Power Pitch

When life gives you lemons, this founder says spike your lemonade

When life gives you lemons, this founder says spike your lemonade
When life gives you lemons, this founder says spike your lemonade

There's a new bartender on the start-up block, and she's shaking up hard lemonade.

"I've been in the industry for over 10 years and saw the demand and opportunity to create a better option in the ready-to-drink category," said Bronya Shillo.

Shillo's "better option" is Fishers Island Lemonade, or FIL. She calls her 9 percent alcohol concoction of premium vodka, whiskey, natural lemon and honey, "giggle water" for active beachgoers.

Testing the waters

Cans of FIL have only recently hit store shelves, but Shillo has been pouring her lemonade for years. It began as a house cocktail crafted on Fishers Island, New York, at The Pequot Inn, a bar the Shillo family has owned for almost two decades.

This is where Shillo spent many years bartending. And it's where Shillo returned after quitting her desk job. But instead of getting behind the bar, she decided to get the family lemonade into mass distribution.

Bottoms Up

Fishers Island Lemonade cans.

The 12 ounce bright yellow striped cans are now produced in Colorado, but sold in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York's Long Island at select stores and bars. Four-packs retail for $15.99 to $17.99, while bars and restaurants typically charge $8-$12 for cocktails that use FIL.

Shillo sells the cans wholesale for $75 per case of 24.

David Lombardo, wine and beverage director of Benchmarc Restaurants, is concerned the wholesale price of more than $3 a can may be prohibitive for the hospitality industry.

"Given the fact that it is liquor, and not malt or beer, it is going to be a little higher than the average craft beer," Shillo told CNBC.

Mixologist Alicia Syrett questioned the product's marketing of "natural" ingredients.

Shillo said her lemonade does not contain any corn syrup fillers or high fructose corn syrups. She emphasized that, FIL is not organic, adding that, "Our vodka is distilled from a corn grain giving it a smoother finish, the addition of whisky and honey flavor give the cocktail a slightly smoky, sweet layer."

Sweet or not, Nikhil Kalghatgi, a venture capitalist at Vast Ventures, questioned the distribution model and wondered if the start-up could reach even 100,000 cases.

But the juice may be worth the squeeze for Shillo.

Fishers Island Lemonade served with a wedge of lemon and a sprig of mint.

She said the focus has been on the East Coast, where she has sold more than 1,500 cases in the first year. She also said the company expanded by more than 350 percent in year one.

Market Research firm Ibis World reported that ready-to-drink mixed spirits brought in upwards of $814 million in revenue in 2014, with an annual growth of 2.1 percent. According to the report, Mike's Hard Lemonade Co. made up 17.9 percent of the market share.

But unlike Mike's Hard Lemonade, and other popular lemon-flavored beverages like Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, and Twisted Tea, FIL does not fall into the malt beverage category.

Self-funded with $120,000, FIL officially launched its cans in 2014. Shillo told CNBC Fishers Island Lemonade is profitable to date, but she would not disclose any revenue specifics.

According to Shillo, FIL plans to expand to more major cities in the near future, and it's on track to sell more than 8,000 cases this summer. That's a number Shillo can toast to.

BY CNBC'S Joanna Weinstein

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