“Zero-Proof Cocktails,” with Sharelle Klaus
Sharelle Klaus '92 is the founder and CEO of DRY Botanical Bubbly, formerly DRY Soda, and the author of The Guide to Zero-Proof Cocktails. She grew up in Bend, Oregon, and moved to Seattle to attend Seattle Pacific. Sharelle then spent 10 years in Washington, D.C., working as a consultant for public-private partnerships, but back in Seattle, she worked as the president of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, prior to founding her own company.
Now, DRY Botanical Bubbly is sold in more than 9,000 stores and is featured as an option in many top restaurants in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and recently had a featured cocktail for our Behold! Christmas special at SPU.
Amanda Stubbert: Well, let’s start with the story of how DRY Soda came to be, because sometimes people want to start a business, so then they go find a product to sell. But I found the story of how you came to DRY Soda just so fun and fascinating, so let’s start with that.
Sharelle Klaus: You bet. So I am a total foodie. I love food and I actually really enjoy pairing wine and food. I have four kids, so back when I started the company, I started it 15 years ago, I had basically had about 10 years of my life where I wasn’t drinking any alcohol due to the fact that there were pregnancies and nursing and such. And I just felt like I was left out of celebrations and occasions, whether I was at a restaurant or just anywhere. It was like, it felt like alcohol was always at the center of celebrations.
And to me, that was a really odd thing, because I had now been 10 years without drinking. But also, I grew up at a house that didn’t have alcohol. So it was just always odd to me that there wasn’t this more elevated option, or this opportunity to have something that would pair with food that wasn’t wine. So that’s why I decided to create it. I was like, “Well, I know that I’m not the only person out there that is not drinking for various reasons.” And they would probably like to feel like they are included as part of the party and not like a second-class citizen when they go out.
So I wanted to create this elevated, beautiful drink and something that would pair with food, and have beautiful detail to it. So I started it in my kitchen with four little kids under the age of 7 running around.
“I wanted to create this elevated, beautiful drink and something that would pair with food, and have beautiful detail to it.”
Amanda: Well, as a mom, I can absolutely relate to that scenario. And like you said, people choose not to drink alcohol for many, many reasons. And to have a better option than just soda water, it’s wonderful to say you get a specialty drink just like everyone else.
Sharelle: For sure. And I think it’s partly ritual, too, the ritual of … I know this sounds silly, and I remember when the first article that was written when I did this, was that my 2-year-old was drinking DRY out of a champagne flute, which wasn’t entirely true. But we did suggest people pouring them into champagne flutes because actually, the way that the bubbles are and the aroma and stuff, it was better that way. But it was also about ritual.
And that has to become so important, especially now in our lives, is that ritual of being able to make a drink and make yourself something special, and indulge. So from the beginning, I recognized the importance of ritual in this. And so we even did waitstaff trainings at all the top restaurants in Seattle, and the waiters would pour it in their champagne flute tableside and just make it a special event.
Amanda: I absolutely agree. Doing event planning, we found the same thing. And at Seattle Pacific, it’s a dry campus. And it’s a completely dry campus, which means even for say, a fundraising event, we don’t serve alcohol. And when you don’t have that cocktail hour, you’re missing a piece of the event.
And so in recent years, we began doing mocktails for that same reason, just hanging around and chatting with people and meeting new friends, and meeting up with old friends, that idea of a cocktail party, but without the cocktail. How do you make that work? So I absolutely agree that ritual becomes a big part. And community becomes a big part.
Sharelle: Yeah, connection is really where it’s at for us. And that importance of being able to have that connection. So five years ago, we started also putting DRY into 750 milliliter-sized bottles so that you can share it with a friend, because there is a situation where there are certain endorphins that get released when you share with it friends, like a bottle of wine. But again, it came down to me, alcohol doesn’t have to be at the center of all these connections and celebrations. Because in reality, alcohol is a depressant.
And here we’re talking about celebration. So, why would we want to do that? And again, we’re not necessarily anti-alcohol. We’re just about bringing everyone together to the party. And of course, my experience at SPU, it was a dry campus. And I had come from a dry family, so that was all very real to me. But also did … yes, exactly that situation of feeling like you’re missing out on that ritual that the rest of the world is participating in.
