Main content starts here, tab to start navigating

Women In Beer - Meet BroVo Spirits' Mhairi Voelsgen

Meet Mhairi Voelsgen, the founder behind BroVo Spirits! Unlike your typical distiller, Mhairi’s passion for flavor and hospitality led her to create something special.

“I always loved working with flavor,” she says, “and BroVo Spirits was born from my desire to support the world of craft cocktails.”

Under Mhairi’s leadership, BroVo Spirits is breaking the mold. They’re a woman-led distillery committed to quality and innovation, making waves in the craft spirits industry! Want to hear more from Mhairi? Snag tickets to our Women in Beer event on March 21 at Pike Pub!

What inspired you to start a spirits company? 

I often joke that I bore easily, but the truth is it’s never just one thing that starts you on a path like this. I have a pretty non-traditional background for the liquor business. I went to college for architecture, worked in television, for a non-profit, and then in the advertising world. I’ve been very fortunate to have a diversity of experience which combined to give me the capabilities to build the company. 

I had a desire to make something from scratch, know how it was made and what it was made from, and present it to other people. In the ad world I worked for both a restaurant group and a major alcohol supplier which gave me exposure to the business from the customer and supplier perspective. I understood brand from years of working in the design industry and wanted to create something that was authentic, where the story wasn’t a story, it was the truth about a product and the people who made it. 

I have a great palate and have always loved working with flavor. I love the hospitality business, where you are invited into the world of a chef and bartender, but I knew I didn’t want to open a restaurant or bar. I wanted to support it.  

Both of my parents had small businesses so I understood the complications of owning one. They were both distributors- my dad had a hardware company; my mum had a gourmet coffee and tea business. I did trade shows with them, rode with them to meetings with other small businesses they would present to, and even did the dreaded annual inventory with them.  My parents were amazing human beings and everything I am I got from them, including their mad cashflow skills. The reason I am able to do this is because of their real-time life lessons. 

Share a time when you felt particularly proud of your contributions in the craft spirits industry? 

I have had a lot of very meaningful moments since starting BROVO. Two really stand out- just a couple of years after we launched, we had entered the Chicago market. We had presented to The Aviary and they had loved our ginger liqueur. At the time what we were doing was very different from most American-made liqueurs. Our distributor there, had arranged for us to go to The Aviary and try the cocktail. She booked the kitchen table. We had the cocktail and an appetizer which also used the ginger liqueur in it. I remember sitting at the table crying because I was so proud of what we had made. It was the first moment I realized we could be something. 

The second moment was when we received a James Beard Foundation nomination for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer. I was in Boston at the time, preparing for a meeting. The nomination was a complete surprise to me; I found out because I received a number of congratulations texts from friends. I wasn’t even paying attention to the Beard nominations because I never expected to get one.  At that point we were 7 years old. It felt like what we were doing was resonating with great bartenders and chefs.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable or challenging moment you've experienced while leading your company?

Our history has been a story of overcoming extreme challenges. We’re a small business so challenges can seem enormous to us. Right after we launched, the state privatized liquor sales and suspended purchases for eight months. We zero balanced our revenue in our first year. Then my co-founder found love in Florida and moved there, leaving the business. One of our key employees had a significant medical issue. For a while I joked that COVID was our fifth pandemic, at least in terms of significant business events that could have closed us down.

In terms of my personal leadership, probably the most proud I have felt is during the early days of COVID. I am the President of the Washington Distillers Guild and we decided to actively work with the WA Hospital Association to ensure that all hospitals across WA who needed sanitizer got it. It’s easy to forget how hard those days were, how unknown and frightening COVID was. I helped to coordinate 130 distilleries across the state and together we all supplied medical facilities,  and people and businesses across the state with sanitizer. Later that summer, we worked with Governor Inslee’s office, Starbucks, the Farm Bureau and the WSDOT to supply migrant workers in the state with sanitizer. I was so proud of the sense of personal responsibility that so many local distilleries had. It was inspiring.

In terms of the everyday, one challenge that I find we constantly have to overcome is the perception that we are very small. We have a fantastic team of 5 full-time people, but that team is exponentially productive; they are the superheroes who work to ensure that what we deliver lives up to what we say about it. Our awards and accolades are due to their commitment to quality and innovation.  We sell more than 15,000 cases a year to restaurants and retailers. People are usually surprised by our volume- we’re not a small distillery who sells mostly to the public through a tasting room. 95% of our business is to wholesalers who then sell to retailers. 

How do you foster diversity and inclusivity within your team and customer base? 

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can help make more change in the world by using my voice to amplify the expectation that women and minorities should have a seat at the table. Our little company can only have so much impact on the world, but ensuring that the companies we work with hire and promote women and minorities into positions of responsibility amplifies the changes. 

I was always a ‘go along to get along girl’ before COVID. I was more focused on the end result than ensuring the path to get there had equal access.  Part of that focus was the need to plow through so many obstacles that I did not make the time to focus on the environment. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and experiencing the #metoo movement changed that; I became a lot more outspoken. I make it a priority to amplify minority perspectives and speak out personally about issues relating to women. Sometimes I do this in small ways, reframing language to be more inclusive in conversations. I prefer to set the table for minorities to speak about their experiences, allowing their voices to be heard, instead of speaking for them. Sometimes I do it in big ways, making changes in outside business relationships because of it. I have tried to be clear with business partners that I expect to see women in leadership roles in the business, running markets, as Vice Presidents and running teams. It’s one thing to hire diversely, it’s another to tell your partners that you expect to see it in their organizations too.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. Frequently women (and minorities) can be invisible. I talk about how women have been seen in the world and the difference it can make when we all have a seat at the decision-making table.

Having said all of this, I would also tell you that I can do better. To quote Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court and replied, “when there are nine”.

As a woman founder, what advice would you give to encourage other women aspiring to enter the craft spirits industry? 

You need a strong work ethic, talent, perseverance and an ability to learn from failure to survive in a business like this. 

This is a tough business regardless of gender. You need grit and determination to survive. I would tell other women to research the business they want to enter, develop expertise in it, and try to find a way to be different. There are lots of stories that are similar; be different.  Form strong partnerships but expect to put the time and energy in yourself. Do interesting work and be genuinely interested in the work that others do with your products. You have to be all in to make your small business successful; you deliver the results. 

If you could create a craft spirit with one unique superpower, what would it be and why?

I would create a spirit that would freeze time. I have a 15-year-old son and am constantly aware of how fast it is moving.