Shaking Things Up: A Q&A with Powell & Mahoney Co-Founder Mark Mahoney

With demand for high-end and “craft” cocktails holding as a steady trend, a wave of premium bottled mixer brands have emerged on the market, each offering consumers a simpler at-home route to bar-quality drinks. The rise of these new products is increasingly apparent in the natural and specialty channel, where retailers have revamped, and, in some cases, launched shelf space dedicated to new and innovative mixers.

One of the anchors in this revised mixer landscape is Powell & Mahoney, which debuted in 2010. Based in Williston, Vt., Powell & Mahoney manufactures and sells a line of glass-bottled, shelf-stable mixers that are made with all-natural ingredients, including juices, essential oils and cane sugar. The brands markets 14 varieties of ready-to-mix cocktail blends, including unique takes on traditional mixers, such as its Sriracha Bloody Mary and Mango Passion Fruit Margarita.

Brian Powell & Mark Mahoney

Powell & Mahoney founders Brian Powell & Mark Mahoney

Sold a broad variety of retailers, Powell & Mahoney is represented in over 3,500 locations, including independent liquor stores, natural grocers, and even mass market giants like Target and Walmart. While the brand continues to acquire shelf space, Powell & Mahoney is nevertheless operating within a burgeoning mixer category, with a steadily increasing number of specialty blends and designed-for-cocktail sodas coming to market.

At the recently held 2015 Winter Fancy Food Show, we sat down with Mark Mahoney, co-founder of Powell & Mahoney, to discuss the evolution of cocktail mixer category and how his company is keeping up with a burgeoning shelf set, as well as new retail and distribution opportunities for craft-centric brands and trends we can expect to see blossom in the coming months.

Here’s a condensed version of the interview with Mahoney, presented in a question and answer format:

BevNET Managing Editor Ray Latif: How has the bottled cocktail mixer category evolved over the past five years?

Mark Mahoney: If you look at the category, it was a race to the bottom up until five or six years ago. Everybody was just interested in price and getting on the shelf, and then the turns weren’t happening, so there was no sell-through for the stores. Then, people came along and started offering a much better crafted product in much smaller quantities, and started getting interesting in terms of flavors.

RL: What’s been the biggest shift in terms of consumer demand for high quality mixers, and what’s been the impact on the category?

MM: They’ve been exposed to, what we call, the “A bars,” where you have the crafticians, and bar chefs and things like that. And they’re so much at-home entertaining going on now, that they want to be able to duplicate exactly what they’re getting on-premise. And between brands like ours, and other smaller craft cocktail [mixer brands], there’s just so much innovation and ingenuity out there, that these products are becoming widely available and distributed, and they’re finding a home. People are buying them, and they’re turning off the shelves, which is great.

PM_BloodyMary-SrirachaRL: How important is the all-natural aspect of your brand to sales growth?

MM: It’s absolutely critical. When [Powell & Mahoney co-founder] Brian Powell approached me to get back into this business, it was in the dark of the recession, basically five years ago. And the one thing I said is that we can’t sacrifice quality. So what we did is, instead of doing a custom bottle highly decorated and everything, we decided to concentrate on the ingredients and spending the most time and money on… how to batch it properly. We’ve spent considerable resources in buying and building our own bespoke facility just to make our products to our specifications.

RL: What’s the biggest retail channel opportunity for Powell & Mahoney and the mixer category as a whole?

MM: When we entered [the market], we felt that the specialty and natural categories, and liquor were home runs for us, and they’ve been great as far as distribution and being the early adopters for us. What we’re seeing now is the larger multi-unit and chain stores are coming to us, seeking us out [and] saying, “This can go mainstream and still have that connotation of quality.”

RL: How does Powell & Mahoney approach innovation? What do you view as being a top trend for mixers in 2015?

MM: We spent a lot of time and resources on data. And you look at what the business is, and we could stop making everything but our margarita and Bloody Mary, and [just] be a margarita and Bloody Mary line. But that isn’t innovative and disruptive in any way, shape or form. We see cocktail tonics [as] going to be a big thing. We want to have better tonic cocktails that are carbonated, and we’ll provide the syrups for that.