Amanda: Right. And I think there’s the creating that for a dry situation, a dry campus, a dry family, but then making space for everyone. Isn’t that what we’re all about these days, just making space for everyone around us? And when you’re at a larger gathering, inevitably, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t want to partake in the alcohol. And it gives them a chance to be a part of the festivities. Yeah.
Sharelle: Exactly. Inclusion.
Amanda: So let’s go back to SPU a little bit for you. I know you studied political science.
Sharelle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: Did you know that opening a company and being a business owner was in your future back then?
Sharelle: So I had a really cool experience when I was 10, where I kind of started this business with my dad a little bit, with selling Christmas trees. And anyway, it was just super powerful for me because I made a bunch of money for a 10-year-old, and I learned so much. And so I knew that I wanted to study business, but I didn’t want to major in business. I wanted to major in political science, because I was also super interested in how government works, and just the whole process.
So I did actually end up taking a lot of business classes at SPU. Dr. Stewart, Ross Stewart, is my favorite professor in business. He was my accounting professor, and I use what he taught me each and every day of my life. I love to tell him that. So yeah, I knew I wanted to be a CEO and founder of a company from, like I said, the time I was 10. That’s why I took my finance and accounting classes, as well. I just didn’t want to major in it.
“I knew I wanted to be a CEO and founder of a company from, like I said, the time I was 10.”
Amanda: Which I completely understand. But I also feel like I’m sure that what you learned in those classes is helpful as you build a business, as you try and have a product that is successful within our community. Do you think there was a lot of crossover there as well?
Sharelle: Yeah. And I actually ended up going and working in Washington, D.C., and doing some public works projects, where I went back to D.C. to get involved in politics after I graduated from SPU. And I very quickly realized I had zero interest in actually working in politics because it was so slow. Change was so slow. So what was neat was then I went into doing consulting on projects that were like … I did the first privatization of a U.S. airport, at least a study. They didn’t actually end up privatizing it.
So learning how, yeah, you bring those two pieces together. And my very favorite professor at SPU is [former professor] Kathy Lee. And she taught the constitution, like learning about the constitution. All of that stuff just gave me such a great framework. And obviously, politics is an important part of everyone’s life these days, so certainly glad I had some good basis for that.
Amanda: Yeah, I think we all need to know a little bit more about the political system than we used to. It would be good for all of us, I think.
Sharelle: Yeah, yeah.
Amanda: Yeah. So as you were coming back to Seattle from Washington, D.C., and you’re having children at that point, starting your family, yeah?
Sharelle: Yeah, I had two little girls.
Amanda: And what was your plan at that moment? Were you just looking around for where that business idea would come from, or did that come later?
Sharelle: No. Actually, I was looking around. So the first company actually that I started, it was in the late 90s, and it was when we came back to Seattle. And I think my oldest was 3, my daughter was 3. And there was a secured internet portal for 10- to 13-year-olds, because I was super fascinated with what was going on with the internet and what I thought that could eventually become. And I really wanted to be a part of it, but also was super fascinated with building a brand.
That company ultimately failed when the dot-com bubble burst in 1999, but I learned so much in that experience, about what I wanted was to build a brand. But I also realized I needed to be very passionate about whatever it was I was building. Because at the end of the day, I was not passionate about what 10- to 13-year-olds do on the internet. I didn’t even really care what they do on the internet. It was more just the whole technology was just so fascinating to me. And so I knew when I started, my next company would have to be something I was very passionate about.
And like I said, I’m a total foodie. And there was really a hole missing for me in my experience with that. And I just didn’t feel like I could be a whole foodie without the wine part. And I thought that’s just silly. So, yeah. And I always recommend to people, if you want to start a company, make it something that you’re passionate about because I’ve given 16 years of my life now to this company, and you give your heart and soul to a company. And so, yeah.
