any sort of product that’s going to go out to the masses as well. And yeah, and expense, I think was a big part of it, as well. People were like, well, citric acid is real cheap. So it’s a mix of why wouldn’t you mix a powder and water together, as opposed to buying, shipping, storing, dealing with a product that can be volatile, but what else would we use? It just didn’t work. There’s no question from our standpoint that that was the route to go.
A: So in terms of the spirits, one of the things I’ve noticed with trying the products is some of the products you actually do label what spirit is inside of it. So a lot of the rum you label is Plantation. Are those partnerships you guys have created? Like how does that also go about when you guys are sourcing the spirits for all these different cocktails you’re making?
C: Absolutely. The spirits are the foundation of any cocktail, your base spirit, whatever you may be using, your gin, your rum, your tequila, and so forth. So it was also important to us from day one to have integrity. If your foundation is not rock solid than anything else we do to it is just going to be a bit wobbly as you move forward, and so we didn’t cut corners. And I think it’s part of our decades in the business. We had a lot of relationships, and those partnerships happened really organically. At that time I was working at The Aviary in Chicago, which is in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, and C H Distillery had just opened up — great small boutique distillery. It had just opened up shop like three quarters of a mile from us. So, of course, we popped by to see what was going on there. Their products were amazing. They were distilling — they still are distilling — vodka from grain, milling grain in-house. Nobody does that. Everybody buys a GMS and then re-distills. These guys are doing it from scratch, super high integrity. So we’re like, “Hey, we’re going to need vodka and gin. Would you guys want to sell us some?” And they were very cool and also ambitious, and creative and we were like, “yeah let’s find a way to work together.” So the same thing happened with Plantation. We just launched rum cocktails for the first time about a year ago or so. And I happened to have a relationship through the cocktail world with the folks from Pierre Ferrand Cognac and Plantation Rums and sent an email. And we’re like, “Hey, Alexander, we’re doing this project”. And he’s like “Yes I’ve heard about it. I think it’s great. Your cocktails have integrity.” And you know they value their rums and have super high standards for everything they’re doing. So it was a real compliment for me and for Crafthouse that brands like that would want to work for us. They’re not selling their rums to everyone. And they’re the products that I would often use behind my bar. So it was important to me for every spirit in our cocktails to be something that I would want to drink myself and serve to you separately if they were not in a Crafthouse cocktail. And that said, the profiles of each of the drinks are not the most adventurous cocktails in the sense of, they’re complex, but they’re not ultra challenging. They’re still familiar flavors. So If I want to change my vodka or my gin, that can happen. The cocktail is not going to fall apart. There are more than one tool for the job. But yeah, we have great spirit partners right now. I’ve been down to the distillery that produces our tequila in Jalisco. Our whiskey right now comes out of Traverse City in Michigan. So it’s cool stuff. I mean, you can go to the store and buy bottles of individual spirits for almost everything that we have in our cocktails.
M: Yeah, we go back and forth about putting the logos. Traverse City Whiskey are great friends of ours. I can’t really see us using another bourbon. But as Charles stated, the Gold Rush can be made with a variety of different bourbons. I think one of the things that we talk about is, we have to make large runs, and cans and everything. So, let’s just say we put the CH logo on, which we go back and forth on if we’re going to or not, and then another partnership arises where it would be a different vodka. We’ve got all these cans that don’t necessarily have the logos, so we just bounce back and forth and back and forth again. We love all of our partners and we had personal relationships with them before we had business relationships. But, it’s one of those things that we just don’t know. We don’t know if we should be putting the logos on or not.
C: And Crafthouse is still a growing brand. And we are introducing the world to Crafhouse as a brand. And we’re an independent brand. It’s myself and Matt and about six other people that run this entire company that has a pretty far reach now across the U.S, for a ragtag group of folks. So we are still introducing Crafthouse as a name to cocktail enthusiasts around the country. And so we don’t want to confuse them. “Is this a CH product? Is this a Plantation product?” These are partners that we are using in the batches as they’re marked. So I’m proud to do so.
A: So another question for you guys, one of the things I think that was really cool is you put these in a bag and box, which to me makes a lot of sense. It can be in the fridge, every night when you get home, you can have that Moscow Mule. How long have you been doing that for and obviously I’ve seen a few people start to do it as well. But when did you start doing it?
M: We’ve been talking about this as an idea for a couple of years. And it took us that long to get it all rolling exactly the way we want to. We’re a premium product. We’ve always known that the one seven five format in the ready to drink category has always dominated. Obviously, the individual formats, with the hard seltzers and whatnot have leveled it out. But we always thought the large format was the way to go. We just didn’t know how to do it in a premium fashion. And then when we started digging in more and more and then with more and more acceptance of the wine bag in the box we were like, “you know what? I think we can do this in a bag that’s going to really give it that premium presentation.” Again, exactly as you’re saying, you put it in the fridge. You’ve got the tap to serve yourself a fresh cocktail nightly or however often. It stays good. There’s zero light. It’s seal-packed. So, again, there’s not a preservation problem. And we just launched in Illinois at Vinny’s, and in Colorado here in several locations, just a matter of a few weeks ago. And the initial response has been pretty awesome. So we’re actually, within the next two or three weeks, going to be expanding to our Smoky Margarita and our Pineapple Daiquiri. So we’ll end up having four different cocktails in a one seven five box.
A: That’s awesome.
C: I think that we’ve seen that happen with wine, with the bag and box format. And so, even corks and wine and screw caps, there was a time when people thought that you couldn’t have a screw cap. That diminished the wine’s appeal. So it’ll be interesting, perhaps. We don’t we don’t mind having another path with the cocktails in a box, either.
A: Well, guys, this has been really fascinating to learn about your story and how Crafthouse Cocktails has evolved since you started doing it in 2011, which is insane to think about. You are national now, correct?
M: I think we are nearing national. By the end of the first quarter of next year, we’ll be in about 35 states.
A: And can people also purchase them through the website, or is it just retailers at this point?
M: Because we are spirit-based, there are some retailers that have the shipping capabilities that you could find off of our website. Not all states allow spirits to be shipped into them. But if you do go to our website, yeah, several of our retail partners do have the ability to ship across state lines.
A: Amazing. Well, guys, this has been a really great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, chat with me about Crafthouse. I’ve tried them and thought that they were delicious. I really loved the Rum Old Fashioned. So yeah, cheers to you and what you guys are doing, and I encourage everyone listening to go out and try it because it’s a really awesome product. I think you were at the forefront of something that’s going to be really huge in the next few years.
C: Thank you so much, Adam. We appreciate your time. Thanks for having us, and cheers. And I hope everyone can raise a glass together soon. And until then, give us a look, check us out at Drink Crafthouse, and feel free, if you send us a note through Instagram or our website, it comes right to me or Matt.
A: Awesome thanks, guys.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity
Published: January 11, 2021