ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The experience begins with the can.
On the black background stands a smiling Yeti; long claws, horns and scraggly fur. It is flanked by bright pink, yellow and orange patterns.
Right away, it announces itself as something new.
What’s inside is new, too. It’s a ready-to-drink, mixed cocktail of the whiskey variety with 120 calories and a sweet cola flavor.
It’s the flagship drink and debut offering of Black Yeti Beverage. The drink comes out of the imagination of Pasadena, Calif., residents Eric Trueheart and Samantha Franklin.
It was developed with their life savings, and it now sits on the threshold of a giant, competitive market with established brands still hungering for market share.
“We’re kind of this scrappy little brand,” Franklin said. “We’re a couple of weirdos.”
Ready-to-drink beverages earn billions in revenue each year with numerous market segments. Many non-alcoholic beverages include sports drinks and pre-mixed iced coffee. Alcoholic drink offerings have been in abundance for over a decade. Included among them is nationally distributed Mike’s Hard Lemonade Seltzer. Craft beer companies make hard ciders, and whiskey companies like Crown Royal and Jack Daniels have plunged into the scrum.
Hard Kambucha is one of the many emerging segments. Market Research.com estimates the global market will crest $600 million by 2026.
A recent brand to encounter explosive success is White Claw hard seltzer. It emerged in 2016 as another low-calorie option — it has 100 — while offering consumers something a little different. It estimates that it has expanded the overall market by $1 billion.
Trueheart and Franklin see plenty of room for these new drinks.
The couple has taken a chance on striking it big on an emerging market that already has established players. But they see an opening for mixed whiskey drinks.
Trueheart and Franklin see themselves as the bourbon response to White Claw. Both are ready to drink, and both are low-calorie. White Claw has numerous flavors — recently adding more. The couple's drink, called Cosmic Black, is just 120 calories, which they feel will make it a top choice for summer parties.
It also borrows from the craft beer aesthetic. Numerous companies have toyed with oddball names and colorful artwork. Flying Dog brewery out of Maryland uses art created by Ralph Steadman. And beers like Rogue’s “Dead Guy” ale have long populated the market.
It’s a branding strategy that aims to set the fledgling company apart from its more established competition. But the drink itself is new, too. Space Yeti, along with the rye whiskey notes, has a faint marshmallow taste, painstakingly crafted to mask the artificial sugar flavor.
The road ahead is long but could move fast. That’s why the couple had to shell out for 40,000 cans.
They’re ready to go, and sitting in storage at Surf City, who they hired to mix their drink. They’ve been going door-to-door with samples. Some buyers want a case or two to try. One potential buyer has a chain of supermarkets.
Trueheart said if a trial run goes well, they could run out of stock quickly.
Then, new problems may emerge.
When Trueheart and Franklin began reaching out to sellers to purchase cans, they wanted skinny cans, like White Claw and many other ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages. Weeks of conversations later, they found out there was a global can shortage. They settled for a can style called Hawaii ridged. The only drawback was that it didn’t quite fit with the mobile canning unit in the warehouse. Gallons and gallons spilled over, filling up the drainage system with the aromatic drink.
“Oh no! There’s my college loan payments going down the drain!” Franklin laughed.
Purchases of the two-year aged rye bourbon they use can also take time. But the good news, Trueheart said, is their dink is mixed, not fermented. It can be finished and ready for canning in about a day, easily scalable for mass distribution.
But first, they need a big sale. They’re starting with their $15.99 per four-pack, which has 6% alcohol per 12-ounce can. But they want to add more flavors. They have three more in development including a drink called Cosmic Bliss, a cream soda bourbon mix with hints of vanilla.
Right now they’re hitting the sales circuit, offloading a case at a time until it catches on.
“It’s one victory at a time,” Trueheart said.