It’s been those out-of-the-box thinkers and doers who’ve broken through the barriers that have kept Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders a stark minority in the beverage industry. From systemic biases, such as the prioritization of Eurocentric drinks, flavors, and language, to cultural values amongst AAPI immigrant parents who prioritize professions in medical or legal fields for their children, these barriers are both intrinsic and extrinsic.
But these beverage industry innovators are making a difference. Last year, AAPI-owned brands accounted for over 0.5 percent share of sales on ecommerce platform Drizly, an increase of six percent year-over-year. Further, the number of AAPI-owned brands on Drizly has increased 28 percent from 2022 and 60 percent from 2021. They’re also harnessing vast buying power: Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic and racial demographic in the U.S., following mixed-race populations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The first guard featured in our inaugural “AAPI Drinks Innovators” issue have nominated rising-star AAPI beverage professionals who are ushering in exciting new ways of contemplating and consuming beverages. Get to know them here.
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Disrupting Beverage Marketing
Jeremy Kim, cofounder, 하드Nectar Hard Seltzer
Nominated by: Carol Pak, founder, Sool
If you couldn’t already tell from his pink wig, Jeremy Kim has chucked out the old playbook on how to launch a beverage. Instead, he’s pulled in tactics from his music artist management career, and executed an entrepreneurial nimbleness that’s led to the kind of wild success where a drop of 10 pallets (208 boxes each) of Nectar Hard Seltzer sold out in two hours.
But in the beginning, he suffered his share of dishonest co-packers, broken supply chain issues, and dried-up cash flow. He walked into 200 stores and got 200 rejections. The mom-and-pop shops wouldn’t take the risk on an unknown brand. He’d finally produced a box but had nowhere to sell it.
A lightbulb went off. So for Nectar, which comes in flavors like yuzu, Asian pear, and lychee, he figured he’d “create a world beyond the can,” and use texting to connect to this community—particularly one that comprised even lesser-represented AAPIs. Not the “clean, cookie-cutter AAPI that mainstream media likes,” but ones that are “rougher around the edges,” “not so buttoned-up.” It’s this unfiltered and sales-impacting “community-building” that’s impressed nominator Carol Pak, the founder and CEO of Sool, which produces traditional Korean beverages in cans.
On Black Friday of 2020, Kim posted a TikTok of Nectar’s origin story along with a number to text for sales info. The video went viral. He convinced a store owner to carry 75 boxes. And the next morning, “it’s lines-out-the-door pandemonium.”
He’s since launched a podcast called Under the Influence, recruiting influential social media cohosts, and stepped onto every social media platform from YouTube to Discord. In the process, he’s racked up 1.3 million followers, who get news of upcoming drops and accompanying night events via text and on the respective media platforms.
He still has a lot on his plate in his goal to bring Nectar nationwide: a seven-city tour, two new flavors, and a live on-the-road podcast show.
Bringing the Spirits Awards into 2023
Nicolette Teo, cofounder, L.A. Spirits Awards
Nominated by: Thanh Nam Vo Duy, vice president, sales, prestige experiential retail, Moët Hennessy USA
Nicolette Teo knows the ins and outs of competition more than most of the world ever will. The three-time Olympic swimmer became a managing director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2015. She learned that, in the spirits world, too, winning means a lot: a bottle with a gold medal sticker stands out right at the point of sale.
But the judges—there and at other drinks competitions she’d observed—were a homogenous bloc of old white men whose palate and knowledge base judged a vast world of spirits. So in 2019, she and her business partner inaugurated the L.A. Spirits Awards, and they’ve taken liberties to shake off the dust.
“This is not your daddy’s spirits competition,” reads the website. Modernizing tactics have run the gamut from branding with fun illustrations to including new drink categories like non-alcoholic, ready-to-drink, flavored vodkas, and contemporary North American single malts. More impactfully, however, Teo brought in a broader spectrum of experiences and insights, as informed by race, culture, gender, and profession. So it’s not just one demographic’s perspective that dominates. She’s really trying to “break barriers in wines and spirits” with this “diverse panel of judges,” says Thanh Nam Vo Duy, the vice president of sales, prestige and experiential retail at Moët Hennessy USA, who nominated her.
“It’s not really reflective of the modern-day spirits industry, or its consumer,” says Teo.
Instead, her panel can judge based on what a baijiu, for instance, is supposed to taste like or bring in the cultural context for sweet tea vodka.
Teo’s innovativeness doesn’t end there: In March, she launched the High Spirits Awards for cannabis drinks.
