In the current boom of the ready-to-drink cocktail market, competition has never been more fierce.
Though the category was practically non-existent a decade ago, it was reported to be worth over $782.8 million globally in 2021, turning many an entrepreneur’s head. Not least of which, Thomas Ashbourne CEO Cara Kamenev.
Despite launching her RTD cocktail brand last summer, she has already passed the million-dollar mark in sales—a feat only 5% of all female-founded companies achieve in their first year.
“I think any entrepreneur must be a bit of a glutton for punishment, but the thrill of building your own brand outweighs some of the challenges,” says Kamenev.
Before launching Thomas Ashbourne, Kamenev spent the majority of her career at L’Oreal, where she took on several roles including Vice President of Brand Engagement for L’Oreal Paris.
During her tenure she was responsible for pioneering L’Oreal’s first-ever influencer program from the ground up and, while she didn’t know it at the time, these projects laid the ground work for the “secret” to Thomas Ashbourne’s success.
“I leveraged the power of our incredible celebrity ambassadors to craft 360 go-to-markets, created the first influencer brand ambassador program, and launched some of our biggest wins of the last decade—like Lash Paradise—with a social- and advocacy- first approach,” says Kemenev.
“It was proving that this nascent media form of influencer was breaking the mold of what was once a very traditional media empire—that was thrilling.”
All of the brand’s premium craft cocktails are not only created with fresh and all-natural ingredients, but backed by a celebrity. Some of whom even partnered in the company.
Each founder was instrumental in developing their signature cocktails, too: Sarah Jessica Parker’s The Perfect Cosmo is a modern twist on the classic Cosmopolitan, with cranberry, fresh lime, hints of strawberry, premium vodka and triple sec; actors and friends Ashley Benson, Rosario Dawson and Vanessa Hudgens’ The Margalicious Margarita is full of fresh limes, pure sea salt, hints of orange zest, premium tequila, triple sec and agave; and Neil Patrick Harris’ After Hours Espresso Martini is paccked with Arabica and extra dark roast espresso, hints of vanilla, and rich dark chocolate.
“I’ve tasted some pretty extraordinary cocktails over the years and in my travels, but our Thomas Ashbourne Perfect Cosmo is up there among the very best,” says co-founder Sarah Jessica Parker.
“We took the process very seriously; tasting different recipes, exploring a variety of ingredients, and seeing how flavors can come together like art. This particular cocktail, while being closely associated to a well-known character I’ve played for many years, is also a personal favorite in my own life.”
Kamenev wasn’t simply looking for famous faces, either. She wanted to ensure each cocktail was as personal and collaborative as possible
“To really get a sense of what our partners liked and didn’t like, we visited their favorite bars and restaurants and tried their favorite cocktails at each place,” she says.
“We benchmarked the cocktails—memories and tasting notes—to that. So, in some cases, we are benchmarking a cocktail from a Michelin-starred restaurant, not to the competition on the shelf. It really sets us apart.”
Still, it’s not been a walk in the park. From fundraising (“you need enough runway to get off the ground…and then some!”) to formulations ( “your product is your brand”), Kamenev has been tirelessly detail-focused.
Before the brand even launched, she had to audition the right partners, build a team, select agencies that could withstand the demands of rapid growth, and more. While pregnant.
“You are truly raising an army and preparing to go into battle—and there are many branches in that army, each incredibly important. If one unit is broken, everyone suffers,” she says.
One of the brand’s biggest challenges was its supply chain. Like many other businesses in 2021 and 2022, learning how to pivot against supply chain shortages was imperative.
“We once air freighted a delivery to a customer rather than miss our commitment to be on the shelf. It was a tough decision because it had a cost impact, but reputation is everything, and we kept our word in the end,” she says.
Against all odds, Thomas Ashbourne has now more than doubled the million-dollar mark in sales.
“Many dynamics are at play, shaking up the alcohol industry,” she explains. “Alcohol tends to be resilient and recession-proof, and as a category, it is growing.”
Spirits have actually taken over beer in terms of share and size in the US, speaking to changing consumer tastes and demands.
This, combined with the fact that the majority of the RTD cocktail category is saturated with seltzers, works in Thomas Ashbourne’s favor.
“We respect seltzers, but that’s not us—we have more complex flavor profiles and classic cocktail positioning,” she says. “Plus, the unique celebrity stories paired to each cocktail help us speak beyond just a total brand story. We can build these distinct profiles within the brand, looking at each cocktail as its own persona.
“Our bottles also speak to our premium positioning, sophistication, and are a trade-up to the competition.”
The democratization of taste and quality is important here, too. Despite selling itself as a premium brand and product, it’s affordable enough to entice most cocktail drinkers at $12.99 for a 350mL bottle (which serves 5.5 cocktails) or $19.99 for a four-pack of 200mL (which serves two cocktails per can).
While Kamenev has a lot to be proud of, she feels her most “tremendous” success thus far has been Thomas Ashbourne’s distribution footprint.
“It is atypical for a brand of our age,” she says. “By the end of this year we will be in 30 states.”
To date, the brand has secured over 5000 PODs, including Albertsons, Vons, Pavilion, Safeway, Total Wine, Kroger, Bevmo, Go Puff, and most recently, Target.
“I also launched my own little project this year—giving birth to another future female CEO,” she says with a wink, “so it’s been a busy one!
“It’s rather gratifying to see everything come together and work as intended.”
Read or listen to the full story on Forbes.com HERE.