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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021 3 weeks ago

Longtime entrepreneurs dive headfirst into business idea amid pandemic — now it's valued at $12 million

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The founders of Bushwacker Spirits were told repeatedly to put off starting the company until after the pandemic had run its course for a year. Good thing they didn't listen.
by: Amanda Postma Sarasota-Manatee Editor

What do you get when a couple of admitted ‘ol country boys get together and make Bushwacker drinks for their wives? A new company. 

At least that’s what happened for business partners Michael Smith and Carter Echols in the summer of 2019. 

“It was such a mess in the kitchen and we couldn’t find all of the ingredients we wanted to make it with,” Smith says, “that we were wondering why no one had put all the liquors in one bottle to make it easy.” 

They each had recently sold separate companies that they had been involved with for many years. “We were both looking for a new project,” Smith says.

So they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The duo were the original investors in the company, but have since added partners to help raise money. As of mid-November they had raised $1.7 million, mostly from a mix of  friends, family and outside sources. They also had started a funding round expected to raise $1.3 million. Smith says they were approached by a lot of outside sources wanting to invest, but they only took on a small group that had similar goals for the company. 

Now, the Sarasota-based company, Bushwacker Spirits, is valued at around $12 million as of mid-November, they say, projected to sell 360,000 750 milliliter bottles of their product in 2022. The valuation is driven by sales and growth, Smith says. With it being a young company, he says there is a strong multiple used because of the rapid growth and sell-through compared to other brands in the industry.

The process to get this far, however, wasn’t easy. 

They spent almost half a year working with a craft distiller in Jacksonville attempting to get the flavor of a great Bushwacker down. Invented in the 1970s in the Virgin Islands, a Bushwacker is a concoction of dark crème de cacao, dark rum, Kahlúa, cream of coconut and milk. 

“We started learning why somebody hasn’t put it in a bottle,” Smith says. “It’s really tough to make something taste like a Bushwacker cocktail.” 

Then in December 2019, they threw out all of their work and started over. By March 1, 2020 everything was ready, including the bottle design and supplier. 

Then COVID-19 hit. And if they had a dollar for every time someone told them to wait a year… Well, they wouldn’t have a successful business. 

“Carter and I had put everything we had into this business,” Smith says. “We don’t really have that option. We kind of went all in.” 

Instead, the business duo reached out to all of the regulatory authorities within the state of Florida to get everything approved. By May 1, 2020, they had their first bottle of Bushwacker. 

“We thought we were in business then,” says Echols. 

But then they had to figure out a distributor, as manufacturers can’t sell directly to stores or bars. The federal government requires a three-tier system where a company sells product to a distributor who then sells to other distributors or stores, restaurants and bars. 

Unfortunately, most of the distributors weren’t in the office because of the pandemic, and if the duo was able to get ahold of someone, they were told the distributor was not taking on any new customers. But again, instead of giving up, the business partners sent T-shirts and other merchandise to distributor executives across Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. 

“Lo and behold, they started calling,” Smith says. 

Within a month of their newfound marketing technique, they had two distribution contracts. One was in Tennessee and the other was in the Florida Panhandle. 

Chaos ensued the following four months when the product hit the shelves. “We couldn’t supply how fast stores were buying it,” Smith says. 

At that point they couldn’t even get to marketing the product to customers, as they had to focus their efforts on manufacturing. Around April of this year, the company signed a contract with North American distributor Breakthru Beverage to help reach the rest of Florida. 

Within 12 months, the company has had to move into three different office locations as business continues to grow. At the moment it has two office employees and three on-the-road salespersons —with plans to hire at least two more in-office and five more on the road. 

The journey hasn’t been simple, but the pair admit they had a little help from the get-go. The well-known Bushwacker name, for example, opened a lot of doors in the beginning. “The name itself put the product in a lot of people’s hands,” Smith says. 

Still, Bushwacker Spirits didn’t get to where it is today without a little preparation. 

After proving the product was going to do well in 2020, they brought on some additional partners to bring more capital into the business. “That was all in preparation for the next year,” Smith says. “We both have a history of knowing that you need to be well-funded, have a good business plan and prepared for growth when it happens.”

For example, the partners are raising more capital now because growth has been faster than expected. “We put the tools in place a year ago in case this day came,” he says. 

And a little persistence never hurt anyone. “Michael and I show up every day,” Echols says. “Whatever it takes, we try to get it accomplished.” 

So what’s next? They’re heading to Georgia, Louisiana and Texas to tackle those markets by the second or third quarter of 2022. After that it’s a nationwide rollout.  

“I would say COVID-19 was bad on some aspects,” Echols says, “but also it helped with the number of people who were sitting at home drinking.” 

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