Women DO Know Good Whiskey!
by Jennifer Clark, Region 10 Advocate
“How do YOU produce a desirable product? Women don’t know good whiskey.” Mhairi Voelsgen, founder of Brovo Spirits in Woodinville, WA, can laugh at this outrageous question now. However, when it was first posed to her at a meeting to raise operating capital for her already established and successful distillery, it was disappointing and frustrating as a female founder. Distilling is a male-dominated industry. Of the 2235 craft distilleries in the US in 2022, less than 8% were woman-owned. The Pacific Northwest (the region I proudly serve), is home to a large portion of the producers in this sector. I was fortunate to tour Brovo Spirits and learn Mhairi’s journey to distilling. I hope to one day visit more female-founded distilleries such as Freeland Spirits in Portland, OR and others in different coasts.
Fortunately for Mhairi’s loyal customers, she has not been deterred by early fundraising rejections, nor any other challenge facing her beloved “lady made” Brovo Spirits. Founded in 2011, she has achieved success by adhering to two defining principles. “We make all natural products – using only grown in the ground ingredients – with recipes created by bartenders.” And when Mhairi says, “all natural,” she means it – no artificial flavors or colors, no high fructose corn syrup, and no additives or fillers. Her relentless commitment to highlighting natural flavor has paid off. Among other accolades, Brovo Spirits was a 2019 James Beard Foundation Semi-finalist in the Outstanding Beer, Wine, or Spirits Supplier category, and in 2018 earned an Alchemist Award from the American Distilling Institute.
As with many entrepreneurs, Mhairi’s journey to starting a business was not a straight line. In fact, her background and experience were far from distilling. She studied architecture in school and was briefly a practicing architect. She also studied marketing and ultimately managed multiple high-profile brand accounts for marketing agencies. While going the extra mile for clients in the beer/wine/spirits sector, Mhairi was inspired to create her own products and put her energy into building her own company and brand.
To achieve that vision, Mhairi enrolled in distillery school. Out of the 40 students in her class, 39 said they were there to make vodka and gin. Faced with those numbers, she decided she would need to differentiate to carve out a sustainable niche. She narrowed her initial focus to single flavor liqueurs. This not only simplified production, but also led her to develop the unique product positioning to be “the second ingredient in the cocktail,” instead of competing in the overcrowded cocktail base space. It proved to be a winning strategy.
While Mhairi’s move to craft distilling may be surprising, her decision to become her own boss is less so. She shared that both her parents were small business owners, so maybe it was in her DNA all along. Observing their actions and decision-making processes likely helped shape her overall business acumen. Mhairi directly attributes her expertise at cashflow management and manufacturing process optimization to the practices she witnessed growing up. She also credits these skills with being critical to the business’ success.
She gets really excited talking about manufacturing and is proud her business creates U.S. manufacturing jobs and supports other U.S. growers and suppliers. Not only does she like manufacturing, but she’s also particularly good at it. Brovo produces 20 thousand cases per year with just Mhairi and 4 additional staff – an absolutely astounding output, which highlights their extraordinary efficiency and productivity. Production levels have grown 250% from 2019 and are planning to continue that trajectory. As production increases, Mhairi will hire more staff to meet the burgeoning demand.
Even with her impressive business skills, nothing could have prepared Brovo for the pandemic. Mhairi expressed deep gratitude for the SBA. COVID-19 resources for small business helped keep Brovo open through the most difficult moments of the pandemic. Fortunately, business is booming once again. New products are in the works, which means even more delicious cocktail possibilities are on the horizon. No matter what adversities lie ahead, Mhairi’s tenacity and astute business prowess will afford her the opportunity to take her business to the next level. Cheers!