Radiology may butter his bread, but these days Dr. Turner Lewis has been handling an increasing number of Transfusions.
That’s the name of the first flavor of Lewis’ new canned golf-themed cocktail company, Fore Craft Cocktails.
The West End resident and physician at Commonwealth Radiology launched Fore in May 2021 and has grown it quickly into an enterprise that’s becoming less of a side gig and more of a second full-time job.
“I joke with my wife – I never thought going to med school would mean I need a second full-time job,” Lewis said. “When I’m not at the hospital I’m doing this.”
Indeed, on a recent weekday Lewis had just finished his shift at the hospital and was headed into a Zoom call with a distributor in Tennessee that is brining Fore’s products to the Volunteer State.
Another such deal was just sealed in South Carolina and sales in Arkansas are set to begin this month. Lewis said he had just heard from a distributor in New Hampshire who also has ties to the U.K., another golf-friendly nation. That follows his initial distribution deal in Richmond and elsewhere in Virginia with Republic National Distributing.
All of that interest has ramped production of Fore’s beverages up to 5,000-gallon runs at a time, amounting to around 80,000-100,000 cans per order.
Fore’s cans are now sold in dozens of Kroger and Giant grocery stores, all the Total Wine stores in Virginia, as well as at dozens of golf courses and country clubs, and smaller markets like Libbie Market and Yellow Umbrella in Richmond.
“Things are kind of snowballing, in a good way,” Lewis said.
Lewis, 47, said the idea for Fore started in the early days of the pandemic, when x-rays and MRIs were mostly put on hold as the planet was social-distancing.
Like many during those times, Lewis was helping homeschool his three kids and golfing more than usual while enjoying a few cocktails. Then he decided not to let his idle hands take any devilish turns.
“In the pandemic I had a little too much free time on my hands,” he said. “I went down the rabbit hole on why there were no golf-branded cocktails.”
He was particularly interested in commercializing his favorite golf drink, the Transfusion. It’s a mix of vodka, ginger ale, grape juice and lime. He said plenty of golf course bartenders will mix one for you, but he sought to make a consistent recipe and can it.
From there he found a flavor house, where companies’ concoctions are developed and fine-tuned by a third party. He also navigated the red tape of getting a wholesaler’s and importer’s licenses from the Virginia ABC and hired a branding agency to help name the company and trademark a slogan: “Drink Like a Golfer.”
The first shipment of Transfusion cans in May 2021 was 500 cases or 24,000 cans made at a facility in Wisconsin.
“I flew out there and drove the Penske back because I was bootstrapping it,” Lewis said.
He stored that first order in his garage and had to get his wife to help him unload the cases one-by-one because the truck didn’t have a liftgate and, as a radiologist, he had never had a need to own a forklift.
“That was the only thing I hadn’t thought ahead about,” he chuckled. “I never made that mistake a second time.”
Initially, he drove around the state to peddle his brand of Transfusion drinks, making sales pitches at golf courses, small markets, and even at Topgolf.
Libbie Market in Richmond was first store to make a buy and Belmont Golf Course was the first course. On his own before the first distribution deal, he said he had managed to earn the business of around 50 shops and golf courses. He said Providence Golf Course in Chesterfield and The Hollows in Montpelier are among his biggest golf club customers these days.
“I’m certainly not a salesman but it certainly has resonated with people who know golf or know the drink,” he said. “We pretty quickly got the feedback that we had something cool here.”
The company’s momentum may also be fueled by the recent popularity of canned cocktails. Lewis said he’s been told he inadvertently entered one of the fastest-growing segments of the booze industry. A recent CNBC report found that ready-to-drink cocktails were a $1.6 billion segment last year, growing faster than beer and hard seltzer.
“The consultants said, ‘you’ve stumbled into the hot market,’” Lewis said. “All the brewers are trying to get into this space. It’s booming.”
Lewis isn’t the only Richmonder getting in on the canned booze action. Local yacht rock band Three Sheets to the Wind recently launched their own brand of canned wine, Steely Can.
Riding those tailwinds and with production and now distribution farmed out, Lewis said he’s focused on creating new flavors for a full line of Fore drinks, beyond just the Transfusion.
His boozy version of an Arnold Palmer will hit the market shortly and he’s working with the flavor house folks on a Bloody Mary and an Azalea. The latter, he said, is made of vodka, lemonade and pomegranate juice, and was made popular at Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters.
He hopes the expanded line will help his distributors in the various states get the drinks into more big chains, with Target and Walmart on his wish list.
Lewis also wants to land in golf-heavy states like Florida and Arizona, to combat seasonal ups and downs.
“The seasonality in the beverage world is something I’ve learned about. We want warm year-round golf states,” he said.
Fore, for now, will continue to be a one-man company, Lewis said. He’ll rely on himself for coming up with new drinks and much of the branding, while letting the distributors and production folks do what they do.
He said each production run costs him about $20,000-$40,000 and that any money made is pouring right back into the business.
“I’m not taking investment,” Lewis said. “But I’ve had a ton of people wanting to be involved.”
Lewis has worked as a doctor non-stop since graduating from Medical College of Virginia (VCU) in 2001. He said over the years he hasn’t had as much time to golf as he would like but plays mainly at Belmont and Country Club of Virginia when he does get the chance.
He said launching Fore – in addition to scratching an entrepreneurial itch that he said has always been present – has helped him spend more time on the golf course.
“I’ve met a lot of fun people and played a lot of golf,” he said of his time peddling the drinks. “It’s the first time my wife said, ‘Go play golf, you need to do some networking.”
And while the company is still in its infancy, Lewis said he’s pondered whether Fore could be the next step in his career, as an option to allow him to eventually ease out of medicine.
“Sitting in the darkroom reading X-rays and MRIs … I like it, it’s a great career. But being out on the golf course talking cocktails is a dream come true,” he said.