Retail in Asia

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Inside Hong Kong’s first zero sugar vodka soda: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with ONLY Beverages

With increased anxiety about going out due to the pandemic and convenience products becoming a bigger priority for consumers around the world, premixed and packaged Ready-To-Drink (RTD) alcoholic beverages are gaining popularity. This rise in popularity for RTD beverages has also been observed in the Asia-Pacific region with research predicting an annual growth rate of 4.67 percent in the local industry.

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Growing demand for RTD beverages combined with the relatively limited options for Hong Kong consumers created the perfect opportunity for the founding of ONLY Beverages, a Hong Kong-based RTD alcoholic beverage company.

Launched in 2021, ONLY Beverages is dedicated to offering a delicious and healthy option for Hong Kong consumers seeking convenient alcoholic beverages. Retail in Asia has the pleasure of interviewing ONLY Beverages’ Co-founder Flora Ma about the founding and inspiration behind her company as well as discussing the challenges they have faced in the first year of operation.

RiA: What was the inspiration to launch ONLY Beverages?

Flora: Growing up in Vancouver, I always opted for “healthier” alcoholic beverages such as vodka sodas – it is the cleanest drink with the lowest amount of calories! Being in a sorority in university, I was also well-versed with the alcohol culture in Vancouver and the health-consciousness of the city as well.

After moving to Hong Kong, I noticed that vodka sodas were not as prevalent here as in Vancouver, and mainly consumed only in the bar scene, not as a ready-to-drink (RTD) product.

Most of the RTDs in the Hong Kong market were also high in sugar and calories, not appealing to someone who was health-conscious yet enjoyed socialising as much as they do working out. So, upon noticing this gap in the market, I teamed up with my good friend and now business partner, Jonathan Der, and founded ONLY Beverages.

Source : ONLY beverage

RiA: Alcohol, and spirits in particular, are commonly associated with being ‘unhealthy’, how do you overcome this reputation?

Flora: A lot of the alcoholic drinks and RTDs in the market are high in sugar and can contain up to a couple hundred calories in each drink. Our mission with ONLY Beverages is to bring health-conscious, refreshing and delicious drinks to Hong Kong.

Our name ‘ONLY’ communicates the essentialness of our approach – our primary ingredients consist of only premium alcohol blended with sparkling water and true-to-fruit natural flavours. After a year of meticulous planning and product development, Jonathan and I launched our first product line, ONLY Vodka Soda – Hong Kong’s first 0 sugar, 0 carb, naturally flavoured, premium vodka soda in a can.

Each ONLY Vodka Soda can contains 4.5 percent abv and only 80 calories, which is roughly half of an average can of beer. It also contains no artificial flavours, preservatives or artificial sweeteners, is gluten-free, vegan and keto-friendly. These features along with the fact that our drinks are manufactured in Australia with premium ingredients allow us to overcome the common misconception that alcoholic drinks are commonly associated with being unhealthy.

RiA: Who is your target consumer? Do they have to be health-conscious?

Flora: ONLY Beverages is for anyone who loves socialising as much as they love working out and enjoying themselves.

Our three different RTD flavours – Tahitian Lime, Yuzu Ginger and Guava Hibiscus – are not only light and refreshing, but cater to a broad range of consumers who like the classic vodka soda flavour, prefer a more citrusy flavour profile, or is partial to a sweeter taste palate. And the best part about our drinks is even if you don’t count calories or are “health-conscious”, the drinks are still for you because they simply just taste delicious – which was a key requirement for us when we created ONLY Beverages.

RiA: How does ONLY differentiate itself from other low-calorie, low-sugar beverages?

Flora: All our beverages are made with high quality ingredients sourced from the UK and Australia, which leaves a crisp and refreshing flavour. We chose Australia to manufacture our products as their expertise in developing spirit/hard seltzers is deeper than most other countries in Asia-Pacific. We take pride in our premium packaging, creating strikingly beautiful cans to be consumed from.

Our mission is to take health-conscious drinking to a whole new level by setting a new standard for the quality you expect from a RTD product in Asia. ONLY is also more than just a beverage brand, we aim to build a community that brings like minded individuals together.

Source : ONLY beverage

RiA: What would you consider as your biggest challenges as a start-up – exposure to consumers, seed investment, or production?

Flora: I would say our business has two major challenges – one related to production, and the other around consumer education.

One of our key selling points is that ONLY Vodka Soda is made in Australia from ingredients sourced there and elsewhere in the world. Having to coordinate that from Hong Kong was a challenge to begin with, never mind COVID. For starters, during our beverage development process, every time we create a new flavour, we need to have several Zoom meetings with our development partner in Australia, after which they courier rounds of samples up to us in HK for testing, then we give them comments, etc.

Also, we ended up selling out of our initial product about 2 times faster than expected, so there was a brief period where we were out of stock while we scrambled to get ingredients from the UK down to Australia to produce our next batch. The main lesson we learned – or were reminded of here – is to plan as far in advance as possible and try to account for the unforeseen!

While Hong Kong is a saturated market in the sense that there’s no shortage of alcoholic beverages available, RTD products were still relatively unheard-of when we launched ONLY Vodka Soda. So while we didn’t have to deal with the challenges of introducing “yet another” product into a market already saturated with competitors, we did need to deal with other challenges, like educating the Hong Kong market about our product, and why it is such a fantastic alternative to traditional alcoholic beverages – a challenge we continue to work on everyday as we expand our reach!

RiA: With the pandemic leading to fewer people socialising and going out, how has this affected your business and how have you overcome these challenges?

Flora: We launched ONLY Beverages in 2020 in the height of COVID; however, during this time, we witnessed “micro” social cycles with the constantly changing social distancing rules in Hong Kong. People were still eager to see their closest friends for a drink or two in the comfort of their homes, and our ONLY Vodka Soda offered and still offers the perfect solution for them, being extremely convenient RTD beverages that are crisp, refreshing, and can be enjoyed at anytime and anywhere, available in three flavours to offer the perfect drink for all taste preferences.

However, our ONLY Vodka Soda has not just been popular during the pandemic, as some of our most successful weeks have been when social distancing restrictions were lifted and people were allowed to gather again on boats or at beaches, like now!

Source : ONLY beverage

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RiA: What are your aspirations for the future? Are you planning on expanding to include more flavours or spirit options?

Flora: My business partner Jonathan and I are very excited about our future plans for ONLY Beverages. After around one year since our launch, we have already managed to establish ourselves as true beverage pioneers in Hong Kong’s F&B scene, and we look forward to further leading the city into the new era of RTD alcoholic refreshments through new product lines and flavours that will eventually cater to all kinds of alcohol connoisseurs and enthusiasts – be it the more health-conscious ones or those who are excited to explore new trends and concepts.

Moreover, we are also eager to explore further business opportunities outside of Hong Kong, which is why we’ve been evaluating various new markets in the APAC region, and will soon launch our first international retail outlet in the next few months, so stay tuned for more updates via @drinkonly !