Find out how the creator of Australian aperitivo brand Sofi Spritz cuts through a crowded market — and uses Qantas Points to grow his business.
Tom Maclean spent most of his twenties travelling through Europe soaking up the culture of the continent. And when it was time to come back home, he decided to bring part of that experience with him.
“When I returned to Australia, I was living by the beach in Sydney’s Tamarama and having a lot of backyard barbies,” Maclean recalls. But in his mind he kept returning to Italy. “I loved the whole aperitivo culture with colourful cocktails in the piazzas and I thought it would be great to do something like that with Aussie wine but make it more suitable for a barbecue.”
Without a background in the beverage industry, Maclean needed some help to turn his dream into a reality. He found the perfect business partner in fifth-generation winemaker Simon Gilbert and Sofi Spritz was born. Working from Gilbert’s Mudgee winery the pair refined the recipe for their first product, a local twist on the classic Venetian spritz.
In late 2013, Maclean began selling the refreshing blend of Australian white wine, sparkling water, blood orange and bitters at Bondi Farmers Market. Made with all natural ingredients and no added sugar, it was perfectly timed to connect with increasingly health-conscious consumers. Soon the pair began working on more recipes.
Their Lemon & Elderflower spritz was inspired by the flavours of the Italian Alps, while the White Peach & Ginger pays homage to the Bellini, first served in a Venetian bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart.
As Sofi Spritz grew, Maclean needed capital, so he launched multiple rounds of crowdfunding and even appeared in front of the panel of business experts on the TV series Shark Tank (where he picked up a couple of the “sharks” as investors). All the while, he kept making regular trips to Mudgee, which he describes as “a really underrated wine region”, to work on new products with Gilbert.
Growing sales meant they were soon bringing in wine from across the country and though they’ve used Mudgee wine in the past, bushfire-ravaged crops made it impossible in 2020. “Fortunately the wine industry in general is super supportive and collaborative, especially in regional wine areas,” Maclean says. “Now we source wine from all around Australia, but it mostly comes from New South Wales — we like that the product doesn’t have to travel too far.”
Today Sofi Spritz sells more than two million cocktails a year in a range of kegs, cans and bottles. That’s despite having only four full-time employees. “It’s pretty lean,” Maclean says, and that’s exactly what allowed the business to be so agile in 2020.
“Traditionally you build an alcohol brand by getting awareness through on-premise venues — bars and pubs — and then you hope to sell a lot through the off-premise off the back of that,” Maclean says. “But COVID shut down on-premise for quite a while and that forced us to shift our focus online and go direct to the consumer, which has been really good for us. In the future we’ll continue to ramp up our focus and activity online through e-commerce.” (Sofi Spritz is now available through Qantas Wine, where Qantas Wine Premium Members¹ can earn 3 Qantas Points per $1 spent into their Frequent Flyer account² and businesses can earn an additional 2 Qantas Points per $1 spent on purchases.³)
Becoming a Qantas Business Rewards member has been a game-changer for Maclean. He earns up to 2 Qantas Points per $1 spent on his American Express® Qantas Business Rewards Card⁴ to pay suppliers and for other business expenses, such as internet and social media advertising. Some of these transactions, such as paying Facebook advertising, are international and Maclean uses his American Express Card because the exchange rate and fees stack up well against his previous cards. Plus, by using the AccessLine payment portal, he’s even able to pay invoices with suppliers that don’t accept American Express Card payments — once again earning Qantas Points on top.
When Maclean chose the American Express® Qantas Business Rewards Card, the flexible payment terms were the clincher. “Having 51 days to pay is huge for us as it frees up our working capital,” he says. “The bonus Qantas Points we received for joining certainly didn’t hurt, either.”
Those points proved especially handy in late 2020. “When the borders opened up I managed to fly my mum down from Brisbane on the points I earned with my Amex Card, which was nice,” Maclean says. “And I got a couple of Christmas presents for family at the Qantas Rewards Store as well.”
And while Maclean is focused on growing the business within Australia for now, he’s looking forward to the day when he can once again fly overseas. “I love going to London and New York and seeing trends before they emerge in Australia, travelling to different countries to see all of the different food and drinks. After all, that’s where this whole thing started.”
Tom Maclean’s top business tips
If the playing field isn’t level, change it: Starting out, everyone told Maclean the way to build an alcohol brand was to send a sales force into pubs and clubs. That model favours established businesses with plenty of cash, but “online you can skip all of that and go direct to the consumer. Industries are changing at a rapid pace,” he says, “so don’t compete on your competitors’ terms.”
Utilise flexible payment terms to aid cashflow: “Because we have to hold inventory and supply big customers who can have fairly lengthy payment terms, working capital is really important for us,” Maclean says. With no pre-set spending limit, his American Express® Qantas Business Rewards Card is a lifeline when cash reserves are limited, giving Maclean and his business access to a line of funding. And when they need to pay suppliers themselves, Maclean uses the Card, giving the business 51 days to pay for purchases.
Start selling as soon as possible: “As soon as we made our first batch of Sofi Spritz we went down to the farmers’ market and began selling direct to consumers,” says Maclean, who did much of the early sales work himself. “That meant we could get feedback in real time and find out exactly what people liked or didn’t like.”