[NASHVILLE] One of the best parts of what we’re doing in Nashville is not the amazing travel or the awesome products, but getting to meet the people making those products, learning about their inspiration and stepping into their lives. You just never know how or when it’s gonna happen.
During our trip we came across Eli Mason Old Fashioned and Mint Julep cocktail mixers. They’re made in Nashville, and to me these drinks speak of the South. So I Googled the brand, found a number on the website, left a message and got a call back from Luke Duncan about an hour later. Two days after that, we were meeting Luke at the Nashville Farmers’ Market to pick up an order and get to know more about the man behind Eli Mason. Little did we know we would also gain extraordinary insight into launching a business and come to root for a little girl with stomach cancer.
Luke first began messing around with mixers in the middle of 2012:
“I was trying to find a classic Old Fashioned cocktail because I wanted to drink like Don Draper. So I went online, started looking at recipes, and they were all over the place. And there was this huge debate about do you crush the fruit, do you use rye or bourbon, and I though, this community is so unwelcoming to outsiders. It’s a great classic American drink, and it needs to be more accessible,” he said.
“I had this idea: I wonder if I could put it in a bottle, I wonder if I could standardize it for my own purposes. It took me about a year to develop a recipe, but I gave it out to friends at Christmas, and it found its way into the hands of a bar owner, through a friend’s roommate’s fiancé. He ordered a case; I didn’t even know what a case was at the time. He ordered another case, and I though I should probably figure out how to do this.”
Eli Mason incorporated near the Christmas of 2013. But by mid-2014, Luke was able to make mixers his business full time. It’s more than just a simple way to stir together an adult beverage, he says.
“We have this sort of mission to connect American drinkers with their cocktail heritage. America has given the world so much in certain cocktails. Partially because of Prohibition. The stuff we made at home was so bad, we had to come up with cocktails to make it palatable. But America also is such a great crazy melting pot. Out of Louisiana we have the sazerac. The julep became the drink of the mid-South. All these crazy cultures come together and crazy things pop up.”
Eli Mason is a way to taste American cocktails the way they’re supposed to be made. So because we were going to Nashville's main horse racing event, the Iroquois Steeplechase, the next day, we were pretty into the Mint Julep mixer. I mean, don’t you have to sip on a Mint Julep, darlin’, when you’re wearin’ a big hat and watchin’ the thoroughbreds a’runnin’ by?
“There is something to be said for ease and simplicity, especially if you have kids and you come home from work…” Luke said.
“Or if you’re traveling, or if you’re on a boat,” I responded. “Or camping,” Luke said. “Or picnicking,” I said. Shoot, you could have a proper cocktail with Eli Mason mixers on a plane or on a train, with a mouse or in a house, in a box, with a fox, here or there or everywhere—even with green eggs and ham.
“There’s a very small percentage of drinkers who will and can go to the craft bars to seek out the best stuff. And I just wanted to make that more accessible. Craft bars are where I started getting excited and interested in these kind of drinks. There’s a wide range of drinkers who want to get involved but maybe they’re not sure where to start. They go online and all they see is hostility and confusion, so I think it’s ok to say, hey look, start here! Start with an Old Fashioned; this is how you make it. Maybe you want it sweeter; you can add more syrup. Maybe you want it more bitter; you could add your own bitters, if you want. But you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
The same could be said for the business. Since our own startup, Local Universe, was in its infancy, we were eager to hear how Luke took Eli Mason from a kitchen experiment to store shelves. It was personally fascinating to see how one of the big kids got to be king of the hill.
“The fact that Eli Mason is where it is, is a testament to the open and collaborative nature of the Nashville food community,” Luke said. “There are a hundred ways in the first year that things could wrong. But you only need a few that really go right to kind of keep you going. This is such a great place to start a food business because we have other people doing it. SoberDough…have you heard of SoberDough? [Aside: We had in fact met Veronica yesterday—another discovery on the fly!]
“She’s like a year ahead of me in everything. She’s so been great about guiding me away from opportunities that are a waste of time and in the direction of things that even though they might be painful are valuable. You’ve really got to get your nutrition facts sorted out, and I’ll say, well how do I do that, and she’ll say, this is how I did it.”
