Carin Luna-Ostaseski is not afraid to be first.
She is the first American woman in history to create a blended Scotch company. She is the first person to crowdfund a scotch. She was the first to tell her friends that scotch is the best drink on Earth. She is passionate about her craft, and it shows in all of the details she has put into SIA Blended Scotch Whisky and how she talks about her business. Just like the woman behind it, SIA is shaking up the industry by daring to defy the norms of what it means to be a scotch whisky. We got the chance to speak with Carin and learn a little bit more about the WBE taking spirits by storm.
Emily Bocchino: Why don't we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself and SIA.
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Sure. My name's Carin Luna-Ostaseski, I am the first American woman in history to create a blended Scotch company. It’s called SIA. My professional career was as a Creative Director for 17 years and I worked for really big companies like ABC News and Reuters in New York. And then I moved to California and I worked for quite a few tech startups. But my real passion has always been scotch. I've been drinking scotch since I'd say my early twenties, and I was always that friend that was always trying to convince everyone else to drink scotch. But my friends would always say, ‘oh, that's my grandfather's drink’, or ‘it's too expensive’ or ‘it burns my nostrils.’ It's kind of a funny, embarrassing story of how it really all came together, I was going through a breakup. I started drinking a little bit more scotch than usual and I found myself with some extra money every week that I no longer needed for couples' counseling. So I started using all of my couples' counseling money on scotch! So I started building a pretty big collection, 300 bottles and then I said, well, okay, well what do I do with this big collection? So I started sharing it with people and hosting scotch tasting events and really learning about what brands people like, and which ones they don't like and why. And you know, I came to realize quickly that there was room for a new brand. One that was appealing to a younger demographic, both men and women, that was affordable, and good in cocktails. So that's kind of where the idea came from and then started the long journey of trying to find the right partners to help me make it happen. So eventually I paired up with an importing company, that introduced me to a master blender in Scotland. And, they created the blend that is now SIA and I used Kickstarter to crowdfund it. So it was also the first time in history anyone had ever crowdfunded a scotch. And at the time in 2012, it was the highest raise for any spirit in Kickstarter history.
Emily Bocchino: Wow. That's amazing. And I've got to ask, what does SIA stand for?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: So sia is the number six in Scottish Gaelic, which happens to be my favorite number. And as my friend pointed out to me recently, it could also stand for Scotch. Is. Awesome.
Emily Bocchino: I like that as well.
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Yeah, I wanted a name that was really short and easy to pronounce. Especially in the scotch whisky category, the names can get a little difficult to pronounce. They're, you know, sometimes because they're so long, they end up being very small on the label and the designer in me wanted something big and bold that could stand out. You could really see the name. You know, when you're sitting across the bar and in like a dark room or you know, across the shelf in a store.
Emily Bocchino: So outside of your amazing story, what makes your blended scotch a little bit different?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: So what I found in doing all these events was what turns people the most off to scotch when they're kind of new to the category is the notes. So I realize in reading, that the notes are about 80% of the taste experience. So if something comes across, maybe too smokey on the nose before you haven't tasted it, you've already decided in your mind that you're not going to like it, that it's too strong. So it was really important for me with SIA to not have any smoke on the nose. So all you get really is vanilla and caramel notes on the nose, which is very inviting. And then in the mid palate you get citrus and honey. And then finally on the finish, you get this gentle hint of smoke, and that's great for people that already love scotch. It's great for people that are new to the category as well. So it satisfies both parties. It's also affordable. So for me, I wanted to make sure that, you know, an introductory whisky or a gateway Scotch, if you will, is affordable, so under $50 on the shelf. Then finally it's really blendable in cocktails. It makes a delicious cocktail of ginger beer with a squeeze of lime with SIA over ice, or even with cold brew coffee over ice, it is delicious. Coffee and the vanilla caramel notes blend really well together. So it kind of takes you out of the typical norm of what you think a scotch should be. Same thing for the shape of the bottle. It doesn't look like a typical scotch bottle. It is not seam glass or brown glass, it's clear so you could see the beautiful honey, amber gold color, the spirit inside.
Emily Bocchino: What about in the industry?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: I guess I’ve gotten the industry recognition for a new whisky. You think about scotch has been around since around the 18 hundreds. This being only six years old and still fairly new in the grand scheme of things. But SIA has already won a 96 point grading from arguably one of the hardest spirit competitions out there called the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. And that beat out several really well known brands, some of my favorites included. And then also a double gold medal from the San Francisco World's Spirit Competition, which is also another prestigious competition. And that means that all of the judges in the whiskey category unanimously gave SIA a gold medal to get what's called a double gold. So we're standing out as a new contender in the market.
