Stilly canned cocktail’s MN founders thrilled with fast success
Just over a year ago, Nick and Amanda Barthelemy were enjoying a backyard bonfire with friends at their home in Lake Elmo when talk turned to the dearth of good, ready-to-drink, flavored alcoholic beverages on the market.
Amanda Barthelemy turned to her husband and said: “I think we can do better.”
“I said, ‘Yep. I think we can, too,’” he said. “It sort of became a joke to us. We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to start a beverage brand.’”
Talk soon turned to action. In June, the couple launched Stilly vodka-based cocktails in a can.
“We went from inception to production in just a year,” said Nick Barthelemy, 44, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “We did it in record time. Generally, it takes even the large players 12 to 18 months to get this done.”
Stilly beverages currently come in three flavors: grapefruit, cranberry lime and peach. More than 600 liquor stores, bars and restaurants across Minnesota now carry Stilly. The company soon will launch in Wisconsin and 17 other states, Nick Barthelemy said.
Stilly markets itself as “a light and refreshing cocktail made with premium vodka, fine bubbles, a squeeze of natural juices and natural flavors.”
“It is not a seltzer,” Nick Barthelemy said. “What really sets it apart is that it tastes extremely natural. There’s no after-taste. It has a lower carbonation than most of the other drinks out there. Its natural fruit juices come through, but they’re not too sweet. We knew a product like this would resonate with people like us — people who wanted something new and who valued taste.”
The company, based in Stillwater, recently announced partnerships with the Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx and is in talks with the Minnesota Vikings.
Stilly beverages are carried at the Xcel Energy Center during all Minnesota Wild games, as well as Target Center during all Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx games for the 2022-2023 seasons. In addition, Stilly drinks are sold at those venues during all concerts and events.
Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said he couldn’t believe the lines for Stilly products last month at the Carrie Underwood concert at Target Center. “It was everywhere,” he said. “There were huge lines of people waiting for them everywhere around the concourse. You could walk up anywhere and get a Budweiser, but the line for Stilly was 30 to 40 people deep. These guys are crushing it. It’s fun to see a local company up on the big stage.”
The drinks sell themselves, according to Kozlowski, who is partial to Vibe Machine, Stilly’s grapefruit-flavored vodka drink. “It really tastes like grapefruit and not like a grapefruit Jolly Rancher got stuck in the bottom of your glass,” he said.
Nick and Amanda Barthelemy know what it takes to launch a successful business. Amanda Barthelemy, 39, is the CEO of Colored Organics, which produces organic cotton clothing for babies and children.
Amanda Barthelemy started the business in 2007 when she was home on maternity leave after the birth of the couple’s first child, Sienna. The Minneapolis-based company now sells millions of garments a year in 74 countries.
“Amanda came up with this brand and just ran with it,” he said. “She wanted to design clothes for our daughter … and she wanted to do organic. She knew that that was important. Obviously, moms want what is best for their babies.”
Nick Barthelemy is the founder and managing director of a software development consultancy company that has worked with Apple, Best Buy, Google, Reuters and others.
Nick Barthelemy grew up in St. Cloud; Amanda Barthelemy grew up in St. Paul. They met through a mutual friend while living in the same apartment complex in Minnetonka. In addition to Sienna, 15, the couple have a son named Reve, 11.
“Since the day we met, it has always been natural for us to find our own lane together,” Nick Barthelemy said.
Partners in Stillwater, Wisconsin — and Paris
The couple knew that they had to be strategic when it came to naming and designing their beverage company if it was going to work across the country.
“We named it Stilly because of its relation to the distillation process and the still,” he said. “There’s natural understanding that a beverage named Stilly would contain a distilled spirit, and we just loved that.”
Although it’s not named after Stillwater, the Barthelemys say they have appreciated the support the community has given to the brand. Their lead investor was Thomas Vanek, a friend and former Minnesota Wild winger who lives in Stillwater.
The couple hired a Paris-based design firm, which also works for Louis Vuitton, Hennessey and Moet, to help develop Stilly’s brand.
“We had one chance to introduce Stilly to the world, so we had to do it right,” Nick Barthelemy said.
Barthelemy won’t supply specifics regarding the company’s marketing strategy or share numbers, but Stilly, which is manufactured in Waunakee, Wis., pre-sold its entire first run before it even hit the production line.
“We launched a campaign prior to our first production to get people to recognize it, and we launched to some pretty incredible demand,” he said. “My background in technology has helped us figure out where to pinpoint our marketing efforts.”
It helps that the couple had previous experience with manufacturing, he said. “It’s not rocket science to manufacture products unless you’re building rockets. Our business experience has sort of led the way for what you see today, for sure.”
The couple used their own taste preferences when picking two of the company’s first three flavors to launch. “Cranberry lime was our go-to cocktail drink at the time: vodka, soda, with a splash of cran and a lime,” he said. “We took that base and developed from there.”
Grapefruit got the nod because “Amanda really loves grapefruit, and so do I,” he said.
A market study helped the couple dial in on peach for the third flavor. “I like the flavor peach, but it wasn’t my first choice until I tried it. Then it was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” he said. “It’s now my favorite flavor.”
Six new flavors will be released in early 2023.
Key to the company’s success has been having “two entrepreneurs working in the same direction, working for the same thing at all times, and who have infinite levels of determination,” Nick Barthelemy said. “You cannot succeed unless you’re persevering, and you’re determined. You could have all the intelligence in the world, you can have all the resources in the world, but if you’re not willing to weather every storm and push that rock up the mountain, you won’t make it. That, literally, is the key. We just don’t quit.”
Next spring, the company will launch a line of merchandise, including hats, T-shirts, coolers, golf accessories and boat flags, to be sold on Stilly.com.
“The pride we have in seeing people enjoy our product is indescribable,” Barthelemy said. “There have been so many pinch-me moments along the way. Because things have happened so fast, it’s really difficult to digest everything. It’s just surreal to walk through Xcel during a Wild game and see people carrying it around.”