Dining Out with the Harrises
SIA pronounced See-a, means six in Scottish Gaelic and it happens to also be emblazoned across the bottles of the 96-point award-winning blended Scotch Whisky that has taken the spirits world by surprise. This unique blend of Speyside, Highland and Islay malt grain whiskies has the accolades that could easily makes this next best sipping spirit in your drinking repertoire. We had a chance meeting with Carin Luna-Ostaseski, the lovely young spirits entrepreneur and founder of SIA, and were intrigued by her unusual journey into the world of blended Scotch Whisky.
Deemed the first American woman to ever create a Blended Scotch Whisky company, and to be the first woman in history that created that company through a successful crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign, we were grateful to have her answer some burning questions on how she catapulted her passion for whisky into a successful product that is becoming a sought after brand.
How did you become such a whisky aficionado and what propelled you into creating SIA?
This is kind of an embarrassing story, and one I used to hesitate to tell, but I’ve come to realize a lot of people can relate and it’s been inspiring to many so now I share it easily and willingly. SIA came from—of all things—a break-up.
I’ve been drinking Scotch whisky for about 15 years, but it wasn’t until a relationship crashed and burned about 10 years ago, that I REALLY got into whisky. I was a graphic designer in NYC. My office was next door to a whisky shop. After my relationship ended, I found myself every week with extra money in my pocket that I was no longer spending on “couples counseling,” so every Friday, I took my couples counseling money, got to the shop and bought myself three, four, sometimes five bottles of really nice whisky. By year’s end, I had almost 300 bottles, and I was cured from the relationship! I started learning all I could about Scotch, and began hosting tasting events with these bottles.
Through these events, I learned about different brands, what people liked and why. I was very curious about people who thought Scotch was their “grandfather’s drink” and realized that there was room for a new brand of Scotch, one that was affordable, easy to drink and perfect for cocktails. This was the beginning of SIA Scotch Whisky.
How do you describe your product to others?
SIA is a delicious blend of Speyside, Highland and Islay malt and grain whiskies with flavors of vanilla, caramel, citrus, honey and a hint of smoke. SIA is remarkably smooth. Enjoy it neat, on-the-rocks, or in a variety of cocktail recipes.
I’ve been very impressed with the talent of the beverage community here in Las Vegas and the variety and creativity of the cocktails using SIA at places like the New York New York Hotel, Table 10, The Venetian and Lucky Dragon to name a few.
You basically went from a mildly interested Scotch whisky drinker to a now well-respected entrepreneur and the first American woman to create a blended whisky company and with no previous business experience in the beverage industry. What was that pivotal-life changing moment or moments that led you to go from causally imbibing to creating a world-wide brand?
While hosting Scotch tasting events, I realized that when I billed the events as such, the people who would attend were people who already knew they liked Scotch. I realized the audience I was going for were people who didn’t know they liked Scotch…yet. My joy was in introducing people to Scotch. I started bringing my tastings to other kinds of events—everything from fashion shows to space project fundraisers. It was fun to catch people where they didn’t expect to find a Scotch tasting, and inspiring when people said, “Oh I don’t drink Scotch,” and then watch their smile when they tried this amazing spirit.
After creating various blends in my kitchen using existing brands, I created a blend that many people at events seemed to enjoy. I realized my calling was to create a new Scotch brand. That proved a challenge, and as you said, I was a newcomer to the industry, and had no experience, no connections and no idea on where to begin. I had visited Scotland a few times and read several books about whisky, so I turned to the end chapters and began contacting one by one, various distilleries, independent bottlers and importers/exporters. I remember very clearly that I had written to 80 people and I received 80 “no” responses, not interested, we don’t do that sort of thing, etc. I was discouraged, but I persevered.
It was the 81st response that I got that was a Yes. A big Yes. It was an importing company Spirit Imports, Inc., the same one I use now and that has become my business partner in SIA that said “Yes, we believe in what you are doing, bringing a new brand of Scotch Whisky to a new generation, and we can help guide you through the creation process and bring you the blending houses, manufacturing and distribution connections, and know-how to do so,” and they did. I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
You managed to be the first crowd funded Scotch Whisky in history through Kickstarter. What was your impetus in using Kickstarter as a funding platform? Do you think this will motivate more people to become engaged in the spirits industry?
Absolutely. Kickstarter offers an excellent tool for your friends and family, who have seen your hard work and dedication to something through the years, to help make that dream a reality. I had already contributed to other friend’s projects on Kickstarter so I was familiar with the way it worked. It was in 2012, so the idea of crowdfunding was still relatively new. Today, crowdfunding is very popular, so I share my crowdfunding experience and advice on a weekly basis with other entrepreneurs who write to me, and I’ve even spoken about “How to Crowdfund your Bar Business Idea” at Tales. With so many awesome Beverage Industry products, bars, books and brand concepts, I believe it’s important to give back and share what worked for me and help other’s dreams and passions come to life.
SIA was award 96 points from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, 91 points from Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and Double Gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition along with many other accolades; not bad for your first venture. Can you tell us a key person or persons that helped mentor and guide you with such expertise in branding and marketing your product?
Thank you! It has been very exciting and I realize it is not usual for a new brand to be so well-received this quickly. I was hesitant to enter these because some have entry fees, and as I was boot-strapping my business from my personal savings, so every penny counts. I’m happy my importer encouraged me to do so as the awards are helpful for consumers who are new to SIA when they see it on a shelf, and also to Beverage Industry professionals who bring them to new bars, restaurants and markets.
Where are you expanding the SIA brand and where do you project your business to be in five years? Any other products that you may be looking into?
SIA is currently distributed in 10 states across the U.S. and across Australia. I hope to have SIA distributed across all 50 states and expand internationally with a 700 ml bottle size and to create new expressions.
What advice would you give to someone that may have a great beverage product and wants to bring it to the marketplace?
Start with Vegas! Seriously. I wish I had launched my brand here sooner. The level of quality and professionalism from the Beverage and Mixology community, chain and independent stores, our distribution partner Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits and the outstanding Southern Glazer’s Mixology team, is the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the country. How quickly SIA has been embraced as a go-to for outstanding cocktails here has been incredible. And add to all of that…Vegas is so much fun!