Luke described several state and federal programs that were instrumental in getting Eli Mason off the ground as well—the Department of Agriculture really understands the value of having a native Tennessee product to export, for example.
“It’s like whenever you get to the point when you can scale up or grow or export, you start looking around and realize that there are five programs that are just for this and they’re happy to help,” he said.
Of course, there’s still a lot of blood, sweat and simple syrup involved. “There are a lot of wantrepreneurs,” Luke said. “They have a great idea, and they may have a great product, but they also really like watching Breaking Bad. Maybe they’re not totally willing to sacrifice and do what it takes to take those first couple of steps. But if you show that you’re the kind of person who will sacrifice, who will work hard to step out, to take some opening risks, then there are people who will come along to help you. But you do have to do it first.”
Luke says his wife, Sarah, was a big supporter. “Everyone comes to a point where they’re like, maybe I should go get a job. … Maybe I should go work at Home Depot, just have something stable. She’s always like, no, you’ve come this far. Think about how far you’ve come in such a short amount of time. I appreciate that.”
It could have been easy to freak out. Luke and Sarah have two little girls...and the baby, Lila, was in the fight of her young life already at the tender age of 2.
“I spent a lot of time in the corporate world, and I don’t have a problem with the corporate world, but it’s just built around assumptions about trading your time for money instead of providing value,” Luke says. “And my youngest daughter is pretty sick. It’s good; you’ve reached us at a good time. But February 2 she was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a kind of cancer in her belly.”
As we sat in silent shock, Luke explained that doctors said it was the best kind of tumor to have. Her prognosis was excellent, and she was really responding to chemo. She’s had a great spirit about it, he said, and family, friends and church have really rallied. Lila was to have surgery in one week.
“Having my own schedule has been the biggest blessing, just to be able to be there,” Luke said. “I’m working on a different paradigm. If you can create the value, then you don’t have to work a certain number of hours a week. You can work up to a value.”
And then Luke busted out the photos on his phone.
There was Lila when she was really tiny; he put her in the crib while he went to take a shower, and when he came back she was reading to her baby.
There was a photo of Callie, Lila’s older sister. There was a photo of Lila with her nose tube, surrounded by the whole family and the dog. “My wife is kind of a babe,” Luke said with sweet pride.
After sharing nearly an hour with us, telling us about his cocktail mixers, his plans and dreams, his hard work and steps and goals, Luke even shared the story of his baby girl. And that is one of the very best things about what we’re doing with Local Universe.
Luke also shared a photo of himself wearing a beard net at his first Eli Mason manufacturing facility, a space he shared with another company that made hot pepper jelly. And in fact that company had spent the previous four days cooking a lot of hot pepper jelly. That hot pepper jelly would prove a key factor in Eli Mason’s first major production:
“After a long day of work and $2,500, I ended up with almost a thousand bottles of … hot pepper Old Fashioned mix,” Luke said. The intense flavor had soaked into the transfer hose. “This was at a point when my total budget for the company was $5,000. So it was like half of it was just immediately gone. I sat on those forever thinking, maybe they’ll get better, maybe I can find a use for them, maybe I can recycle the bottles, maybe maybe…finally I just had one big purge. The story of the small entrepreneur,” said a sanguine Luke.
By then it was time for him to get to a meeting of the fellow Nashville entrepreneurs and makers that he had been describing. And we were off to Percy Warner for a round of golf, followed by a visit to Belle Meade Plantation, then some shopping for our Steeplechase getups.
“I’m so proud of you guys, coming to Nashville, doing awesome stuff….” Luke said as we packed up.
“Thanks!” I told Luke. “I’m really excited. We just keep talking about it every day. Like, we get into the car and we say, that was the coolest thing we ever did, talking to all these people, and then we get in the car again and we’re like, THAT was the coolest thing. And so we’re just overloaded with coolness, because we’re seeing new things here, we’re doing the vacation stuff but we’re also meeting people.”
“It’s a good way to vacation,” Luke said.
It’s a great way to vacation, I agreed. There’s nothing better than going to a new place and making a real connection with an interesting person. Except maybe hearing in August that tests showed Lila to be cancer-free. We were thrilled to get an email from Luke that said in part:
Thank you, Luke, for allowing us to participate!