Paving the Way for Women of Color in High-End Cocktail Service
Kristen Nepomuceno, head bartender, Refuge Bar, Houston, Texas
Nominated by: Caer Maiko, cofounder, Daijoubu
Before helming the bar at Houston’s Refuge, native New Jerseyan Kristen Nepomuceno worked the bar at the now-shuttered Augustine, a lauded French brasserie in New York City, and became a regular at other hot spots like Pegu Club and Death and Co.
She’s brought the ins and outs of impeccable service that she acquired in New York to Houston, along with the sensibility that, given the smaller number of high-end bars, she could really make a difference. That’s not just with regard to implementing her vision for service—“luxury without pretension”—but also for staff, which means more women of color building out their careers behind the bar.
Through Refuge, Nepomuceno has focused on bringing a diverse community of women into the Houston bar scene, offering training on all notes service-wise: from the hot towels upon greeting patrons to walking them through the menu and expanding their knowledge of drinks. “It’s about building long-lasting relationships,” she says. In addition to on-the-job training, Nepomuceno hosts one-on-one mentoring sessions with women in an industry that’s particularly prone to sexual harassment and discrimination.
She also welcomes collaborations like the one between Refuge and Caer Maiko and Sharon Yeung, hosting their Asian cocktail pop-up in February. Daijoubu, which is based in Austin, Texas, champions Asian-American women and flavors. “It’s great because it’s not just like one person is carrying the flag,” says Nepomuceno. That solidarity deeply resonated with Maiko, too.
Distilling Asian Dishes into Cocktails
Kyle Satina, beverage director, Belltree Cocktail Club, Carrboro, North Carolina
Nominated by: Paula de Pano, owner, Rocks and Acid, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
For Kyle Satina, an avid cook, the inspiration behind his cocktails is his own home cooking. Naturally, his flavor profile stems from childhood. So he finds himself distilling Asian dishes into cocktail form by preserving an array of creative cocktail shrubs and using them as a base for his drinks at the Belltree Cocktail Club in Carrboro, North Carolina. “He’s really creating new flavors,” says Paula de Pano, the owner of nearby Rocks and Acid wine shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who nominated Satina.
For an example of his approach, Satina describes one evening when he was stirring pad krapow gai (Thai minced chicken and basil) and found himself thinking, “I like these flavors in the food. Could I translate that into a cocktail?” He rejiggered the mainstream recipe for shrubs, typically made with fruits in the U.S., instead, muddling Thai chilies, Thai basil, soy sauce, and fish sauce. He added simple syrup, and let it all sit for about a week. Then he strained out the solids, poured in rice vinegar, and let those flavors coalesce for another week. For the cocktail, he figured the smokiness of a mezcal would play well with the savoriness of the fish sauce and soy sauce. And the raisin-like ancho chiles of an Ancho Reyes chile liqueur would round out the spice and the heat from the Thai chilies. It debuted at the bar this May, as the Oaxacan in Bangkok.
Satina’s also put his spin on mapo tofu and tonkatsu ramen, and the complex recipes are hitting the spot. His shrub-based cocktails are consistently among the top five sellers at the Belltree Cocktail Club.
Climbing Quickly Through New York City’s Wine Ranks
Lauren Hoey, wine director, Jupiter, New York City
When Lauren Hoey took the reins as wine director at Jupiter, an acclaimed new pasta-and-wine spot in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, she inherited a list of about 800 wines that she’d have to know by heart.
She’s added new wines, too, like those of winemaker Luigi Tecce in Taurasi. “I’ve only done a harvest once and that was very intense, really complicated, and I always kind of admire someone who’s self taught and then is able to make really beautiful, powerful, age-able wines,” says Hoey.
Her experiences had prepped her for running the show. Since 2014, she’d been honing her palate at some of the city’s top wine destinations: the now-closed Pearl and Ash, that emphasized a robust internal education program and non-interventionist wines; Acme, where mentor and beverage director Nicole Hakli encouraged her to pursue a sommelier certificate; and NoMad, also now closed, which focused on classical winemaking regions. And, of course, she had pitched in on one harvest.
At Jupiter, which stocks California, Italian, and French wines, she’s been further fine-tuning her global intel, going deep on obscure grapes like Timorasso in the same way she does Burgundy. She’s also meeting an uptick in demand for sustainable wines and sparkling wines; Jupiter, for instance, carries 66 sparkling wines
“She’s taking favorite Italian foods and pairing them with new and classic producers. I think it’s super cool,” says Jhonel Faelnar, the beverage director of Atomix, Atoboy, and Naro in New York City, and himself an alumnus of NoMad. “She’s also working the floor, introducing these wines herself. That’s really special.”
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