For Amanda Coulbourn, Jenny Lucas and Katie Williams, a conversation over cocktails led to a new local startup built around precisely what they were sipping on.
The three friends founded Navy Hill, a brand of cocktail mixers that are equal parts club soda and tonic water, with flavors and electrolytes added. Since hitting the market in June, their products are now sold in 50 stores in seven states.
The idea was born last year when the trio started chatting at a downtown drinking spot.
“We wanted something that tasted better but wasn’t all bad for you,” Coulbourn said.
Some serendipity then helped get the product in development. Coulbourn’s neighbor, who happened to be a food scientist, helped them develop the product. After a few test batches, the group felt it was ready.
“It was just so simple. There’s space on the shelf for it … We never hesitated, we just kept moving forward,” Coulbourn said.
Navy Hill debuted with three flavors: original, juniper and ginger. Coulbourn, Williams and Lucas said they prefer to sub in with their preferred classic drinks: vodka soda, tequila soda and vodka tonic.
Navy Hill’s mixers boast nearly half the calories and sugar of classic tonic water. The trio said they were surprised to see that, while many bartenders made their own improvised “sonics,” there was no one bottling and selling it.
“As we’ve taken this to market, we’ve had people approach us and say, ‘That’s my drink, that’s what I do at home anyway,’ which has been validating,” Williams said.
The first bottles hit store shelves in June. Four-packs of 8.45-ounce bottles vary by retailer, but typically range from $8 to $9.
Lucas said retail stores have made up most of sales so far, with plans to distribute to more bars and restaurants going forward. Navy Hill has found its way around Richmond to the likes of Libbie Market, Union Market, Elwood Thompson’s and Brenner Pass.
The mixers are also available in the rooms of some hotels, including Quirk, where the idea was born.
“Hotels are a great marketing tool for us – it’s been great exposure,” Williams said.
The product is made and bottled by a contract production facility, and Navy Hill is self-distributing while looking for a distributor.
The company is leasing warehouse space from Free Run Wine Merchants near The Diamond, a few miles west from the former neighborhood for which the company is named. Navy Hill sat where the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park now stands downtown, and was bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for Interstate 95.
Coulbourn, Williams and Lucas’ backgrounds are in architecture, real estate and literary education, respectively. The company is self-funded, and is the first foray into entrepreneurship for all three co-owners.
Navy Hill marks the third cocktail-mixer startup to be born out of Richmond. Texas Beach Bloody Mary mix, also named for a Richmond landmark, launched in early 2015. Keep It Simple Syrup launched in 2011. Both are distributed statewide, with Keep It Simple Syrup recently landing on shelves in Pennsylvania.