Sarasota alcohol spirits company seeks $2.5M in funding
Bushwacker Spirits navigates a challenging regulatory environment in various states, with an eye toward more products and even global expansion.
| 5:00 a.m. November 28, 2023
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Two years can make quite a difference, as evidenced by the amount of growth Sarasota-based Bushwacker Spirits has seen since fall 2021.
For one, the company, which was founded in 2019 and had its first bottle ready for market in May 2020, is currently amid a $2.5 million funding round. It's the company’s third funding raise, coming after one that raised $1.7 million and one that raised $1.3 million. The efforts are paying off: co-founder and owner Michael Smith says the company is nearing cash flow positive status. Bushwacker now has three offices, though most of the company's 10 employees work remotely.
Smith, along with his business partner Carter Echols, established Bushwacker Spirits after creating a ready-to-drink liquor called Bushwacker. The original drink was invented in the 1970s in the Virgin Islands and is a concoction of dark crème de cacao, dark rum, Kahlúa, cream of coconut and milk.
Part of the company’s growth has been thanks to an expansion into other states. Currently, the bottles can be found in 10 states. In about two months, the liquor will be expanding into seven more states. Then 15 other states are scheduled to roll out Bushwacker in February and March 2024.
That expansion, while good to boost interest and sales, obviously, has also been the most difficult part of growth, Smith says.
“The laws and compliance are so different,” he says of each state.
There are two different types of states in the alcohol business — control and non-control. Control states act as the distributor, so every alcohol that comes into the state has to be shipped to a state or state-approved warehouse, where it’s sold to stores.
“Those states usually take a long time because the ABC boards of the state usually only approve products one or two times a year,” Smith says. ABC is the Alcoholic Beverage Control program run in those states.
The non-control states allow alcohol-related businesses to ship directly to the distributor. “Florida is one of the faster ones,” Smith adds.
New York, for example, requires the product to be advertised before companies are allowed to even apply. The process gives residents six weeks to notify the state board if they have a problem with the product being released in the state. Then the application process takes about four months, Smith says.
That’s compared to West Virginia, which was a smoother three-month process, he notes.
This specific hurdle has caused enough of a headache that the company is adding more employees to help handle the paperwork. Bushwacker intends to add four to five more employees to its 10-person payroll over the next year, company officials say.
The company also utilizes various contract brand ambassadors for the 40-50 tastings held each month, mostly at liquor stores. Those ambassadors set up a table with the Bushwacker products and giveaways for store visitors to sample and learn about the brand.
Currently, the brand includes the bottled Bushwacker drink and a new product created for the frozen drink machines in bars. It’s a three-liter jug of Bushwacker concentrate that when mixed with a little bit of water, “comes out like an alcoholic milkshake,” Smith says. “It comes out just wonderful. And we’re solving an issue. There’s lots of bars that make Bushwackers in a frozen machine. They all have to mix up some of the ingredients themselves in-house and put in the machines because there’s nothing pre-mixed.”
The company is also about to unveil a new plastic ice bucket that comes with mini shots of Bushwacker. Smith says they’re currently designing the bucket. Then after that Bushwacker is expecting to release a rum that doesn’t have cream in it. “General rum that can be used as a house rum,” he says. He also hopes to continue expanding into more states, as well as a few countries.