Amanda: That makes a lot of sense. And something that can continue to grow, like you said, with the brand. And there’s always new flavors and new pairings and new places to go, so hopefully, that keeps things exciting for you. But a business is also so much more than the product itself.
Sharelle: For sure.
Amanda: … like we were just saying. So let’s talk about your philosophy as a business owner, coming out of your first company, coming out of the political sphere. When you started your business and as your business grows, what’s your philosophy behind the company itself?
Sharelle: So the mission when I started, and I’ve been pretty open about this, and I think it’s important to learn from my mistakes, but when I started the company, it was really around this idea of inclusion. What I said is bringing people together and making everyone feel like they had a space at the table, really social drinking for everyone, that concept. So very, very quickly, that mission got pushed to the side, to be really honest, because immediately, literally my very first sales call, the bartender was like, “Oh, I’ve got to use that as a mixture. This thing is brilliant.” So we marketed the product as a mixer as well. And so we were getting away from our mission.
And then as a health and wellness aspect group, people were like, “Well, you’re the better-for-us soda,” because we didn’t have very much sugar. We had very little sugar. And so we grew pretty significantly off of that concept of this health and wellness concept. In the meantime, I had gotten away from this social drinking for all mission, really. And a few years ago, it was about four years ago, I was sitting with a dear friend of mine who is just one of the most brilliant people I know, and who’s now actually our chief revenue officer. And I was just sharing with her.
I feel like I’ve gotten off the rails a little bit of where I wanted this company to go. I miss that mission, I miss having a mission. I feel like it’s just become about the product. And she said, “Well, let’s change that.” And I did some very radical things to do that. One was which was to discontinue a line that we had started called the Zero Sugar line, because now it was just becoming a soda company. And that wasn’t what I had intended. I had intended to really help change the way people think about drinking. I literally have that in my original mission statement of, I want to change the way people think about drinking. And I had gotten really far away from that, and was really just chasing revenue and investment.
“It was just becoming a soda company. And that wasn’t what I had intended. I had intended to really help change the way people think about drinking.”
And I think that’s really easy to do as an entrepreneur. You have investors, and you’re feeling this pressure. And I felt this pressure constantly each year: You have to raise more money and you have to keep investors happy, and they want to see revenue growth. And you just start to move away. So we wanted to get back to, how do you create this movement? And what I had to recognize is that one brand cannot do this, and that I need to be out there supporting this mission, across this whole mission, not just with DRY. And the “sober curious” movement and people’s relationship with alcohol has changed tremendously in the last couple of years. And there has started to be this whole movement.
And now, we have all these zero-proof spirits, and it’s becoming a super viable lifestyle. And so now, my work is going out and partnering with these different brands that are new, because I’ve been out doing this and we’ve got the national distribution and all that stuff. And I really look at the philosophy of helping to build this whole category, not just the DRY Soda company. So that’s what our mission is now. And that’s the learning that I’ve gotten over the last 15 years.
Amanda: Well, I’m fascinated by that. But I want to talk about the epiphany that you just had about how so many of us, especially if you’re listening to this too far in the future, we’re recording this during the time of COVID when we’re just almost a year, coming up on a year into this experience, and that idea of getting back to what I set out to do. Just as individuals even saying, “Hey, I said if I’m going to be home this long, I’m going to … whatever it is.”
Spend more quality time with the kids, get in shape, whatever that is. And just those moments in life where we need to stop and look and say, “Hey, I’ve gotten really far off the path I set out for myself,” and making a conscious decision to get back on. And I just applaud you for that. That’s a very difficult thing to do.
Sharelle: Thank you. I appreciate that. There’s this concept of sunk cost, how much I already put into it. My team had put together this innovation and doing this pivot, and trying to get everybody on board when we had one way of looking at things, was definitely challenging. But once I knew in my head, it just felt right, and everything really started to click into place. Not that it has been easygoing since then, but certainly, we have such a strong North Star now, and we will not waiver from that. And it makes decision-making far easier.
Amanda: Isn’t that truly so many things in life? If you have a very clear purpose, it does help you make decisions, even very difficult decisions. Whereas if you’re just out there saying, let’s make more money, anything can be a good decision. And you’re not really sure until you’re on the other side. Yeah.
