Testing the waters: Wilson Craig bets on canned cocktails as the next big thing

Down on Water Street, Wilson Craig’s Waterbird Spirits production facility is cranking out tens of thousands of cans of premium cocktails. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Down on Water Street, Wilson Craig’s Waterbird Spirits production facility is cranking out tens of thousands of cans of premium cocktails. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Under normal circumstances, having your jaw broken and reset in order to correct an underbite—and then being laid-up in recovery for two months—would be a bummer. But Wilson Craig was happy for the time on the couch. It gave him an opportunity to think. He took his meals through a straw, and wasn’t able to talk, so he spent a lot of time in his own head.

This was about a year ago, and he was living in Manhattan, where he worked in real-estate finance. In this regard, he was following in his father’s rather large footsteps. Hunter E. Craig is one of the biggest landowners and developers in town, a co-founder of Virginia National Bank, and a member of the board at UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

But the younger Craig didn’t necessarily want to pick up the paternal mantle. Not long before the operation, he told his dad that he had an idea to create a canned-cocktail brand. He wanted to return from New York, settle down in Charlottesville, and launch the business in the city he knows and loves. His father liked the idea. He liked it so much that he helped his son get started. And now, after a whirlwind startup, Waterbird Spirits is cranking out tens of thousands of 12-ounce canned vodka-and-sodas and Moscow Mules from a sharp-looking shop on the corner of Water and West Second streets. If all goes as planned, four-packs of Waterbird cocktails priced at $13.99 will appear in local supermarkets by the end of September, and the space on Water Street will open for tours in 2020. (Waterbird does not have a license to offer tastings on-site.)

On a blistering-hot day in August, Craig tilts back in a chair in the Waterbird office and crosses his long legs. A woman knocks on the door. Craig uncrosses his legs, bolts upright, and hurries over to greet her.

“Hi,” says the woman.

“Hello,” Craig says, or rather, almost shouts.

“When are you guys opening?” she asks.

“Not for awhile, but we’re in production now,” Craig says.

“Great!” says the woman.

“Thanks so much for your interest,” Craig says. “Really—thank you!”

This is not an act. Craig relishes telling people about Waterbird. “We get a lot of that,” he says, bounding back to his chair. “I love it. People are curious, and we want them to see what’s going on here.”

He also wants you to know that the building, once The Clock Shop of Virginia, actually started as a Sears auto service center. “Sears used to be one of the biggest companies in the United States,” Craig says. “But what happens to a company when they don’t pay attention to their customers? They end up in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.”

His point: Waterbird will succeed by focusing relentlessly on what consumers want. In his opinion—shaped by months of conversations with his father and local winemakers, distillers, and brewers, including his official consultant, Hunter Smith of Champion Brewing Company, and some work with focus groups and taste-testers—consumers want high-quality canned cocktails. “We’re going to use potato vodka because it’s so much better than corn vodka” Craig says. “And we’re going to use cane sugar, because it’s infinitely better than high-fructose corn syrup.”

With many alternative canned beverages entering the market, including the aforementioned hard seltzer and non-alcoholic euphorics, some using CBD, Craig might have reason to temper his enthusiasm for his own product. But, um—not a chance.

“When I was living in New York, all my friends were drinking Bud Light, but not for the taste or any other redeeming factor—it was just convenient,” he says. “Convenience is king. So I thought, why isn’t there a better alternative for portable cocktails?”

As for marketing and branding, Craig sees Charlottesville, Virginia—which is clearly stamped on Waterbird’s label—as an asset.

“Charlottesville has received a lot of bad publicity,” he says. “But I just want to embrace the good. We want to be a product that people see and feel happy and proud that it’s made in Charlottesville. Excited, happy, upbeat, positive—that’s what this brand is.”

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