Emily Bocchino: Wow that is great. Has anyone in business inspired you along your journey?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Who inspired me along my dream? Wow! There's, a gentleman named John Glaser. He's the founder of Compass Box Whisky. It's a brand that I've always admired. He definitely pushes the envelope when it comes to blended scotch whisky. He comes out with a new expression I'd say like once or twice a year. That brand has been around for over 15 years and has definitely changed the way that people think about blended scotches in general in terms of elevating them. In terms of the quality, when people think of, blended Scotch, historically, you know, with the rise of single malt popularity, people thought the blends are kind of like the cheap stuff and he's kind of pioneered turning that around. And he's someone that I valued and trusted his opinion as well. So I've reached out to him through the years for advice and support, and he was actually even one of my Kickstarter backers. Which says a lot about someone like that to say 'Hey, this, it's good for the whole category. We're not in competition. If we could get more people drinking blended scotch, then everybody wins.' There's another person as well. She's actually the one that has, I think, single handedly changed my entire business. And her name is Lauren. Shane Mayer. When I started reaching out to different distilleries and bottlers just trying to find somebody who could help me in this journey, I got 80 people that said, ‘no, no, we can't.’ And I remember hers in particular because she was the 81st call and they said yes. Her and her sister are called the Whisky Sisters and they help run their father's scotch importing business. So they had all the industry connections and know-how and they really believed in me. Without them, you know, none of this would've been possible.
Emily Bocchino: So there are WBEs, women business enterprises, within WBEC Pacific who are probably themselves going through hearing 80 some odd 'no's' right now. Do you have any advice for how to best deal with getting through the 'no's'?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Yeah. I think it's just, there's a combination of just stubbornness and grit that you have to have as an entrepreneur! You kind of use each of these 'no's' as a checkpoint, if you will, for like a test. To say, 'do you still want this?' And you say like, okay, let me just keep going. I remember at one point I was growing up, I think I was maybe eight or nine years old. My brother and I were in an argument and my dad, he had me go up to the old world book encyclopedias before the Internet, right. I had to pull out the one that was like the dictionary one. He made me look up the word aggressive. I looked it up, I read the definition and he's like, you're aggressive. And I remember reading it and looking at him thinking like, you think this is a bad thing? I think this is a really good thing. I think it's just, you know, to be aggressive and to just persevere; keep going. Because it's gonna happen at so many points. If you're getting knocked down just at the start of the business, there's so much more. Getting the business off the ground you have to have that stubbornness and that grit.
Emily Bocchino: I think that's fantastic! Especially nowadays, to be more aggressive!
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Yeah. And I want my daughters to have that lesson! Like, have that grit strength and that perseverance.
Emily Bocchino: Exactly. Well, shifting a little bit more towards WBEC Pacific, How would you say that WBEC Pacific / WBENC certification has helped you through your process?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Certification has been just incredible. I think about a week ago I saw a request for Kroger coming through and that's so up my alley. It's like exactly the partner that I want to work with. So to have that in front of them for like a supplier fair is, is just magic. To get to speak to the exact decision makers you need to. I just felt like, oh my God, this is it, this is the silver bullet that every woman in business needs and must have. So I've been to big events and telling everyone there to get your certification, get it now. It's worth the time. It's worth the effort. Within a couple of days later after getting my certification, I was on the phone with Target, Head of Supplier Diversity and he said, you know, 'would you like a meeting with this Head Spirit Buyer?' And I said, 'yes sir.' 'He's like, ‘phone or in person?' 'I'll take in person.' Booked the flight and went out there and we signed the deal that day, it was just incredible. That was my very first experience, through certification. And it was like the biggest grand slam home run you could imagine.
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: And so now, fast forward, SIA is already in Target stores across California and it's doing well. So I'm looking forward to other partnerships. There's quite a few other, WBENC corporate members that I've been targeting. And I think the first one was so easy. I thought all of the other ones are going to be easy, but unfortunately there's a little bit, more…well I think I'm being more realistic. Target must have been, what do you call it, beginner's luck?
Emily Bocchino: I don't think so. I think you earned it!
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Oh thank you. I tell every other woman owned and woman spirit entrepreneur that I meet, like you have to get your certification.
Emily Bocchino: Are there many women spirit owners?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: There are about 50 of us. It crosses from, you know, mezcal to tequilas, to bourbons. We're all I think kind of in the same boat where the longest running one was maybe Allison Evanow from Square One who's getting her first certification right now. She's a true pioneer, her brand has been around for 14 years. It's called Square One Vodka. And it was the first organic vodka company. It's been fun. We align ourselves to do events together. When there's any kind of like conferences or trade events, we'll try to either make cocktails with each other's recipes. And yeah, just try to, to find community. As a solo entrepreneur it can be a little bit challenging. So women in particular are much more honest, and open and vulnerable with what they need help with.
Emily Bocchino: I know that we like to emphasize the sisterhood in the WBEC Pacific community in our network. So I hope you are receiving that. That's good. All right. Well, what would you say you're most excited for in this upcoming year with your business?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Oh Wow. We just launched two really large accounts. Safeway, which is a grocery chain. So we are in 112 Safeways in California. So just making sure those are a success. I would say that that's what I'm most excited for. And then continued success in our other existing retail partners. Then leveraging WBENC, I think for some of these other corporate partnerships. I'm ready. I'm ready to build relationships.
Emily Bocchino: Is there anything else you'd like to add or any additional comments?
Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Yeah! I do value female entrepreneurship in general, and every year since inception, SIA has given a percent of our gross sales every year towards the different female organization, to help support women start and run their own businesses. Some of the organizations have been: Springboard Enterprises, the Tory Burch Foundation, and La Cocina. And last year was Renaissance, where women can learn how to write a business plan, how to do accounting, a fantastic resource center in San Francisco.
Emily Bocchino: That's fantastic. Thank you, Carin, for your time.