ONLY Beverages Turns Vodka Sodas Into Sugar-free Seltzers

STARTUPS

Drinking Healthy with ONLY Beverages founders, Flora Ma and Jonathan Der

   

“We want you to drink and feel good,” Canadian-Hong Konger Flora Ma told The Beat Asia in an interview with friend and business partner Jonathan Der.

As co-founders of one-year-old ONLY Beverages, Hong Kong’s premium alcoholic drinks brand behind the creation of high-quality, health-conscious zero-carb and -sugar ONLY Vodka Soda, Flora and Jonathan believe drinking smart and healthy in our rushed town is vital for the gym-minded, fitness-focused, and healthy-eating Hong Kongers.

Former investment banker Vancouverite Flora and ex-real estate executive Jon bemoaned the city’s lack of hard seltzers for their summer 2020 celebrations, often found in the U.S. and Canada. It was at a time when the pandemic gripped Hong Kong, forcing visitors away from the tourist hub and locals to become innovative with their time and resources.



So, they created their own, launching ONLY Vodka Soda in May 2021 to much fanfare, exposing a local beverage market to the first low-calorie, zero-carb and -sugar, naturally flavoured, five-times distilled vodka soda in a can.

“There was a gap in the market,” Flora said, referencing trips to North America where “everyone’s drinking low calorie, sugar-free hard seltzers. One day [in Hong Kong, we asked each other, why doesn’t this exist here? There’s a gap in the market.”

Working in separate industries at the time, Flora and Jonathan identified a glaring issue in the local beverage industry and sought to capitalise on the absence of a drink they knew Hong Kong was desperate for. “As health-conscious drinkers, we always had very limited options,” she said.

Conceptualisation for the pair’s first line-up in ONLY Beverages, ONLY Vodka Soda, began a year prior to their launch in July 2020, with Flora and Jonathan reaching out to distributors and manufacturers to bring a wealth of their Asian-focused and inspired flavours of canned vodka to reality.

Flora and Jonathan found a manufacturer in Australia, existing within a strong market of ready-to-drink canned hard seltzers, to realise their first flavours. A partner in the Asia-Pacific worked effectively with supply chain issues surrounding an everchanging situation with COVID-19 in 2020 and beyond.

“[Developing the brand] was a very memorable time. [Our partners in Australia] would send us samples, we would get a focus group with friends, and get their feedback going back and forth until we were happy with tweaks,” Jonathan said.

ONLY Beverages launched ONLY Vodka Soda in May 2021 with two signature flavours, Tahitian Lime and Yuzu Ginger, “a safe business decision,” Flora said in a considered bet to hype up the brand yet hedge their success. “We were going to see how they do and then slowly, of course, add more flavours. It was always in the pipeline to add flavours.”

Launching ONLY Beverages equally forced a life change in both co-founders, pouring full-time attention into the beverage start-up, whilst managing business careers. Looking for an alternative career to test the waters, Jonathan quit his lucrative job in real estate to work on ONLY full-time from summer 2020.

Flora, who worked at her “dream job” at Goldman Sachs, was equally “very passionate about entrepreneurship,” yet needed motivation from her partner to take a big call: quit her job in finance in June 2021 at the guidance of husband and Jonathan and go “full steam ahead.”

“Five years down the road, I want to give this career and business the opportunity to grow and see how it thrives.”

A strong partnership was key to kickstarting ONLY. “Flora brings a lot that I’m not good at,” Jonathan said. “She’s very good at things that can really help drive the business. I was very happy when she came on board and shared the responsibilities with me. COVID changed my life when I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to corporate [in 2021] or become an entrepreneur. It was a very tough decision and looking back at it I'm so happy that I chose the other route and I have no regrets.”

Creating ONLY Vodka Soda has forced the team to create more than simply three flavours —launching their third in the second quarter of 2022, Guava Hibiscus — but a culture surrounding healthy drinking.

“A big part of what we are doing is education for people in Hong Kong about this type of drink. It is a very new different type of way of drinking, so, a lot of education needs to be involved for the customers to understand this drink because it's beyond a vodka soda,” Jonathan said.

“It’s about creating a culture behind the zero calorie and low sugar beverages and ingraining yourself in the drinking culture.”

Speaking on the name of the brand, the co-founders knew they “wanted something that was very pure. It’s ONLY Vodka Soda: very pure, it resembles the purity of our approach, and uses very simple ingredients. We can be direct, unisex, and playful on social media,” Jonathan said. “How we approached and made the products, [the name] was also very convenient for marketing,” Flora added.

“[ONLY Vodka Soda] is for anybody who enjoys having a refreshing drink. A drink that makes you feel good. It’s for a younger demographic for situations where you can come over and crack open a can and have a drink at home by yourself or on a boat with a bunch of your friends.”

With three flavours under their first line with ONLY Vodka Soda, Flora and Jonathan intend to continue strong, developing new tastes and experiences. “The addition of Guava Hibiscus was a perfect complement to the portfolio, bringing in customers that you otherwise wouldn't have.” The co-founders say the introduction of the flavour was in balance with their two starter citrus flavours and a need to bring more fruity flavours to their line-up.

"This summer is going to be the Guava Hibiscus summer. We want to push Guava Hibiscus. Anybody who's tried it really likes it,” Flora said.

Now with a continued success of the Guava Hibiscus flavour, ONLY continues to reach a larger base in Hong Kong. Their drinks are sold in over 40 retail locations including Four Seasons, Citi Super, HK Liquor Store, and Craftissimo. “We are the only brand like ours that sells in hotels and private member clubs, such as the American Club, Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, Kerry Hotel, and the Hong Kong Cricket Club,” Flora said. “We don't use any distributors, we do it all ourselves. We do direct everything.”

“We're still a relatively new company. We are a new concept and a new type of drink. It's not easy to get in front of big companies [and pitch ourselves]. You just have to be very persistent.” Bearing the brunt of COVID-19 that forced businesses to cut imports, Flora and Jonathan remain optimistic to push their products to Hong Kong’s largest retail outlets and F&B venues.

They equally act confident in the growth of their brand, beyond their first line of ONLY Vodka Soda to encompass more aspects within the beverage industry. “We are ONLY Beverages because we are a beverage company. We're not just a vodka soda company. We plan to bring other lines of distilled spirits and ready-to-drink products in the future,” Flora told The Beat Asia.

"We have plans to expand internationally with Hong Kong our home."

“A lot of people are referring to us as the pioneers of the ready-to-drink industry. We are trailblazing the way for pop-up drinks companies and direct-to-consumer brands with free delivery, low-calorie, and fruity flavours. It's great that more people are entering in the industry.”

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