Spirited Away–Local moms mix things up
When Elisabeth White moved to Bedford Hills in 2017, the former editor for Fitch Ratings had to adjust to life as a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs. She instantly became the sole caretaker for her two pre-school-aged daughters, set about learning how to manage a much larger house, and desperately missed her city social life. She only knew one person in town—a friend from college.
Luckily, that friend introduced White to Katonah resident Melanie Hammer, a single mom of two and defense attorney with a private practice who would soon become White’s business partner. Initially, they bonded over their similar humor, love of good arguments, shared passion for well-made cocktails, and competitive nature.
Ironically, when White temporarily moved to London with her husband and kids, the women’s friendship was cemented. During their daily conversations, White often lamented the lack of good alcoholic beverage options in London, so when White returned to New York last summer, Hammer invited her over to enjoy some pre-made libations by the pool. But neither could find something refreshing without any added sugar.
“We were outraged,” jokes Hammer. “We searched online and drove all around Westchester and even some of Connecticut, but we found nothing.”
So they did what any woman on a mission would do—they bought every ready-to-drink cocktail they could find, hoping to discover at least one beverage that came close to what they craved. But with every new can they sampled, they became more and more disappointed. Instead of giving up, they did some research.
Two months later, Hammer and White confirmed they had a concept, found a distillery that could meet their needs, and launched Willow Hill Spirits, a line of herb-infused vodka drinks mixed with carbonated water that boasts 12 percent alcohol and includes no artificial colors, flavors, or added sugar/sweeteners.
They knew they wanted to sell their cocktails in glass bottles, envisioning something that could be used as an “appropriate hostess gift.” Plus, given their belief that sugar causes hangovers, they developed cocktails that are hydrating, claiming consumers can wake up the next morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day.
The first flavor on the market, which was released in early 2020, was cucumber-basil. They’re planning to release lemon-thyme-rosemary and Kaffir lime-ginger flavors next.
But starting a business, even one that includes drinking alcoholic beverages as part of your market research, isn’t easy or something that can be done in your spare time. And when you’re going from concept to product in about six months, the work never ends. Yet Hammer and White have managed to build a business, work, raise their children, and still have fun together.
“We think we’re really funny,” says White. “So, we love hanging out together. But, we’ve spent a lot of time working on this business. Whether it’s following up with the distillery, drafting contracts, dealing with the formulation, or handling the licensing, we’re spending hours of our day working on Willow Hill Spirits.”
It’s become a family affair, of sorts. Even though Hammer’s children are older, she says they’ve given their kids “no choice but to bond because we were so happy to discover one another.”
“We’re still on the phone with each other all of the time, but now a lot of that talk is business-related,” Hammer explains. “We talk while we’re getting dressed, picking up our kids, or when I’m driving to court. Sometimes I need to hang up with Elisabeth because a client is calling from Rikers, and that call can’t be returned.”
White says that they’re both very high energy and thrive when they’re busy. And even though they’re applying for grants, building a following, and consulting with accountants and designers, they still make time for their friendship.
On a recent December afternoon, shortly after the first snowstorm of the season, the women decided one of White’s bathrooms was too bland. So they embarked a DIY project.
“Only a real friend would help wallpaper someone else’s house,” says White. “The whole project was due to Melanie and her insistence on finishing a job and doing it better than the experts. That’s why she’s the perfect business partner and friend.”