A man with red pants and a German accent walks into an L.A. bar called Blind Barber.
Sounds like the setup to a joke. But in this case, it really happened. And the punch line would turn out to be a new business in a burgeoning category.
Jens Stoelken, one of the founding partners of Santa Monica, California-based agency Mistress and that man in the red pants, would often frequent Blind Barber for a drink and a chat with bartender Billy Ray, who had been slinging drinks for 20 years with prestigious gigs at Bad Boy Entertainment, Brown-Forman and Patina Restaurant Group. But one conversation about three years ago turned to Ray's craft. Ray mentioned almost in an offhand manner that mixers on the market—the tonics, soda waters and ginger ales—fell short when it came to completing high-end cocktails.
"One of my favorite drinks was the whiskey ginger—but you'd have this great whiskey and then 70 or 80 percent of it was like shitty ginger ale," Ray says. "There were some that were good, but nothing was ever great."
Stoelken relayed the chat with Ray back to his four partners at Mistress, a company already experienced in the beverage category with work for Finlandia, Coca-Cola, Jägermeister and Chambord, among others. Ray inadvertently had planted the seeds of what would become a new business: Mixwell, a premium line of carbonated mixers. Last month, it hit the shelves of Target and Costco.
Rock bottom before on-the-rocks
Getting there was not without struggles. At first, Ray and Stoelken, who became Mixwell's CEO, both threw themselves into the project. The Mistress team worked to build a brand while Ray went full mad scientist to concoct recipes for what would become the Mixwell lineup, drinks with names like Dandelion Tonic Water, Young Ginger Ale and Mojave Grapefruit Soda.
From his kitchen in West Hollywood, Ray leaned on L.A. itself for inspiration—namely, the city's vibrant ethnic food scene. Thai cuisine informed Young Ginger Ale, while the city's deep roots in Mexican culture fueled the idea to create a grapefruit soda. "It taps into Southern California and the Latino community who love palomas and tequila," Stoelken explains.
Ray says it took longest to create what might be its simplest product: the Sparkling Soda Water. That's because its creation served as backdrop to his battle with alcohol addiction.
Nine months ago, after other Mixwell varieties had already hit bars and hotels in L.A. and Las Vegas, Stoelken and Ray had just wrapped up a conference call when a thought popped into Ray's head, he says: "You need to kill yourself."
On the surface, life was more than good: Not only was Ray a successful bartender, he was also developing an exciting new business. Yet the whole time, he had been struggling with alcoholism. Coughing up blood, 80 pounds overweight and neglecting himself to the point where he wasn't even brushing his teeth. "I knew I didn't want to drink anymore," he says, "but I couldn't imagine my life without drinking. If I stopped, I'd lose bartending, my credibility—I thought the best option for me would be take my life. It was the only solution."
After that call, Ray embarked on what he thought would be his farewell tour. He had a "last dinner" of steak at one of his favorite joints, The Corner Door, then stopped at Blind Barber and another beloved spot, Melrose Umbrella Co., where he threw back shots and had what he thought would be final words with many friends. As he finally walked back to his apartment, so drunk he was walking sideways, "I thought, 'This is it, I'm really gonna go home and do it.' I was crying because I had made up my mind," he says. But the next morning, he woke up on his couch, not knowing if he was dead or alive. "That was the one time alcohol actually saved me," he says.
After that aborted attempt, Ray finally decided to become sober. "There's a stigma if you're sober and a bartender," he explains. "In this industry, you're almost celebrated for the worst parts about you. The majority of bartenders will tell you, 'Yeah, I black out once a month.' We work with a depressant, and you're there for everybody—the guy who got divorced, people celebrating anniversaries, breakups. I hear it all for eight hours, then at 2:30 I have no one to call. That's really the curse of the bartender because you feel like no one's there for you. But I realized there were people there for me—and those people were my partners."
During a dinner in Las Vegas at the Wynn hotel, which had added Mixwell to its lineup, Ray confided in Stoelken.
"The first thing that came to mind was, we have a mixer that takes pride in being the best wingman to spirits—how could our founder, our testimonial, be an alcoholic?" Stoelken recalls. "But immediately, it became apparent that it doesn't really matter. He was way more important."
The road to wellness
Mistress supported Ray as he brought himself back to health. He entered a 12-step program, did yoga daily, watched his diet—and continued to create. When Ray first began working on the soda water, his initial ideas saw him playing with unusual ingredients ranging from saffron to frankincense, the latter inspired by his years attending Catholic mass as a kid. But after he became sober, his new focus on self-care drove the recipe, a "healing waters"-inspired concoction that balanced bubbles with a mix of minerals.
"It was based on what I take in my everyday life—I took magnesium supplements because I depleted my body with drugs and alcohol, and potassium, which is good for cramping."
The latest addition to the lineup, with its tinge of sparkle and subtle minerality, can now help push the brand beyond just "mixer" material. "I sobered up and was able to create a soda water that just wasn't made for drinking vodka soda," Ray says.
A portion of Mixwell's profits will go to supporting the Billy Ray Grant, a foundation to help other bartenders struggling with addiction. His new-found sobriety has helped his own skills too, he believes. Like a sommelier, he now spits out his creations after tasting them. "I'm more functional as a bartender; I'm alert and aware," he says. "My palate's changed too and has become more refined. When I do tastings, I'm hydrated because my mouth's not dry."
In developing the Mixwell brand, Mistress sought to create something that would stand out in a craft-
focused market that's known for playing up heritage and tradition. The name itself conveys what the product strives to do on both a practical and emotional level. It speaks to its provenance—the hodgepodge of cultures that make up L.A.—but also to what happens when people get together for a drink.
"If you sit at a bar, there's always this great opportunity to engage with others you don't know," Stoelken says. "There's this idea of, 'Maybe I can mix well with that person'—and that goes all the way to our current political situation."
To get the product into mass production, the team at Mistress found a flavor house in California that could replicate Ray's recipes and a co-packer near Milwaukee that could accommodate the very particular ingredients. Mistress then began seeding it with top bartenders and hotels in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, eventually attracting the attention of distributor Southern Glazer's. That led to the product landing on shelves in Target in California and Nevada, and at California-based Costco outlets, packaged with other brands in Southern's portfolio.
The Mixwell brand joins the fray at an interesting time for the category. The premium mixer market is "very small, but it's growing, and everyone wants to get into premium mixers," says Duane Stanford, executive editor at Beverage Digest. Category sales in the U.S. have increased since 2011, according to a Beverage Digest study, and are expected to reach more than $5.2 billion this year.
Stanford says the growth can be tied to the explosion of craft culture. "We've had a whole lot of brands flood into the market, like Fever-Tree," he says. "With people really paying attention to craft spirits, it didn't take long for them to think, 'Why am I not mixing these with super premium mixers?' "
Even big soda brands are getting into the game. Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said last month that the company was looking for opportunities to grow in premium segments, including adult craft beverages. In Spain, the company introduced Royal Bliss, its own line of premium mixers, while in the U.K., it relaunched the Schweppes brand to offer mixers for pairing with premium spirits. Small brands may not be a threat to giants, Stanford says, but the category poses an opening for the large companies.
"The large soft-drink makers are going to make sure they don't lose that opportunity and make sure new products don't cut into traditional mixers at a point that would really start to impact their margins," Stanford says.
Now the Mixwell team is preparing for what may happen should the product hit prime time, so to speak, and receive significant orders. The team switched to a bank that provides inventory financing, for example, providing access to funds to ramp up production if necessary.
"We're quite confident that we're future-proofed to a certain degree," Stoelken says. "But if all cruise ships order from us at the same time, we might have a problem."