The coronavirus pandemic has hit the hospitality industry incredibly hard, but one area has enjoyed rapid growth: cocktail delivery. As people continue to stay home and practice social distancing, they’re embracing novel ways to entertain themselves and their chosen pod, including having their bar experience delivered right into their living rooms.
In lieu of packing into crowded bars — which have faced confusing regulations and extended closures — Austinites have embraced craft cocktail delivery services, which provide professional-level cocktails for a fraction of the price of drinks at a traditional bar. Sourced Craft Cocktails, HipStirs, and Crafter’s Texas Hill Country Cocktails are three delivery services based in the city, each offering something a little different to their customers.
“It’s the craziest thing, to actually expand as a business during a pandemic,” says Tim Angelillo, the founder and CEO of Sourced Cocktails. In its fifth year of business, the company is already considered one of the most successful cocktail delivery services in the country. It’s available in 11 cities, and the alcohol-inclusive kits are hand-delivered by local bartenders who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
The company had to navigate each state’s alcohol board to figure out how to legally deliver booze, explains Angelillo. (Due to complicated alcohol compliance laws in each state, it’s rare for a cocktail delivery company to legally include alcohol in its kits.) It also figured out the “compliance” regarding the preparation of its nonalcoholic ingredients, which means the products are made in local commercial licensed kitchens, and employees have passed their food handler safety training.
Before the pandemic, Sourced enjoyed three-figure growth year over year since 2015. But in 2020, Angelillo reports a financial jump of almost 800 percent. “It makes sense because people are staying home, so they want everything delivered,” he says. “E-commerce is just 2 percent of the alcohol market now.” He expects it to reach 20 percent in the next few months.
Despite Sourced’s rapid growth, the pandemic has presented challenges, too. There were plans in the work, but “[they were] interrupted, like everyone else’s,” says Angelillo. That had included expanding into Shanghai, which would’ve been its first international market. Since the global expansion halted, the company has focused on growing its domestic market instead. So far, the company has opened in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Phoenix, and launched a number of new products, including draft cocktail machines for home use, that have been selling well.
Sourced Craft Cocktails also supports members of the service industry by employing bartenders lost their jobs because of the pandemic. These employees hand-deliver the cocktail kits, and are paid $20 an hour. “We’re paying for time and talent,” Angelillo says. “We’re founded on the principles of giving people a career in hospitality and paying them fair, living wages.” He believes that the current federal minimum wage for tipped workers ($2.13) isn’t fair or respectful. “So many people are out of work now, through no fault of their own, so we knew we needed to create as many shifts as possible.” Over the last four months, he estimates that they have paid out over $500,000 to bartenders and employed 10,000 people as independent contractors across the country.
While Sourced Craft Cocktails had a five-year head start, Austin-based newcomer HipStirs has made an impressive foray into the craft cocktail delivery world. The company — part of the MSB Hospitality Group, which oversees various local restaurants including delivery-only pizzeria Phantasma Kitchen, Italian restaurant Ellera, and Coffee + Crisp — was originally intended to open as a lounge that offered cocktail classes, but when the pandemic hit in March, it began focusing on a subscription model.
HipStirs’ cocktail kits were originally slated to debut during South by Southwest, and after the festival was canceled because of COVID-19, the company decided to launch anyway. “It was an interesting period of not knowing what we were going to do, and all the laws kept changing — especially around alcohol,” says sales director Kylie Chapman.
But seven months after its launch, the business is doing well. Chapman credits much of that to the scratch-made syrups, such as lavender haze, blackberry mint, and Fresno chile, which were developed by an in-house mixologist. The ingredients are even used at Georgetown restaurant Ichiro Asian Bistro & Wine Bar, and there are plans to partner with other restaurants in the coming months.
Typically, HipStirs’ cocktail kits include alcohol, ingredients, a craft syrup, cocktail recipe card, and seasonal accessories for home bars (think holiday-themed napkins or pumpkin cocktail stirrers), for deliveries made in Austin. The company also came out with national monthly subscription boxes this October, though these come without alcohol because of legal restrictions. To make up for that, the company partnered with booze delivery platform Drizly so that customers can add on needed spirits.
The core of HipStirs has changed a lot from what it was originally intended to be. “In January, there wasn’t a whole lot of thought,” says brand manager Madeline Sterling. “It was just going to be a quick, easy subscription box.” Now it’s more than just that, offering a way for customers to create moments with the people they’ve chosen to isolate with. And for those separated by space, the service offers a series of virtual events too. Ludwig hosts monthly Facebook tutorials and personal mixology classes.
While Sourced and HipStirs have been growing into other markets, Crafter’s Texas Hill Country Cocktails is firmly focused on Austin. Founded in June by bartender Sean O’Neill, Crafter’s makes fresh, small-batch cocktail mixers from local ingredients.
Before launching Crafter’s, O’Neill was hoping to open his own bar in Austin. But then the pandemic hit. “It was a fight-or-flight situation,” he explains, as both he and his wife worked in the service industry, him at Rainey Street restaurant and beer bar Banger’s. “We had no income coming in during the first month, and I had to come up with something.”
To help with his anxiety, O’Neill created an immune-boosting drink for himself, made from cold-brew green tea, fresh lemon juice, homemade ginger syrup, and muddled mint. It also happened to taste great with bourbon. After reading a story about a nationwide lack of mixers, he realized there was a gap in the market he could fill. “It was a perfect storm of people needing mixers, and me liking to make them.”
Today, Crafter’s sells roughly 50 bottles of fresh, seasonal mixers like cherry blossom, fall sangria, and the now-signature Immuni-Tea, based off of O’Neill’s original creation. The hand-batched mixers come with alcohol pairing suggestions, and are delivered by O’Neill himself.
O’Neill still hopes to open a bar somewhere in Dripping Springs that will bring together the best of local ingredients, just like his popular mixers. But he’ll still focus on his company. “Of course I want it to grow,” he says, “but I’m not looking to take over the world. I’m just trying to give people the best, freshest drinks possible.”
As Austin bars continue to grapple with government closures and people continue to social distance, Austinites can have their cocktail needs met through these delivery companies, which are making it easier than ever to safely entertain at home. For Angelillo, the service offers happiness when people need it the most. “We deliver joy,” he says. “That’s our job: I bring you something fun and enjoyable and lighthearted, and it’s not controversial or political or complicated. We bring you something you’re going to enjoy and create a memory with.”