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Milwaukee Talks: SoulBoxer's Doug MacKenzie and Jason Neu

Sunday, December 31, 2017   (0 Comments)
Molly Snyder

Doug MacKenzie and Jason Neu first met in 2008. At the time, Neu was managing Longneck's bar in Big Bend, Wis. and he bought the very first case of Great Lakes Distillery's vodka, named Rehorst Vodka, after GLD owner Guy Rehorst.

MacKenzie worked as a distiller at Great Lakes, which was the first distillery to open in Wisconsin since Prohibition, and Neu had no idea it was legal to make spirits in the state.

"It was a wild concept to me," says Neu.

Neu stopped by the distillery, which was on Holton Street in Riverwest at the time (it moved to a larger space with a tasting room in 2011), to check out the facility.

"At that point I decided I was going to work there," says Neu. "So I just hung around and drank there until they needed me to do something."

Neu went on to play a variety of roles at GLD, including brand marketer and tour guide extraordinaire, and MacKenzie perfected his distilling skills. Formerly, MacKenzie received a degree in architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and worked in furniture design, but decided to change careers after meeting Rehorst and realizing his interest and aptitude for distilling.

MacKenzie and Neu worked together at GLD for about four years, and during that time they solidified their friendship and entrepreneurial goals. In 2015, the two brought their ideas to fruition and started SoulBoxer Cocktail Co.

Originally, they planned to open a distillery, because that's what they knew, but quickly realized they didn't have the resources to do so and that distilleries were quickly popping up all over the country.

"We started to ask ourselves the question 'what are people not doing?'" says Neu.

During this phase, Neu, who was always experimenting with cocktail creation, put a whiskey barrel in his fridge filled with the ingredients to make a batch of Old Fashioneds. He chose the same ingredients as a bartender would use to craft a single cocktail, but calculated a larger ratio. His goal was to replicate the exact flavor of a supper club-made Old Fashioned.

Neu was pleased with the outcome of the experiment. He and MacKenzie started to talk about the possibility of creating a ready-to-pour Old Fashioned that was, truly, as good as one that was handcrafted.

"At first, I wanted to run a still," says MacKenzie. "But the more we talked about it and thought about it, a light went off in my head and it really made sense. No one else was doing this."

The two wrote a business plan, teamed up with Corey Savage from Savage Solutions, and the rest has been a flurry of fun, stress and success.

"From the beginning, the response has been phenomenal," says MacKenzie.

OnMilwaukee: You started SoulBoxer in May of 2015. Are you happy with the company's growth so far?

Neu: Absolutely. We are starting to act like a real business now and setting a lot of goals. We've expanded our markets to Minnesota and Illinois. We grew by 140 percent the first year – we sold 10,000 cases this year – and project we'll double sales in 2018.

Who are SoulBoxer's customers?

Neu: We're trying to zero in on that. So far the demographics are all over the board.

MacKenzie: It's anyone who wants to come home from work and easily pour themselves an Old Fashioned. There are plenty of people who love making cocktails and want to do it, but if you don't want the hassle of making a drink and want it to be as easy as cracking a beer, we'd love to have you as our customer.

How much does nostalgia play a part in your sales? Are people buying this because it reminds them of their parents or grandparents or simply of another time?

MacKenzie: For sure. We definitely remember our parents and grandparents drinking Old Fashioneds, and so do many of our customers. Younger people might not have these same memories, but they carry this "nouveau nostalgia." They have seen shows or movies or just know that there are cocktails that were drank in the '50s, '60s and '70s and they like them, in part, for that reason.

Have you brought a bottle of SoulBoxer to any traditional supper clubs?

MacKenzie: No. That's sacred ground and we don't want to tread on it. We would never walk into the Packing House and say, "you should try this." The supper club Old Fashioned is our inspiration and we don't think people should stop drinking them in supper clubs, but we wanted to provide that same experience at home. Where it's just as easy to pour yourself a really good Old Fashioned as it is to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine.

So why doesn't SoulBoxer taste fake?

MacKenzie: As a distiller I was never going to make anything that 'tasted' like something else. It's the same Old Fashioned whether it's made in a keg or a glass. We took a sugar cube, Door County cherries, bitters, orange slices and brandy and we increased the ratio of everything. We use really good spirits, pure sugar and real bitters. That almost sunk us: the Angostura bitters. From the beginning we said we are only doing this if we could get these bitters and we didn't think we could source them at first, but we did. These bitters are the backbone of the Old Fashioned and what makes one a truly Wisconsin Old Fashioned.

What do you love about owning your business?

MacKenzie: My favorite moments are when I offer someone a sample of our product and they are skeptical. They have a skeptical look on their face. And they should be skeptical. So then when they drink it and smile and are surprised by how good it tastes – that's the best.

Neu: We are genuinely bringing joy to people and I don't mean the intoxication effect. It's something different. It's more than that. It's hard to pinpoint, but we love sharing that with people.

You introduced a Bourbon Old Fashioned earlier this year, so what's next? More Old Fashioneds? Totally different cocktails?

Neu: We have a list of at least 20 possibilities. We have to wait for the right time and the right product. I will say this: we'll never do a Cosmo or an appletini.

You guys prefer to be very hands-on and connected to the customer. Do you think that it will stay that way?

MacKenzie: Yeah, we really do and we never want to give that up. It's fun to interact with our customers and also the owners and employees at the store when handing out samples.

Where can people buy SoulBoxer?

Neu: It's available all over, from more than 500 different retailers. But we gotta give a shout-out to the guys who put us on the map, who had our back from the beginning: Ray's, Otto's and Discount Liquor. They've been really supportive since day one.

Drink Wisconsinbly has been really great, too. They allowed us to install a SoulBoxer 'bubbler' and that's the only way they serve it there. It's one of the most fun things we've done since we started the company.

Where is SoulBoxer made?

Neu: It's made at Midwest Custom Bottling in Pewaukee. There we are able to do 2,500 cases a day.

How did you come up with the name SoulBoxer and what does it mean?

Mackenzie: We hired really good people to come up with the name.

Neu: Yeah, we met with Corey Savage from Savage Solutions and walked in knowing nothing about how the process worked. And through that process we discovered once and for all we didn't want to be a distillery. They really dug into our heads and helped us hone in on what we were doing and wanted to do.

They helped us figure out the story of the Old Fashioned. It's based on the supper club experience, when you or your parents or your grandparents would go out to dinner, have five Old Fashioneds at the bar before getting seated and then devour the entire relish plate.

They put all of these stories of the Old Fashioned into a name. SoulBoxing means having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. It means telling yourself you're going out for one but then having more, because that's how we socialize in Wisconsin. But it's also about striking that balance between the angel and the devil: having fun, but knowing when it's time to stop, too.

What are your strengths as partners?

MacKenzie: We have different skills but very similar palates in just about everything, from beer to food to Old Fashioneds. Another strength is we know what we're good at and know what we're not good at and are willing to go out and pay someone who's better at something than we are.

Neu: Neither of us believe in a hard sales approach. We just ask for a shot at it. The chance to share our product and start to build trust with our retailers and customers.

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