What started as a quick post-college business endeavor turned into one of the biggest small batch spirits in the Lowcountry. But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, according to Zest Vodka co-owner Jake MacDowell.
Zest Vodka has become one of the fastest growing liquor companies in South Carolina, available in hundreds of locations across the Southeast. The company started operations in Piedmont, South Carolina, but moved bottling operations back to Charleston earlier this year.
The company has grown rapidly since officially launching in 2021, available in more than 50 Charleston bars and restaurants like The Shelter and Saltwater Cowboys and retail stores such as Total Wine, Bottles and more.
Zest Vodka infuses the flavor of the acidic, sweet “lemon drop” shot or cocktail into its vodka. Lemon drop shots and cocktails are made with vodka, lemon juice, triple sec and simple syrup, served in a sugar-rimmed glass. While many people enjoy the taste of a lemon drop drink, MacDowell said it is notorious amongst bartenders as a tedious cocktail to make.
Zest, in its purest form straight from the bottle, is a lemon-flavored vodka with a little bit of sweetness that captures that same lemon drop flavor. It is similar to a limoncello with lighter natural flavors. It’s sweet, but not artificial in taste. MacDowell suggests mixing it with club soda and a lemon wedge to accentuate the flavors and add texture.
The idea behind Zest, said MacDowell, was to make it a bit easier for bartenders to make lemon drop shots or cocktails, as well as provide a cheap, tasty drink to pair with club soda or drink solo.
Before creating Zest, MacDowell developed Red Harbor Rum with his freshman year college roommate Justin Buchanan. MacDowell and Buchanan felt unsure of where their careers were headed, so they entered a school business contest in 2013 at their college, Wofford.
MacDowell said all he knew about the competition was that the business proposal could be on anything. That year, his family friend told him about a big boom in microdistillation. With that knowledge, he took to the internet.
“I Googled ‘Charleston history liquor’ expecting to make bourbon,” MacDowell said. “Well, it turns out, rum ran the colonies, and Charleston was a huge port. As soon as I got this idea, I called the closest distillery — which is the facility where we co-pack Zest now — and I go, ‘How the hell do I make liquor?’ ”
After class every day, MacDowell would go to the distillery and learn how to make rum. After college, when MacDowell and Buchanan were granted funds from the business program competition, they opened a distillery off of Ashley Phosphate Road in North Charleston called Port City Distillery to make Red Harbor Rum.
“I was in the rum business and 23 years old,” MacDowell said. “But what I found was that it doesn’t matter how good the rum is, it doesn’t matter how good the packaging is, some of these old guys who are 60 years old don’t want a 23-year-old coming to him saying, ‘Hey, I’m a young entrepreneur.’ ”
He also added that trying to get the small batch $40 rum into stores and bars wasn’t an easy task. After several years of building the brand and bringing it into seven different states, MacDowell and Buchanan planned to start a new business venture.
“I knew when it came to the second product, I wanted something that wasn’t so serious,” MacDowell said. “Something light, fun, refreshing and around $20 for a bottle but also still keep it natural.”
While trying to come up with a new idea, MacDowell was at The Shelter in Mount Pleasant talking with a bartender and throwing ideas out on what kind of product he should make. The bartender, in jest, suggested making a lemon drop shot so “he wouldn’t have to make them all for these bachelorette parties,” MacDowell recounted.
That conversation wasn’t the initial lightbulb idea for Zest, he added, but it allowed him to approach the situation in a specific way, saving time and money and getting restaurants the most bang for their buck. For research, he went to nearly two dozen bars, timing bartenders on how long it took to make a lemon drop shot. He realized that with a lemon-flavored vodka, he could save bartenders, on average, about a minute and a half.
After using what he learned from distilling and marketing rum and working with the same co-packer from Red Harbor, MacDowell and Buchanan launched Zest Vodka in summer 2021
at Uptown Social.
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(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)