Growing Admiration Series | Interview with Founders of On the Rocks Cocktails

Recently, we spoke to the two of four masterminds behind Dallas-based company On the Rocks. On the Rocks is a quickly growing company which features a unique, ready to drink cocktail unlike any other on the market right now. Committed to using only fresh ingredients, no preservatives, and the highest quality spirits, On the Rocks’ mission is one we resonate with completely.

Alongside Michael Malowanczyk (owner, CCO) and Patrick Halbert (co-founder, CEO), Andrew Gill (owner, chief strategy officer) and Rocco Milano (co-founder and mixologist) make up the On the Rocks team. This week, Andrew and Rocco joined us to discuss their inspiring business journey, their unique philosophy, and the exciting crossover between gardens and cocktails.

How did this idea come about?

AG: Rocco here is how the idea of creating bottled cocktails got started.  Our other business partner, Patrick Halbert (co-founder, CEO) and Rocco had a series of restaurants together. Rocco ran the bar program and has been a well-known mixologist in Dallas for a while. Throughout his career, he’s created meaningful relationships— some of which are with important beverage people in the airline industry. He got wind that people were really looking for bottled cocktails and that no one was doing a premium version of that. I joined them once they moved on from the restaurant. But I’ll turn it over to him.

RM: When I was still at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, some people from LSG Sky Chefs came in, and we did a couple different cool, fun things for them — cocktails served inside bell peppers and things that called for Thai basil and all kinds of interesting components and ingredients. We just really hit it off. The approach of fresh, and vibrant, and cool resonated with them.

RM: Then, Patrick got me to leave The Mansion and come work for him in Uptown, and we continued those relationships. When Virgin America did their kick off out of Love Field, we had six people at the table I’m sitting at now, and I had a cocktail on the menu called “Bartender’s choice.” I asked them four questions and customized a different drink based on their answers. Virgin America, being into what’s new, what’s on trend, and what’s interesting, really really liked it. So they said, “Hey, would you consider putting together a cocktail program for us?” And Patrick basically responded with, “As opposed to putting together a menu, what if we found a way to bottle and execute it for you?”

RM: So we spent about a year in development, working with different drinks. And it sounds great — like, “Hey, I’m going to work on a Margarita at 9:45 in the morning,” and then everyone is too drunk by lunch to continue working. laughs And you’re ordering Jimmy John’s at lunch because no one can drive. It was an interesting year to say the least.

So, once you’ve created the product, how did it get off the ground?

RM: Virgin ends up getting acquired by Alaska, so everything goes on hold there. But then Hawaiin Airlines picks us up — we have three cocktails on there right now. And then, from there, Four Seasons says, “Hey, we would love to have you guys in our rooms!” So we started changing focus from just airlines to airlines and hotels. We’ve just been picking it up from there, as new hotel groups come on, and new airlines come on.

Sounds like a happening few years!

RM: It really has been a kind of whirlwind two and a half years. We’re not saying, “Hey this vodka is going to be the next big thing.” We’re really trying to redefine the way cocktails are perceived. I think a lot of those consumers and guests have maintained a certain standard of drinks now. A green sour mix isn’t acceptable anymore.

RM: So, how do we do all-natural, how do we do vibrant, how do we do balanced, but how do we also do fast? How do we do quick and consistent? A lot of our larger partners are looking for exactly that. So we’re stepping into this being all-natural, cane sugar sweetened, and preservative free. Any color variations in our drinks are fruit and vegetable based. It’s cane sugar, it’s real ingredients, and it’s the approach that it’s bartender-based in terms of execution.

What brought up the need for all-natural and preservative-free ingredients?

AG: Well, it’s kind of where we’re at with the consumer today, and, obviously, we want to have products we’re proud to make and consume. Honestly, there was never a moment where we ever considered using anything artificial or anything like that. Also, we started creating these products in 2015 and, at the time, no one else was making ready-to-serve drinks that weren’t really nasty. We’ve kind of approached each ingredient in the product like your local Whole Foods — we’re trying to find the best one.

AG: Our new co-branded products are going to launch in October. So we’ve partnered with the highest quality spirits to produce our cocktails. But even before this partnership when we were bulk-sourcing our ingredients, we were still trying to find the best on the market. High-quality ingredients have always been important to us.

RM: And, you know, even in our personal lives, it’s how we live. I’m an avid gardener, Andrew has been when he’s had the ability to.  How we approach the food that we grow or the things that we eat are very important to us, and we very much want to translate that authenticity into what we drink. At the end of the day, at On the Rocks, we’re making a culinary experience in a glass. It’s not just a medium of intoxication — although that will certainly happen. It’s enjoying real flavors and how they come together.

This might be a brash question, but in my experience, pre-mixed drinks kind of have a bad rep—especially among people who take their drinks seriously. Do you feel like you’ve overcome that? And how have you done that?

RM: That is actually a phenomenal question because you are 100% right. Most pre-mixed drinks are created by a team of people in lab coats that have ten letters after their name but have never actually worked with these ingredients regularly. So their frame of reference of how a Mai Tai or Jalapeño Apple Margarita should look and taste is very different from a true bartender’s. Usually, companies approach pre-mixed drinks with the goal of creating as cheaply as possible.

