Cocktail startup sets up HQ in CT city where SpikedSeltzer concocted

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

It is one of those cocktails that anyone who is more a beer or wine type might need some direction on what’s in the glass, alongside a Manhattan, Long Island iced tea or Americano.

If you want to know what goes into a can of ‘Merican Mule in South Norwalk, the list has expanded to include SoBe, SpikedSeltzer with a splash of Sclafani.

As it moves into its new headquarters in SoNo, ‘Merican Mule has launched its newest canned cocktail — Fire Mule, its newest derivative of the classic Moscow Mule mixed from vodka, ginger beer and lime juice.

Founded five years ago in southern California by CEO Dean Mahoney and two former EMC co-workers, ‘Merican Mule reported a $1.5 million commitment this month from several investors in a Securities & Commission filing, with backers including Connecticut’s Bishop family behind Blue Buffalo in Wilton and before that SoBe Beverages in Norwalk.

The company’s advisors include Dave Holmes as well, who with Nick Shields co-founded SpikedSeltzer which was acquired in 2016 by AB-InBev, and now marketed as Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer. The new SoNo headquarters is a few doors down from the Water Street launch pad for SpikedSeltzer.

Alongside his southern California friends Pete Weil and Steve Pawlik, Mahoney came up with the ‘Merican Mule concept, and chose to establish the company’s headquarters in Connecticut where he grew up in Southbury and attended UConn.

“Why Norwalk and Connecticut? I just feel like it’s surrounded by a lot of other success stories in the beverage space,” Mahoney said. “There’s a nice network ... here, and there’s a lot of opportunity in general.”

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney with his employees Hailee Parenteau and Adam Scalfani at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney with his employees Hailee Parenteau and Adam Scalfani at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

‘Having a moment’

Invented in the early 1940s — industry folklore pegs both New York City and Los Angeles as cradles — the Moscow Mule takes its name from vodka coupled with the kick of ginger beer and lime juice.

The concoction has gotten new legs the past few years, with Norwalk-based Reed’s having added a Craft Ginger Mule after a stretch in which bars were buying up its ginger beer to create the cocktails. A Fairfield entrepreneur named Fred Evanko has teed up another startup called Links Drinks which swaps in grape juice alongside vodka and ginger beer, and a marketing plan focused refreshments during a round of golf.

Last year, liquor giant AB-InBev acquired San Diego-based Cutwater Spirits, whose nearly 20 varieties of canned cocktails today include a Vodka Mule and Whiskey Mule. And in 2018, Diageo created a limited-edition version under its Smirnoff brand of vodka, with the company based in Norwalk at the time before moving its headquarters to Manhattan last year.

But canned cocktails go far beyond today, with the CEO of Jack Daniels distiller Brown-Forman noting in September his company’s recent success with Jack & Cola, Lynchburg Lemonade and others. In Thomaston, The Cocktail Chemist has a line of four canned vodka and rum cocktails.

“Ready-to-drink beverages ... are having a moment right now,” said Brown-Forman CEO Lawson Whiting, speaking in September on a conference call. “It’s really an innovation effort that we’re trying to just get off the ground right now, and figure out which flavors are going to work best.”

Even Keurig Dr Pepper is in the game with cocktail mix pods that plug into its DrinkWorks Home Bar cocktail mixing machine, including a Moscow Mule pod.

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney with his employees Hailee Parenteau and Adam Scalfani at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

' Merican Mule CEO Dean Mahoney with his employees Hailee Parenteau and Adam Scalfani at their new offices Tuesday, December 15, 2020, in Norwalk, Conn. With Reed's having launched this year a Moscow Mule canned cocktail, Norwalk's Merican Mule is a second vendor in the business with eyes on national distribution. The company is backed by Sobe/Blue Buffalo founder Bill Bishop and advised by Dave Holmes, one of the tandem who built SpikedSeltzer prior to its big sale to AB-InBev.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

From guerrilla to digital

Backed by the Bishops and Holmes, ‘Merican Mule has been making a dent in the market in its own right, with Mahoney saying the company is “significantly above” the canned cocktail growth rate of about 90 percent year over year, without divulging revenue or volume.

To develop national sales, the company brought in Adam Sclafani in November whose family runs the Norwalk-based Sclafani brand of pasta, sauces, olive oil and other foods imported from Italy. Sclafani worked previously for the Pepperidge Farm division of Campbell’s Soup based in Norwalk, and before that for AB-InBev in San Diego.

If an impressive team, what matters most for Mahoney is what’s in the can — with the newest Fire Mule adding bourbon and cinnamon to the ginger beer mix. Including the namesake ‘Merican Mule and a limited-edition Pumpkin Spice released this fall, Fire Mule fills out a six-pack of varieties alongside a rum-based Tropical Style, a Mexican Style with tequila and a bourbon Southern Style.

The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed the annual festival circuit where ‘Merican Mule made the rounds to for product testing and marketing, in Connecticut to include the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival, Sun BrewFest at Mohegan Sun and Waterbury’s Brass City Brew & Que.

“Since the bars closed down and we’re a cocktail-to-go, we saw a lot of success this year,” Mahoney said. “That was a big [challenge], figuring out how to transition from a company that was focused on doing sampling and having people try to product and use that as a guerrilla marketing approach. ... We had to transition to a new way of doing it, and a lot more focus on becoming a digital company, a focus on social media [and] digital marketing.”

The brand is an increasingly common sight on local shelves, both at traditional package stores as well as mass retailers like Whole Foods Market and Target. For Mahoney, the big moment came early on when Total Wine & More agreed to stock ‘Merican Mule, with the big-box chain having locations in Norwalk, Milford, West Hartford and Manchester.

“To take the company to the next level, we’re just at that point where we needed an investment,” Mahoney said. “I’ve been looking for a while to find the right partner, and it just so happened that the Bishop family ... took an interest in our brand.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman