“We want to be in that world where people can try cannabis for the first time in a form that they are used to with a flavor they can identify with.”
The past six months have marked a lot of changes in Mass cannabis, with few additions quite as noticeable as the influx of infused drinks. From new seltzers and gourmet sodas to cold brews and green teas, sippers ought to be especially excited.
I’m still on an autumn beverage kick, and am making the rounds to chat with the marketers and makers behind the best tasting and selling bottles and cans in the state. And whether you are shopping out in Western Mass or on the South Shore, it’s clear that HighTide is among them despite only showing up in March.
No matter where I turn, from dispensary displays to the garage refrigerators of my yuppie buddies in the suburbs, their craft cannabis margaritas are taking hold. Jimmy Buffett may be wasting away in purgatorial Margaritaville, but at least the boozy legacy he left behind is being pissed upon here in the Bay State.
I met up with HighTide President Josh Grab to discuss his background before co-founding the company, moving from the beer world to the cannabis industry, and adapting Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company playbook for the infused market. His responses below have been edited for clarity.
On HighTide origins …
JG: The company was founded by two people—myself, and Shea Coakley, my co-founder. His last business that he sold was LeanBox, which was an in-office food service, like when you go into a nice big law office it would be a nicely stocked fridge with healthy snacks. That’s his background, he was in the startup space in Boston for years.
Shea and I quit drinking [three and six years ago, respectively]. It was no longer a part of our lifestyle. We were sitting around saying we want to have something that you can socialize with, and we had turned to cannabis for relaxation. We wanted something that was a little bit more social than taking a gummy which is like, you take it, and you walk into the party and nobody really knows what you’re doing. And to smoke a joint nowadays, you have to stand behind the garage. In my world, at 43, it’s like I can’t smoke a joint at a kid’s party.
We saw there were beverages coming up and we said, Okay, let’s really try to do that approach with cannabis. We looked at it, nobody was really doing cocktails at the time, it was very early on, and we landed on margaritas because it’s the country’s number one cocktail.
On selling alcohol vs. non-alcoholic drinks …
I come from the beverage world. I was with brands like Coca-Cola right out of college, and later on Boston Beer Company. I was always the New England guy, or the northeast. I did a lot of chain sales business for a while working with companies like Shaw’s and Stop & Shop, selling alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks. My last alcohol venture was with a better-for-you, ready-to-drink organic cocktail. But it turns out people don’t really care if something’s better for you when they’re drinking alcohol. They just want to drink and have fun.
With alcohol, you really have to sell on the merit of your brand, because there aren’t as many things like slotting fees or on-shelf placements. There has to be real demand and the buyers base their purchases off of real demands. It’s very similar to the weed business, only in marijuana, sometimes there is shelf placement marketing [costs]—it’s a way for the stores to make some money too.
On alcohol vs. cannabis marketing …
We have a team around us based on industry experts—our marketing team are owners of the company as well. We co-pack with Temple Hill Collective. They do all of our products, and Eagle Eyes Transport is our distribution partner—they have been amazing. I like to call [HighTide] a branding company, it’s a brand. When you think about it, the brand is still the brand no matter who is actually making it.
When you start a brand, you need to go and sell into dispensaries. It’s very similar to going and selling to a Kappy’s liquor store. They want to know if [your product] will sell better than anything else in the stores. When you get into the chain world, there are a lot more conversations about marketing support and stuff like that, but they’re not there yet in this independent market of Massachusetts cannabis, which is set up independently so that nobody can have more than three dispensaries.
People are not drinking as much these days, we know that from trends in alcohol. People are looking for a more mindful way to enjoy their time and are realizing that cannabis is a way that they can socialize without having a hangover, and they’re also realizing that it’s not as scary as they once thought. There’s still a whole community of people who have these preconceived notions of cannabis because they took an edible from their uncle one time and got so fucked up that they never went back to it. Our drink is very easy, and we tell people to take it slow. And it tastes good too. We focused on taste—we set out to have the best-tasting margarita out there.
On HighTide’s major rollout …
The support we have gotten from retailers and drinkers has been overwhelming. We have really tried to get cans in hands, whether they are uninfused or infused. And I wish we had time to do more of that. There are people who go into a store and will get a four-pack [of infused HighTide drinks], and then pick up a four-pack of uninfused cans for their spouse who doesn’t use cannabis. Also, people use it as a mixer—people are mixing it with tequila and making a regular margarita with it. There is tequila flavoring in our product—it’s not alcoholic. But we also get pictures from people and they have a tequila bottle next to [the can]. I think some people just like to enjoy both substances.
On the 5mg THC limit …
I want to say 5 to 10 mg is probably what I would consider a sessionable cannabis beverage. And we will focus on that kind of cannabis beverage because there is a huge portion of the world that drinks one HighTide and gets as high as hell. There is a market for higher doses—Uncle Arnie’s does an amazing job out in California with 100 mg. We want to be in that introductory world though, where people can try cannabis for the first time in a form that they are used to with a flavor they can identify with. When you walk into a dispensary, you can’t pronounce half the names of the strains. I wanted to keep it super simple.
On what’s working …
We had four flavors that we were going to go to market with—it was classic margarita, then we wanted to have a spicy diablo, and then we wanted to have something that was a little more fruit forward, a little more flavorful. So we test marketed two—a strawberry, and a watermelon. Watermelon [which HighTide ran with] is super hard to work with; we use natural watermelon and all-natural ingredients, and it’s a very difficult flavor. But now, our number one flavor is watermelon. Classic is right behind that, but we do have stores where the diablo is their top seller.
On what comes next …
It’s the Boston Beer [Company] playbook. Jim Koch sits down with all of his new employees and has you sample every product that they have. He’s been doing it for years. It’s an amazing experience; when I was there in 2011, there were 37 SKUs. He always tells his brewers that if they make something good that people want, he will figure out a way to make money with it. And when we have products that people want to drink, we will figure out a way to make money with it.
We are going to continue on with the margarita flavors year-round, and next year we will also release some seasonal products—a summer seasonal, a fall seasonal, all based on the margarita. I see some gaps in the market that haven’t been filled yet, and we will have new line extensions coming out. Again, we are going to focus on that sociable cannabis cocktail world.