Frustrated by the lack of healthy alcoholic drinks in Hong Kong, Flora Ma and Jonathan Der set up hard seltzer company Only Drinks.
In a city dominated by major wine and spirit brands, the fledgling hard seltzer scene has done little but ride the coat tails of movements in Europe and the US. However, homegrown company Only Drinks is set on changing that, providing the city’s sippers with a high quality beverage that’s low in sugar and additives but which still packs a punch.
What gave you the idea to set up Only and what’s your vision for the brand?
When we were in Vancouver, we saw all our friends drinking these hard seltzers and realised there was a gap in the market in Hong Kong. While the drinks we’ve launched so far are vodka with soda, we’re not just a vodka soda company. We’re a beverage company focused on developing other alcoholic canned beverages with a health-conscious approach.
Tell us about your products
We have a ready-to-drink alcoholic beverage range, Only vodka soda and have three products so far: Guava Hibiscus, Yuzu Ginger and Tahitian lime. Mixed with five-times-distilled Australian vodka, all drinks contain zero sugar, carbs or artificial flavours.
Are there plans to expand the product range this year?
We’ll be launching a fourth flavour later this year and next year, we’re looking at launching a different product line. We’ve also used Asian ingredients as we’re based in Asia, and our future flavours down the line are going to have a similar theme.
You both had corporate careers previously. What were some of the challenges you faced setting up the business?
We set up during covid and started doing a lot of research online in 2020. We’d email and call developers but never met them. The developer we ended up working with is based in Australia and we still haven’t met them in person.
Tell us about some of the best moments since setting up the brand
When we did a sampling at Hong Kong Liquor Store, to see their in-person reaction was a real highlight. I think many have this perception about vodka-based drinks, but when people try it, that perception completely changes. Around 50% of our business is direct to consumer and sold through our own platform, so when we engage with our customers and they give their feedback on the drink, that’s special.
What gives your product the edge over similar products?
When you go to convenience stores, the canned alcoholic beverage selection is very limited, and the options available usually contain a lot of sugar and taste artificial. What people have picked up on with Only is that there’s no aftertaste, as we use vodka rather than a distilled spirit like hard seltzer brands. In addition to being sugar and carb-free, we’re 80 calories, while a beer is around 150 calories but with the same alcohol content of around 4.5%.
The drinks can be purchased at your website and at retailers and clubs all over the city. Are there plans to get more stockists?
So far, I think we have around 20 stockists, including some private clubs like The American Club and Hong Kong Yacht Club, and we’re the only such brand in these clubs. We’ve just confirmed a deal with an international five-star hotel, too. We’re very selective on which retailers we work with, as we want to build a premium brand. Our ultimate goal is to have Only everywhere, but first we want to be recognised as a premium brand.
You partnered with a beverage developer in Australia to develop Only. How’s that going?
We still haven’t been to Australia – the developer couriers the samples to us and then we invite our friends to taste them with us. If we had been able to visit, that would have been so much easier. Things just take longer so you have to plan it better.
What do you like about Hong Kong?
It’s very easy to set up a business, plus tax rates are low. In the US, you have to use distributors to sell alcohol, whereas in Hong Kong you don’t, so that means we can go direct to, say, CitySuper. This makes it quicker and the margins are better, as we don’t have to share it with the distributor. I also think Hong Kong is very supportive of local businesses and consumers are very open to trying new things.
What are you focusing on right now?
We are focused on Asia first, and we want to be one of Asia’s top ready-to-drink beverages. In five years, we’ll hopefully be operating in multiple markets and growing this category. We’re also focused on expanding our distribution network and we’ve been speaking to more hotels. Hopefully before the end of this year, we will have entered another Asian market. We’re also going to be sponsoring sports team – rugby perhaps, and a dragon boating team – to build brand awareness.
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The original version of this story ran in Jetsetter Magazine