RM: Our approach is how to execute this as accurately as possible and as vibrantly as possible. We want to transition from “ready to drinks are garbage,” to “Wow. This works at a five-star hotel or to serve to a first class passenger who spent $4,000 on their ticket.”

AG: One of the ways we’ve overcome that ready-to-drink stigma is that our drinks are, in the bottle, 20% alcohol by volume. They’re a little bit higher than any other R2D (ready to drink) in the market. We like to call them “bar quality and bar strength.” It’s the most layman way we can come up with to let people know that, if you pour yourself a single serving, you’re getting the same amount of alcohol that you would get at the bar. It’s a product where, when you’re in your hotel room getting ready and you want to have a Cosmo before you go out, there’s nothing sacrificed. It’s the same Cosmo you’re going to get at the bar — just in a bottle.

So, Rocco, as a well-respected mixologist, how was creating ready to drinks for you?

Rocco Milano On the Rocks
Rocco Milano of OTR

RM: Well, we had to relearn how to approach drinks, and it took about a year to start developing techniques. Once we were able to make drinks that didn’t require refrigeration or preservatives, it was such a fun liberating experience as a bartender, because now, there are really no flavors that I can’t play with and create something interesting.

RM: We’re offering 6 cocktails now, but we actually have 54 cocktails that are formulated — products that we could make and sell.

AG: Yeah, I think we actually made over 80 recipes that first year. And they had crazy ingredients — anything you can think of!

RM: Right! And it was just so much fun because, really for a lack of better term, it was pure creation. It’s whatever you can dream up. In the past two years, we’ve submitted 16 cocktails to the San Francisco Wine and Spirits Competition and we’ve won 15 medals. It’s because of our drive and focus to approach this as a bartender and not as a guy in a lab coat.

Andrew, what’s been the most important thing to you as you’ve strategized to build this business?

Andrew Gill On the Rocks
Andrew Gill of On the Rocks

AG: Definitely the quality of our products. Every round that we’ve created new products, we’ve been searching out higher quality spirits. The liquor industry is a unique and interesting industry in that quality is both objective and subjective. The spirit brands that we’re partnered with now are top shelf and high priced. Everything that will be launching in October are existing formulas but reformulated. We’ve reduced sugar, we’ve done a ton of experiments on our flavor to really bring out the flavors that are in the high-quality spirits we have now.

AG: I would definitely say the most important thing to us is that we back up what we say and that people pick up our margarita at the store and they want to drink it. The quality is always the most important thing.

What’s On The Rocks’ connection with Gardenuity?

AG: We couldn’t be more thankful for the kind of support you guys have given us. I love the concept, I love the branding, I love what y’all are doing. I’ve sent some products to friends and they’re always a big hit. And Rocco was being pretty modest — he’s a very serious gardener. When we started this company, he was living an hour and a half away on a 200-acre farm coming in every day with just baskets of produce. We were having to pry him away from the farm to work on these drinks.

RM: I just have tremendous fun! My approach to gardening tends to be pretty geeky, just like my approach to cocktails was. I’m not just trying to hit organic standards, but I’m really into regenerative agriculture. Not just how are we not hurting, but how are we benefiting the land? How are we doing things more locally, more effectively, more efficiently? It’s one of the things I’m most passionate about.

AG: He grows the coolest things too.

RM: I’m definitely more interested in heirloom varietals or your forgotten fruits. I find it endlessly fascinating.

What do you think the crossover between bartending and gardening is, and how can those things come together?

RM: Good question! We always used to say behind the bar that, if the main goal behind the restaurant is farm to fork, then we were garden to bar. The main ingredient behind cocktails is the liquor, but all the different elements that give you that wow factor in your cocktails come from the garden. So, take mint, for example, well, what type of mint? I mean, I’ve done some absolutely amazing cocktails with the different varietals of mint there are. Yes, you have spearmint, but chocolate mint can be amazing, orange mint is delicious. And don’t get me started on the basil family.

RM: To be honest, this is one of the reasons I love gin as much as I do — because the botanical nature of gin comes from those ingredients that you’re using. Lance Winters, a master distiller, has a fantastic story of dropping his son off to summer camp up on a mountain and wanting to ‘capture the mountain.’ So he’s running down the side of the mountain and he’s just pulling botanical and herbs that are growing wildly there. The components of the gin are bay laurels, sage, and Douglas fir, and it makes for an amazing cocktail.

AG: It’s why people say gin is the best spirit to make a cocktail with—because you have all those botanicals and garden components in there as opposed to straight wheat or corn.

Do you each have a favorite drink? 

AG: I think we both are really smitten with our Aviation cocktail. In there, we’ve got violet, lemon, and cherry and the gin we use.

RM: A well crafted Gin & Tonic is one of my favorite drinks. I used to joke that, if you cut something with water, that’s a missed opportunity for flavor. So why not have something cool in your tonic? Maybe a little hint of apple, maybe some cucumber—something with a nice botanical gin or lime zest to add some citrus to it…I’m thirsty now.

on the rocks aviation cocktail