Many people relied on their hobbies to get them through the past year. For some, that hobby was baking, yoga or playing an instrument. For others, it was drinking.
At-home cocktail making saw a surge last year. According to Nielsen data, alcohol sales outside of bars and restaurants increased by around 24 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, sales of spirits and hard liquor increased by more than 27 percent. But even if you’ve become a skilled mixologist, you probably miss that expertly crafted drink from your favorite cocktail bar.
Chicago-based startup Bartesian has gained success by finding the balance between these two things: being able to enjoy a cocktail in the comfort of your own house, and not having to make it yourself.
On Tuesday, Bartesian announced the closing of its $20 million Series A funding round, which was led by Cleveland Avenue LLC. This new capital will help the young company grow to meet its significant consumer demand.
Bartesian’s flagship product is a smart cocktail maker that uses the company’s dedicated flavor capsules and the owner’s choice of spirits to create dozens of different cocktails. Users can pour their favorite brands of hard alcohol into one of the machine’s four tanks, put in a capsule for the drink they want, follow the instructions on the attached touchscreen and then wait for their cocktail to be made.
The Bartesian machine is a lot like a Nespresso for cocktails, except there’s a wider variety of drinks you can make and, of course, they can get you drunk (unless you choose the mocktail option).
Ryan Close, the CEO and founder of Bartesian, used to work as a bartender to help pay for college. But even with his professional experience, he found that his cocktails were sometimes inconsistent.
“I could make an old fashioned, but I wasn’t consistent with it,” Close told Built In. “Often I didn’t have the right ingredients. Sometimes it would taste too strong and then the last sip would be all sugar. Sometimes the person I made it for wouldn’t enjoy it and it sat there wasted.”
Years later, Close was working in crowd equity funding when he met a few engineers in an incubator program. The engineers were working on a concept for a cocktail maker for hotel rooms, but Close — with his cocktail-making experience — saw the potential to expand this product and appeal to consumers.
In 2014, Close and the engineers launched the Bartesian Kickstarter campaign, which was met with remarkable support. The team then spent the next few years perfecting its machine, working with bartenders and chefs to perfect recipes and developing its flavor capsules. By 2017, Bartesian was sending out its first machines to Kickstarter backers. Then in September of 2019, the company finally released its product to the public through its D2C website.
Bartesian had a successful Q4 of 2019, thanks in part to being named as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in November, but that success grew in the start of 2020. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, demand for Bartesian skyrocketed.
Bartesian achieved 975 percent year-over-year revenue growth in 2020, but Close says that number is misleading because its product was sold out for most of the year. Had it been available, that number would be even higher.
Bartesian chose to raise funding from investors in order to ramp up production of its products and provide customers with the best service it can.
Part of this involves its line of cocktail capsules. Bartesian launched with just seven cocktails, now it has over 30. And the company is also working to develop more. Close says he wants the company to have around 50 cocktails by the end of the year, and hundreds in the future.
Bartesian also offers a monthly capsule membership, where subscribers can have a set amount of capsules sent to them regularly. This gives customers the chance to try new flavors while stocking up on their favorites.
Bartesian is still a tiny company, with only 10 employees. So this funding will also help the company grow. Close says that he plans to hire another 10 employees this year, hiring for roles across marketing, content operations and more.
The company has largely achieved its popularity through word of mouth. With the new capital, it hopes to boost its digital ads and marketing presence in a push to capture a larger audience and grow a sense of brand identity.
To help with this brand identity, Bartesian has recruited actress Mila Kunis to be on its board of directors. Kunis works with whiskey producer Jim Beam, which is an investor in Bartesian. Close asked his investors at Jim Beam to send a Bartesian machine to Kunis, which was enough to convince her to help the company with its strategy.
According to Close, a lot of the excitement around the Bartesian product is organic. The company has thousands of five-star reviews on Amazon, tens of thousands of people signed up to its monthly subscription and even an active hashtag on TikTok — a platform that Close, admittedly, hardly understands. To him, this success has a lot to do with the company’s emphasis on its customer experience. And at Bartesian, the experience is just as important as the product it sells.
“At first, people get very excited about the appliance. It’s sexy, small, and looks very premium,” Close told Built In. “But the reality is that you need to have an incredible experience and a quality drink. So we’re very snobbish. We won’t accept anything but the best quality. It sounds silly, but it hasn’t been about making a profit. It’s about producing an incredible experience.”