Sales of ‘Merican Mule premium cocktail have skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fueling the good spirits of its UConn alumnus co-founder.
“Sales have been shot out of a cannon,’’ says Dean Mahoney ’09 (BUS). “The pandemic posed challenges to people who typically went to bars and restaurants. They wanted a quality cocktail at home, so they shifted their search to liquor stores.
“The sale of other canned cocktails is up 90 percent, and our beverage is up significantly more,’’ says Mahoney, who earned a finance degree. “We’ve seen dramatic growth.’’
‘Merican Mule, based in South Norwalk, made its beverage debut with its reinvention of the popular Moscow Mule cocktail. Because it requires only a few ingredients – including vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice – people mistakenly believe it is an easy drink to create.
“It’s an easy drink to make, but a hard drink to make well,’’ Mahoney has said. He and his partners made, and tasted, more than 70 versions of the mule before developing their final recipe.
They’ve since added three new mules, including Mexican, Tropical, and Southern versions, as well as an array of seasonal varieties, including its new Fire Mule, made with bourbon, proprietary ginger beer, and cinnamon. New flavors are on the horizon this year, as well as a prospective business partnership.
Merican Mule has joined with the Bishop Family, founders of both the SoBe beverage company, which grew to a $220 million firm in just four years, and Blue Buffalo pet food, which became a $1 billion business. In addition to their role as investors, the family will advise and help guide ‘Merican Mule’s growth and brand-awareness strategy.
“They saw what we were doing and how we were trying to disrupt the alcohol industry, and they liked it,’’ Mahoney says. “They have tremendous experience building brands from small startups to industry standouts.’’
‘Merican Mule has grown its presence from two states in 2018 to 12 states today, with plans to expand along the East Coast. The canned beverage has gained a foothold with boaters, beach goers, as well as managers of golf courses and pool bars, who don’t want broken glass on their property. Mahoney says he expected his target audience to be customers in their 20s and 30s, but discovered a strong market among middle-aged consumers as well.
Finding the Formula for Success
Mahoney, a native of Southbury, comes from a family of entrepreneurs, and says he always knew he would own a business. After graduating from UConn, he worked in a financial leadership rotation program at United Technologies Corporation, honing expertise on cost saving and spending reduction. He later worked for data security, analytics, and storage giant EMC Corporation (now Dell EMC) for three years as a field account executive.
When he and friends saw people drinking Moscow Mules in a Santa Monica bar, and found that liquor stores didn’t sell them pre-made, they realized they had an opportunity to create something new. After crafting the original beverage, Mahoney returned to the East Coast to spearhead distribution. He got a big break at the end of 2017, when a major liquor distributor agreed to add the company as a client.
“When I started this company, I recognized the importance of perseverance. You have to constantly be determined or you’re going to fail,’’ he says. “But now I’ve also come to appreciate patience as well. If you’re patient and calm, you can analyze your next step, whether it is a partnership, adding a new flavor, or who to hire. I’m still learning sometimes to wait and think about things. You need to be driven, passionate and motivated, but having patience increases clarity on strategic decisions.
“As your company grows, everything becomes more complicated,’’ he continues. “I’m very focused on creating a strong team and culture that resembles my time in tech, that fosters the culture, heart and voice of the brand. I want to create a customer-focused, fun and young brand and find the right employees.’’
He has hired UConn graduates for marketing and sales positions, and is considering starting an internship program. “I am a proud UConn alum,’’ Mahoney says.
In addition, Mahoney will serve as a mentor this year to the School of Business’ Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, guiding and advising UConn-affiliated startups. It’s a role he’s excited about, as he believes Connecticut needs more vibrant and innovative companies within its borders.
But future entrepreneurs should know that owning a business isn’t as glamorous as it might appear, Mahoney says.
When the distillery shipped 100 cases of the beverage to New York, and forgot to include the pak-tech handles that bundle the cans together, Mahoney had to drive to Long Island with them.
“No job is too low for the owner,’’ Mahoney jokes. “We’ve bootstrapped and band-aided along the journey and we wear a lot of hats running a startup.’’
But four years later, he hasn’t grown tired of drinking his ‘Merican Mule.
“The Moscow, our flagship and the original, is still my go-to drink. It is widely revered and the most successful, but the other beverages have earned a great deal of respect,’’ he says. “We think we have something special.’’