In 2012, Nick Shields created SpikedSeltzer, the original brand of alcoholic sparkling water, in his Westport, Conn. garage. Within five years, his product would be mimicked nine times over—by big booze brands as well as local breweries. This was the drink people had been waiting for—light, refreshing, and delicious in a LaCroix sort of way, but boozy. The thirst for Spiked was catching—at the beach and backyard BBQ, and in the banter on social.
This month, BuzzFeed News reported that the new alternative to beer would rake in at least $60 million in sales this year—an exhilarating statistic for the two guys who pioneered the category at home and brought their product to market on a shoestring. How did they get here? We asked Shields to share the story—and science—of Spiked.
It was November 2012 as we stared nervously into a steaming 15,000-gallon copper kettle of swirling, clear liquid. This was it. The first commercial batch. The inaugural run after a full year of tiny trials in my garage. Hopefully, within three weeks, this liquid would magically transform into 2,000 cases of a new drink we called SpikedSeltzer West Indies Lime—bottled and capped in clear 12oz glass. The goal for SpikedSeltzer was to bridge the gap between beer, wine, and cocktails with a new kind of alcoholic beverage. At least that was our plan.
Dave and I were in the humid brewhouse at FX Matt Brewing Company in Utica, NY. As a fifth-generation brewmaster, I had been there before, making our family’s beer, Haffenreffer Private Stock. The indoor space is huge: A second-floor porch of sorts with 16-foot windows, open-air screens, 1940s beige tile, hand-activated valves, and rows of Eisenhower-era controls replaced with a few modern monitors.
The goal for SpikedSeltzer was to bridge the gap between beer, wine, and cocktails with a new kind of alcoholic beverage. At least that was our plan.
Fresh Adirondack water rushed into the big brewing pot like floodgates from a breaching dam. As the water climbed through the 5,000-gallon mark, I poured in carefully-weighed sugar, minerals, salts, and fruit essences. I had confidence in this formula. Developing a recipe requires changing one variable at a time, keeping accurate records, and evaluating improvement or lack thereof. But going from 1x volume to 3,000x volume was a big leap of faith.
It was early winter—not exactly the perfect time to launch a summery beverage in New England. But we wanted to get an early read on people’s taste buds—sampling directly to customers in stores before summer 2014 rolled in. A lot of people said they’d love it at the beach, or to cool off on a hot day. “Aren’t you selling this at the wrong time of year?” was a frequent refrain, but the point was clear. People liked it. They liked the fact that you couldn’t really taste the 6% alcohol due to a natural fermentation process. They liked the low sugar and not-sweet flavor profile. They liked the gluten free, simple ingredients. And they really liked the bright packaging and our mermaid logo.
I’ve been making new drinks in the beverage business since college, always looking for the next thing. In 1996, my first gig was overseeing juice production with Nantucket Nectars. After the ‘juice guys,’ I worked in small operations like winemaking at Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack, and giant ones like Cadbury Schweppes and Pepsi, gaining as much hands-on beverage development experience as possible, in the hopes that I’d break out and do the entrepreneurial thing again one day. The idea for SpikedSeltzer struck me while watching five women order five vodka-sodas at a local bar. What if I could brew something as light, simple, and clear but with a moderate 6% alcohol level? Something bubbly, refreshing, low-sugar, and with natural flavors? Something that tasted like sparkling water? It was so simple, yet it did not exist.
My friend Dave Holmes was a believer from the first batch, and he dived in to build the startup with me in Norwalk, CT. The response in the Northeast was beyond our wildest dreams—we had a tough time making enough product to keep up with the demand for the past three years. So, last fall, we partnered with Anheuser-Busch to scale nationally and ensure the OG “spiked seltzer” would be well-stocked in all 50 states. Pretty exciting but no time to rest on laurels. I’m still mashing away, making the fifth flavor due to release next spring.
This summer, if you happen to be somewhere sandy between Coney Island and Montauk, look up: You might see our mermaid blowing tiny bubbles into the sky. An 80-foot aerial banner is being towed up and down the beaches on Saturdays. With more fabric square footage than a typical house floor plan, and with a trident in hand, she’ll reach tens of thousands of people in their happy place, announcing that SpikedSeltzer is here.