When an entrepreneurial husband and wife teamed up to get the first distillery licence granted in 100 years in Ontario, big things – and awesome beverages – were bound to happen. Here’s to good drinking right out of the bottle!
Vodka cranberry, tequila margarita, Long Island iced tea – we all have our favourite cocktails! And while it’s great to unwind with one, we don’t always have the gumption to put together the ingredients to make one, or want to take the time to go out to a bar for a drink.
That’s exactly what the husband and wife team behind Canada’s Black Fly Beverage Company., Rob Kelly and Cathy Siskind-Kelly, thought when they started to develop ready-made classic cocktails in a bottle.
And make no mistake; these are not the wine coolers that became a party staple in the 90s. These vodka, tequila, rum and gin mixed drinks are as sophisticated and balanced as your local bartender mixes them. When Black Fly started producing its ready to drink (RTD) mixed drinks in 2005, the team knew that to stand out in this competitive industry they had to create beverages that offered more value on all levels including volume, quality and most importantly, were enormously less sweet than the super-sweet ones that were on the market at the time. “We wanted to evolve the category in launching not too sweet, Canadian, craft-produced drinks,” explains Rob.
“The philosophy behind craft-made is small batch production with a commitment to quality ingredients,” Cathy says. “We use real pure essence returned juices that are extremely high quality and very tart; we call them liquid gold. And we use cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup to lightly sweeten Black Fly drinks. All of our 25 flavours are gluten free.”
In fact, Black Fly has narrowed down the list of ingredients it uses across its full beverage line to just 13, including ingredients like elderberry as a natural colorant. The focus is all about pure, natural and quality formulations to satisfy a discerning, loyal and growing customer base across the country.
And in case you are wondering ‘why name the company Black Fly?’ Rob Kelly explains: “Black flies are iconic insects that feature prominently in Canadians’ springtime adventures in nature. The mere mention of black flies often gets people one-upping each other with tales of run-ins with the tiny yet ferocious bugs. The name Black Fly works on a metaphorical level in that it was envisioned to be a small business trying to take a bite out of the Canadian ready to drink market,” And so it has; Black Fly is the fifth largest producer of RTDs in Canada and is sold in every province, territory in Canada and select U.S. states.
While craft breweries are popping up in many towns across Ontario, it’s a very different story for distilleries. Starting out, Rob had a landscaping business and Cathy was a home builder and developer, and they were not aware how hard it would be to get a distillery license. Black Fly was actually the first company in Ontario to receive a distillery license in 100 years. A breakthrough like this came as the result of an intense lobbying campaign over the course of 18 months which proved successful and brought Cathy into the business.
Shortly after the license came through, the team set up their own brick and mortar plant in London, Ontario, which was an unusual step as most in the industry simply develop a concept for a brand and have a manufacturer produce it for them. Having its own manufacturing facility has enabled Black Fly to be the masters of their own destiny. Now having just moved to its third location, a new 60,000 square foot plant, the company has been able to fully automate, expand its bottling operation, add a new canning line, and begin manufacturing for other brands as well.
Certainly, innovation on many levels is critical in the ready to drink segment and Black Fly has done a number of things to set itself apart. The brand’s unique 400 mL bottle is about 20 percent larger than most competitors (two drinks per bottle!) and has a wide mouth so ice cubes fit right in. Black Fly even manufactures its own bottles, setting it apart from all other RTD producers in Canada.
“We have never considered ourselves simply a ready to drink company,” Cathy explains. “The opportunity to innovate continues to drive the success of Black Fly. We are always in development of new flavours in a host of formats and packaging. Several years ago we expanded into new formats: 473 mL cans with Black Fly Sours, and last year into 355mL cans with an ultra-light Grapefruit Gin Soda Fizz and Lemon Lime Vodka Soda Fizz. Black Fly’s newest innovation that has the market abuzz, Black Fly Tequila Shaker Shots are unique 50mL shot tubes of 17 percent tequila, lemon and lime juices and soda, just like Mexico’s popular Tequila Poppers that are designed to be shaken and shot.
The ready to drink segment has changed substantially over the years thanks to companies like Black Fly and a perfect storm of fast-paced lifestyles and consumers who are much more discerning about the ingredients and quality that go into the beverages they choose.
The convenience and quality of the classic cocktail in a bottle is especially front and center when entertaining guests. “Our 12 bottle mixed packs like Black Fly Bar in a Box are very popular, offering consumers the variety of four classic cocktails in four different spirits, so people can spend their party enjoying the party,” Cathy says.
The success of its extensive lineup of drinks has allowed Black Fly to expand in a number of ways. “Early on was a challenge to have people think of enjoying Black Fly outside of summer and spring. By emphasizing that Black Fly are mixed drinks we worked to remind our loyal consumers that it’s always Black Fly season,” Rob explains. Today, the classic flavours sell tremendously well all year around. And the year over year growth for the company is phenomenal, with Black Fly growing by more than 25 percent annually for the past several years.
Along with Black Fly expanding its businesses to co-packing for others, its business to business continues to take the company in new directions. Today it sells bulk spirits to many in the beverage industry across Canada, contributing to the success of the entire RTD category. To date, the company makes more than 25 different Black Fly flavours and, while having just expanded into an impressive 60,000 square foot plant, is looking at more than doubling that space to keep pace with its rapid growth in sales.
With so many classic and new flavours to pick from, Cathy can’t pick just one. “I love our Lemon Lime Vodka Soda Fizz because it’s so light, but doesn’t sacrifice taste for light. I’m a bit obsessed with Vodka Mixed Berry, and I love our Vodka Sour Grape.” Rob’s top pick is the original, perhaps for sentimental reasons. “My personal favourite is Vodka Cranberry,” he shares. “It is the first product we developed, it is the flagship of our brand, it is the drink that launched our company.” And the public seems to agree with Rob. After 14 years in market, Vodka Cranberry sales are the #1 top selling flavour for Black Fly in the country, and in Ontario grew in 2018 by a staggering 23 percent.
Black Fly now has 40 full-time employees in sales, production and operations, and dedicated sales teams in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. “We work hard and at the same time laugh so much together,” Cathy says of the camaraderie, casual work environment and passionate people that are the engine behind the company’s achievements. “The talents of our team members are beyond phenomenal.”
And while the company continues to grow, Cathy and Rob feel that it’s important to keep the feeling and values of a family business alive. “I love meeting couples who work together for 25 years – here’s your ribbon!” Cathy says. “There are many areas where it is important that we work collaboratively such as development and strategic planning. However for us it works best when we each focus on the areas our strengths lie. I am more involved in sales and some areas of business operations while Rob is the visionary for innovation and knows production inside-out.”
As Rob says, “Working with your spouse can be a little tricky at times but the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Building something together allows us to share the journey, challenges and successes with each other. We can also cover for each other when one of us has a commitment outside of work so it provides us some extra flexibility in our lives. We strive to make our own family values part of our company so everybody has the same opportunities to do that.”
Looking ahead, there is an ongoing challenge to stay on top, especially when everyone wants something new. Innovation is a must. That includes branching out to be the first Canadian producer to introduce shots with Black Fly Tequila Shaker Shots and always working six to twelve months ahead on innovative new beverages.
“Unlike breweries who can establish wonderful businesses in regional markets, in the more highly regulated spirits business it’s go big or go home.” And when it comes to keeping retailers and, most importantly, customers excited Cathy says, “People in our category are experimental and want to try new things. So we continue to focus on developing and launching high-quality, extremely innovative spirit drinks to remain an industry leader, while promising to keep our loved flagship flavours available in liquor stores in every province and territory from Canada’s coast to coast and beyond.”