All Shook Up

Sisters Jill Burns and Kelly Gasink’s crafted-cocktail company is making a splash in the premixed-beverage industry.

By Darcy Sprague

Are you doing this full time?: It’s a question Jill Burns and Kelly Gasink, founders of Austin Cocktails, have often been asked while fundraising for their business, and will likely continue to be asked, despite their company reaching almost $1 million in sales.  

“It stings when you are working 60-hour workweeks and paying a ton for your nanny and missing your kid’s birthday and traveling. That’s hard,” Burns says.

Before co-founding Austin Cocktails, Burns, who received her undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University, had previously developed her own PR firm. Gasink, who has a degree from Stanford University and a graduate degree from Harvard, had developed three businesses, two of which were sold to publicly traded companies. 

“I bet my life that my husband, with my resume and my experience, would never get asked that question,” Gasink says, referring to whether her business keeps her employed full time. 

Gasink believes there is a need now more than ever for female entrepreneurs.

“We are trying to be part of the change we want to see, and that is having women out there,” Burns says.

In addition to claiming shelf space in every chain store in Texas, Austin Cocktails’ beverages have been served at the Emmy Awards and are currently stocked behind the bar at Madison Square Garden. From bergamot orange margarita to cucumber vodka mojito, the premixed-cocktail line is low in calories and designed for those who want the taste of mixed cocktails but aren’t attracted to the overly sweet, neon options commonly found on store shelves. 

The sisters founded Austin Cocktails in 2012 after both women quit their full-time jobs and invested their savings to build out the business.

“We didn’t go into this blindly saying, ‘OK, we have this good idea and we think it will work,’ ” Burns says. “It was a two-month process of researching and talking it through to make sure it was what we wanted to do.”

Here is a rough outline of Burns and Gasink’s road to success so far:

2012 // Developing
“First and foremost, we asked ourselves, ‘Does this product solve a problem?’ ” Gasink says. “We felt the timing was in place. We felt the category was really stalled but ripe for innovation.” 

Burns and Gasink saw a hole in the spirit market. Beer consumption accounts for not quite half the alcohol market, but this is the first time in modern history the rate has been less than 50 percent, Burns says. According to a 2015 Yahoo Financial article, premixed drinks only make up 2.7 percent of the market. 

“Everything that is on our shelves is kind of cheap and neon and gross,” Burns says of the premixed-drinks aisle. “[Because of that,] there is natural skepticism that we have to get over every day in our sales work.”

Part of the reason the pair was able to start their company was timing. Food-truck openings had exploded in Austin, proving to the duo there is a need and a market for affordable, accessible luxuries. At the same time, higher quality ingredients from throughout the world were becoming available at better prices.

The growth of businesses called “co-packers,” bottling services that essentially rent their space to craft companies, also coincided with the spawn of the sisters’ business idea. 

2014 // Proof of Concept
After spending a year and a half developing their product, in 2014, Burns and Gasink signed with the two largest beverage distributors in the country. 

“Our distributors wisely said, ‘Launch in your backyard and see what works and what doesn’t work.’ … That was one of the best pieces of advice we got,” Gasink says.

The Austin Cocktails operation grew from three employees, two of which were the sisters, to seven full-time employees.

“We internally feel like this is such a quintessentially Austin product,” Gasink says of the brand. 

Initially, retailers asked them to lower their prices, but they didn’t cave to the pressure, citing the high-quality, more expensive ingredients they source from four continents. 

A 750-millileter bottle serves approximately six cocktails and sells for about $18.

“It is a tension in that you want to be able to keep things affordable,” Gasink explains. “Our whole ethos is affordable luxury. We would like [Austin Cocktails] to be accessible and part of people’s social lives.”

2016 and 2017 // Fundraising and Scaling
The co-founders internalized the feedback they received in Austin, changed their label, determined the best marketing strategy and developed two new drinks. 

Sales continued to grow by 49 percent and Burns and Gasink began to, once again, focus on fundraising. 

“One of the things that people tend to overlook about entrepreneurs, especially in the cocktail business, is that while it is exciting, we are working a lot, I would say about 60 hours a week,” Burns says.

Austin Cocktails is more than a full-time job for the duo. It’s their passion project, their baby, their ever-evolving brainchild. 

“Prior years were kind of that existential proof-of-product time,” Gasink says. “Now it is time for us to scale our product and our brand.”