Amanda: So let’s get back to this new mission, which I’m very excited about, this free cocktail hour, this social drinking for everyone.
Sharelle: I think really what it is, I think it’s that transparency and honesty, and having that within an executive team, That can happen with male or female, but that’s the part that’s really important. And being able to have those relationships where you’re able to be radically honest about what’s working and what isn’t working. And me being able to have that very honest conversation and say, I’m not happy about this, and then coming back to my executive team and saying, OK. Because when I did make the big switch, we did have an all-female executive team, and being able to say, OK, here’s where we are, this is the mission, and getting everybody on board.
But for me, on a side note, helping women entrepreneurs is my other massive passion, and making sure that women have access and networks. And that part is critical to me. And I had a really fascinating, very negative experience with a professor at SPU, back my senior year, where he tested … I had been a political science major, and I said I was trying to get some career advice. He goes, “Why don’t you go into nursing?” Just like, “What?”
Amanda: That seems very different than …
Sharelle: And it’s really funny. He’s one professor, and he’s not with SPU anymore, but it was a big moment for me where I realized, OK, the world isn’t necessarily going to hand me what I need here. And you are going to have to work for it. And there are certain things. So for me, the all-female executive team that came out of, I did have a desire to show that women do need to be in these positions, and I continue to believe that. And we need to have access to networks.
So, that’s a whole ‘nother part of my life that is really, really important to me. And one of the reasons I love talking, coming to SPU or talking to any, especially young students. And we have a lot of young women on our team that we promote heavily and we develop, because I think that’s critical.
“We have a lot of young women on our team that we promote heavily and we develop, because I think that’s critical.”
Amanda: And for all that, I just have to pause and say for all the young women who will hear this podcast, especially our students at SPU, maybe ones who have lots of fabulous support from professors, such as Ross Stewart, maybe one who’s had an encounter or two with a mentor or teacher somewhere along the way that was not positive, what do you say to young women who want to create a new place for themselves in the world? And I say that versus the word entrepreneur, because it’s not always business, right?
Sharelle: Right. For sure.
Amanda: Sometimes you do want to be a nurse, but you want to do something new in the world. Yeah.
Sharelle: Yeah. I think that one of the really important lessons that I learned really sadly, only in the last five years, which makes me sad that I’ve missed out on it, so I’m super big on telling everyone I made this and even my own daughters, my daughters are brilliant at this, is how important your network and relying on people is.
So I call them my tribe. There are nine other CEO founders, and they’re just the most brilliant, wonderful people I know that are there for me every step of the way. And building that, and looking for not just mentorship and advice, but support. I think the support piece is really critical, and being able to ask for help. I had a really difficult situation that happened a few weeks ago with DRY, and I was really sad and frustrated and angry.
And it’s not usually like me to ask for help. And I texted these nine people and said, “I need your help.” And they got on a call with me that night and helped me through it. And I’m like, “Wow, Sharelle, it’s like you just figured out that if you ask for help, that it will be there to get that support.” So I highly, highly recommend young women work to build their networks now. And don’t just look at those networks for advice, but also support. And I do want to say something really important about Ross Stewart.
He knows I love him, but he treated me with so much respect. And I know, I don’t think he realizes. I took several of his accounting classes, but he really was this huge influence on me, which I know he probably would find that hard to believe, but because of the way he was and how seriously he took me as a student and what I wanted to accomplish in life. And so I think finding and spending time with those kinds of professors, Kathy Lee did the same thing for me … and you’ll know, you’ll spot the professors that are going to be great for you.
There’s going to be some that aren’t, but finding those people in your life. And you’ll know when they’re good people and they respect you and they want the best for you. So that’s my little thought on that.
Amanda: Absolutely. I will say for me personally, it was the professors that you do not want to disappoint. It wasn’t about a grade. It was about, I care so much how they see me and that I’m trying, and that I’m doing my best. That was so much more than grades. And boy, if every teacher in our life was like that, we’d all get straight A’s, right?
