Carin Luna-Ostaseski is in a rare class of whisk(e)y brand founders: one of the few Hispanic women to found a Scotch brand. She also took an unusual path to start SIA Whisky in starting with a Kickstarter campaign! Oh, and she’s also one of the only 6% of pilots in the United States who are women. How cool is that?
BW: What was your ‘aha!’ moment that led you to realize you wanted to start your own whiskey brand?
CLO: One day my friend wanted to introduce me to scotch whiskies. I thought I wouldn’t like it, it was my grandfather’s drink. I had tried it once and didn’t enjoy it. But he convinced me that I just needed to find a scotch whisky I liked. That night, he guided me through a tasting, we tried many different kinds, and I instantly fell in love as the bartender told me the stories and nuances of each spirit. I was hooked!
After that, I tried to convince everyone I knew to try scotch whiskies, but was met with the same preconceived hesitancy I once had. “It’s an old man’s drink… too expensive… too smokey…” I heard it all.
As this was happening, after 17 years as a creative director, I had an A-HA moment when I realized that what I was doing just wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind. Instead, I was drawn to the scotch whisky category. I loved how it allowed you to slow down and truly enjoy the moment, versus just staring at a screen all day.
I started visiting Scotland quite a bit, going to distillery tours, attending scotch whisky tasting events, read every book I could get my hands on, became a certified whisky ambassador, and even earned my bartending license. Eventually I started hosting my own tastings, focus groups, food pairing events, speaking workshops – you name it. I began using whiskies from my collection for blending using the knowledge I had gained doing all of this. Eventually I came up with a blend that was spectacular. And I thought, ‘THIS could be how I bring scotch whisky to the masses, to a new generation of drinkers who thought they didn’t like scotch whiskies.’ I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted people to experience what I did years before.
I decided to create SIA Scotch Whisky to change the perception of what most would consider to be “your grandfather’s drink” and make something that could be shared with everyone (of drinking age) on every occasion. To this day, SIA Scotch Whisky exists to challenge conventions and inspire others to achieve the unexpected.
BW: What was your experience using Kickstarter to help you launch your brand?
CLO: Kickstarter is what took me and SIA Scotch Whisky to new heights. I was fortunate enough to raise almost $50,000 in 28 days and was one of the first scotches to ever be crowdfunded on Kickstarter. People from the bartending community as well as from all over the world contributed and wanted to know where they could buy SIA Scotch Whisky before a single drop even ever hit US soil.
With the proceeds from the crowdfunding campaign, I created the first production run, and that made me one of the first Hispanic people in history to create a scotch whisky! The buzz generated in the press also opened doors for me to land distribution right out of the gate, and gave me the confidence to go full force with passion into my idea, knowing confidently that I already had a built-in audience of happy supporters. I knew then that the REAL work was about to begin.
BW: Tell me about SIA’s Diversity initiative and how folks can apply for that.
CLO: It’s a disheartening statistic, but in the United States over the last decade, entrepreneurs of color have reportedly received only a 2% share of venture capital annually even though they have represented over 50% of new businesses started and created 4.7 million new jobs. On top of that, this rapidly growing sector was disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch was inspired by my journey as one of the first Hispanic entrepreneurs in history to create a scotch whisky, and it aims to challenge conventions and inspire others to achieve the unexpected. Launched in partnership with Hello Alice, a free online platform that guides business owners through the growth of their company and matches individuals with the resources to make their dreams a reality, this disruptive new grant program is deploying a quarter of a million dollars to multicultural small business owners in need of support.
I am so proud of The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund and its mission to embrace the cultural diversity that helps define our country by awarding $10,000 grants to 25 qualifying entrepreneurs who self-identify as people of color, for a total of $250,000.
SIA Scotch Whisky was born out of passion, determination and perseverance – the same characteristics that drive many other entrepreneurs. As a first-generation Cuban American, I experienced so many uphill battles, from securing funding to dealing with regulations and securing investors. But, after finally getting crowdfunded on Kickstarter and seeing those first bottles on shelves, I knew my purpose was to help inspire other underrepresented entrepreneurs achieve their dreams too. That is why this program was created, and is why I will also be providing 1:1 mentorship opportunities to the grant recipients. Hopefully I am able to help them get their businesses up and running, and inspire them to help others to do the same.
We’re taking applications now through August 10th, 2021 at siascotchfund.helloalice.com. You are eligible if you self-identify as a person of color, are a for-profit business producing less than $1 million in annual gross revenue, and you operate your business in at least one of these states: California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York, and Texas. We’ll be announcing the winners by September 14th and the grant recipients will receive their funds by October 8th.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to start their own whisky brand?
CLO: Besides, to trust your gut and just go for it, the biggest advice that I can give women who want to start their own whisky brand, or just embark on an entrepreneurial journey, is to find a community. If there isn’t a community out there, then go out and create one. I was fortunate to find a fellow entrepreneur that reached out to me about the Women’s Cocktail Collective, which is a group of 25 female founders of spirit brands. We don’t compete with our business. In fact, we collaborate on cocktail menus and at trade events, and it’s just wonderful to have a sounding board where you can let your guard down and just be honest.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whisky weekend in San Francisco.
CLO: My perfect whisky weekend in San Francisco would be hanging out with friends in Dolores Park or Golden Gate Park. Drinks (with SIA Scotch Whisky of course) and an early dinner in the Mission District. Evening would be a concert or one of the late nights at the Exploratorium or the California Academy of Sciences.
Or… seeing it all from the sky! An unexpected fact about me, I was fortunate to get my private pilot’s license in 2012, joining the small 6% of all pilots in the U.S. who happen to be women. There is a specific route called “The Bay Tour” that gives you a view of San Francisco that includes staring right down over the Golden Gate bridge. On a clear day, there’s nothing quite like it. If you have even the mildest interest in General Aviation, I recommend taking a short demo flight out of San Carlos airport and you can thank me later!
Photos Courtesy of SIA Whisky