Sharelle: Yeah. And it’s how much they cared about you, and they cared about you learning.
Sharelle: So this is one of the reasons I love Kathy Lee, and she’s still a friend, is she loved the constitution and she loved the political system, and just instilled that in me. And I could just feel how much she cared and that … I don’t know. That’s always been a big deal. I love that.
Amanda: And not to go too far off track, but that’s what I love about small liberal arts schools, especially Christian education, is you get to have those relationships. And hopefully, not just one. I can probably list four or five professors that I would say legitimately changed my life. And the things they taught me, I think of on a weekly basis. So it’s magical to have that sort of support. Yeah.
Sharelle: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
Amanda: Well, let’s now talk about your book. As your company is growing and thriving, The Guide to Zero-Proof Cocktails, why did you want to write a book? And then let’s talk about creating new recipes, because that is fascinating to me.
Sharelle: Sure. So first off, I want to say, I did not write this book by myself. In all fairness, this really was my team. And I always feel kind of bad that it’s … because it was definitely a huge team effort. But this is actually such a fascinating study for me of how this book came about. This is the beginning of COVID, and we had invested in one of the U.S.’s first silver bars. We invested in that bar, in that founder. And we were doing a 15-city national tour with him, doing pop-ups around the country. And then COVID hit.
And so we were left with, well, how do we help support this concept? Because for us, like I said, for me, how does zero-proof lifestyle become a viable lifestyle, just as valuable and viable as anyone else’s? And so that was the question I put to the team. I’m like, “Okay, you guys, we can’t go do this in-person now.” We had this beautiful 15-city tour planned. We were four cities into it. It was going amazingly well. I’m like, “How do we support them? How do we support people?” And Keira Bottles, who’s the other author on the book, is the one that came up with this concept. And she said, “Let’s write a book, The Guide to Zero-Proof Cocktails. Let’s get this thing going.”
And so my team came together. We found some different, amazing mixologists that we’ve worked with here in Seattle. Keira and myself, we all worked to create these amazing recipes. And again, it is around ritual and beautiful taste and flavor. And all the things you get in a regular cocktail, you get in this. And then we were also able to support these other brands that are coming up. We highlight several amazing brands and use their products, so that it was just kind of … again, it’s kind of helping all boats float, if you will. So I am super proud of the book because of that, because of how my team came together in the time of COVID. We were trying to do this remotely, like photo shoots with masks on. And it was just …
Sharelle: It was their creativity, their passion for helping and wanting to create this viable lifestyle and help people feel included, was amazing. And I love that we were able to also support these other brands. So it was one of the things I’m most proud of that has happened at DRY in the last 15 years. And we’ve had some amazing things happen, and that is definitely a huge highlight.
Amanda: Well, it’s such a fun book, and I feel like a great gift for people who either have someone in their household who needs the zero-proof. But beyond that, I’m thinking these days, you have someone in your life who’s gluten-free and someone who is dairy-free …
Amanda: Right? And so you …
Amanda: … you hoard these little recipes that you can use when you have someone come over, well, when we can have people come over again.
Amanda: Where you can have something available for everyone to enjoy. And I feel like it’s something that everyone should have on their shelf, for that very reason. Just because you might have one guest that’s gluten-free, but you might have another guest that needs that zero-proof cocktail.
Amanda: And I just feel like it’s something everyone can have on their cookbook shelf.
Sharelle: For sure. And we say that a lot. We almost call it host shaming, which is like, you wouldn’t dream of not … because it really is becoming such a big deal. Even Chrissy Teigen has just decided to go sober, which I think is impressive. But even beyond that, I think it’s even challenging the mixologists out there that like, “Hey, let’s challenge how well you can do these drinks without alcohol.” There’s flavors to be mixed, there’s really exciting stuff to do. And we’ve found mixologists have been just so excited to get on this, because they recognize that a true mixologist can mix anything.
And when I first started DRY, a funny story is the sommeliers would never want to meet with me. And I would have to say, “Listen, your job is to pair beverage and food together, like chocolate chip cookies and milk, for all your customers.” And I would show them how we created this. And once you were able to do that, then I got their attention. But boy, they were very snobby about talking to a soda person. And I’m like, “Hey, that’s beverage, and it’s a pairing. This is how you do it.” And so it’s been really fun to see that mixologists are just really behind the challenge of zero-proof.
“It’s been really fun to see that mixologists are just really behind the challenge of zero-proof.”
Amanda: I can imagine. You’re really starting a new revolution, and I can imagine it can be very difficult to get the attention of someone who’s been doing it a certain way their entire life.
Amanda: Yeah. But really, you’re just giving them more. You’re not asking them to change what they’ve already done. You’re just giving them more options.
Sharelle: Absolutely. This is all incremental. And it is like we said, we’re not anti-alcohol. As matter of fact, Dry January is upon us. And my sister sent me a text yesterday, she showed me a little glass of wine. And she’s like, “My Dry January is not going very well.” And I’m like, “Take it easy. How about just to DRY your January?”
This is all just ways of questioning your relationship with alcohol and just recognizing maybe, you don’t want to have a drink every day. And maybe you want to spice up your rituals, so that’s really the way we look at it. And again, it’s just about options and giving you some opportunity.
Amanda: Well, I will say that the signature cocktail that you guys created for our Behold! Christmas special, my husband’s sister, who is within our bubble, so she and her husband and our nephew, who is 10 years old, were with us for Christmas dinner. I didn’t realize this, but she came with a bag full of ingredients to make the signature cocktail for everyone.
And the 10 year-old was so thrilled that he had the same special drink as everyone else at the table. He didn’t drink very much of it, but he was so thrilled that he got to have the fancy one that everyone else got. So it was just fun to see within my very own Christmas table, how well that works, that everybody gets to get in on the fun.
Sharelle: I love that story. Thank you for sharing that with me. That actually makes me feel very good.
Amanda: Absolutely. It made him feel really good, too. And me. So, what’s next for DRY Botanical Bubbly? I mean, other than starting a national revolution of the dry options for all, do you have something fun that you want to announce to the world?
Sharelle: Well, soon we will. For us, DRY Botanical Bubbly is one of our lines, and we are looking at innovation. So we will be launching some new innovation in March or April of this year, because we feel like it’s really critical that we continue to grow this space and grow different kinds of options. So we have several different actually, other innovation that’s coming later in the year as well. And we take very seriously being able to give people options.
And we know that DRY Botanical Bubbly is one of those, but we have some other ways of doing that, as well. So I think once we got focused on that mission, the innovation just became really easy. And we’re so excited about it. We’ve worked really hard on it. So it’s … yeah. Look for that coming up in March and we’ll be announcing it probably in … I guess, we’re launching it in April, so we’ll be announcing it probably in March.
Amanda: All right. We will be looking forward to that. Well, this has been such a fun conversation for me, and I can’t wait to go mix myself a cocktail.
Amanda: A dry cocktail.
Amanda: We’re done here, but let’s end with our favorite last question for all of our guests. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently today that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Sharelle: I think what I would suggest is if everyone could reach out to someone else and help, support, or give them a helping hand. I think more than ever, we feel isolated and everyone is in a situation where they may be doing fine, but there’s definitely struggles. We all have a unique struggle right now. And I think I never thought in my lifetime that would happen, but we’re all in it together. So I think just reaching out.
Because I know that when I reach out and help someone else, it makes me feel better, too. But then it’s just this pay-it-forward thing of just this constant reaching out and helping. And I think it helps take us a little out of our own heads and our own issues sometimes, too. So yeah, I just hope someone will reach out to someone else today, and give them a helping hand.
Amanda: That is great advice. And maybe you can mix yourself a dry cocktail and share it with a neighbor, leave it on the porch.
Sharelle: Yes. My neighbors are actually some of my best friends. And so they’ve been gone for a while, so they’re coming home soon. So I’m very excited to mix them up a drink.
Amanda: That’s fabulous. Thank you so much for being with us today. Let me end with a little prayer of blessing.
Amanda: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to, may the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May He bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Amen.
Sharelle: Yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate it.