Loft & Bear is the brainchild of Paul Ryan Elliott, an East coast native and one of few Black distillery owners in the country. Elliott learned the art of distilling when his family’s construction company fell on hard times. While unemployed and living in Silver Spring, Maryland, Elliott was faced with the decision to go back to school or continue with his distilling hobby. After careful deliberation, he decided to put his business school plans on hold and instead devoted several years to focused business planning.
During the summer of 2014, in a loft in downtown Los Angeles, Loft & Bear artisanal vodka was born—hence, the name. A notable part of wine and spirits history, Loft & Bear distillery is the second-ever to be located within Los Angeles city limits since the “noble experiment” called Prohibition.
Today Elliott continues to work toward fulfilling long-term, sustainable success and is encouraged by the opportunity to bring inclusivity and diversity of thought to the beverage alcohol industry. Loft & Bear’s commitment to social awareness is seen in its “Distill.Drink.Donate” program, in which 5% of Loft & Bear profits are donated to PATH, a charity aimed at ending homelessness and providing support for distressed families, veterans affairs, and human services throughout Southern California.
Not surprisingly, Elliott and his award-winning vodka have been featured by numerous major media outlets including Wine Enthusiast (40 Under 40), the Los Angeles Times, US Weekly, and more.
BLACK ENTERPRISE sat down with Elliott to discuss the finer details of his artisanal vodka brand and the nuances of his entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about your vodka and what distinguishes it as a premium, artisanal brand.
Is it too corny to say it is crafted with love? It’s definitely been a labor of love. My desire for developing Loft & Bear was to create a spirit that was approachable, “easy on the eyes and palate” in terms of its flavor profile and ethos. I’ve been fortunate enough to share my personal creativity with the world as our vodka expression: Loft & Bear. We’ve been characterized as smooth, subtle but sweet, and a hands-down favorite for developing cocktails. I found early on that the softer the wheat grains, the more balanced and gentle the mouthfeel. As cocktails generally constitute an element of citrus, we feel the slight alkalinity of our water base is not only more healthy, but also balances out citrus cocktails quite nicely.
What was the most significant challenge you faced as a Black founder in this industry?
I’ve been blessed with tremendous support since Loft & Bear’s inception. As the industry expands and increasing value is placed on diverse consumers, I’m excited to see the growth in equity and ownership amongst Black founders. I believe we currently represent less than 2% of the brand owners within the alcoholic beverage space. In an industry dominated by major market players, my biggest hurdle since day one has always been accessible, consistent capital. While this has been an ongoing challenge for my team, it also presents a great opportunity for up-and-coming Black and minority founders with moon-sized visions of changing the space. I’m likewise encouraged to see more interest and opportunities for Black founders to execute their visions via new initiatives with Constellation and Uncle Nearest, for example. To achieve larger-than-life goals requires collaboration with strong partners and mentors, as well as a departure from some of the traditional industry norms.
Where do you see your brand in the next five-10 years?
Bigger, better, stronger, wiser! As we grow our core spirit selection and continue to innovate around experiences for our customers, one area that we see ourselves owning is the high-end RTD [ready to drink] segment. These products deliver high-quality, convenient, and unique experiences to consumers. In what we internally refer to as the “full-circle” consumer, we’re confident that our products and broader goal to enhance the beverage alcohol experience through innovation and diversity of thought will shine through.
Where can fellow vodka enthusiasts find your delectable wares?
The boutique culinary scene is responsible for much of Loft & Bear’s success and early adoption. We often find shared values with these establishments in terms of curating an amazing customer experience and building a sense of community. We’re currently growing our national distribution footprint within the U.S. and are currently available at regional retail chains such as BevMo, Raley’s, ABC, Bristol Farms, Pavilions, Cost Plus, and others. We also invite clients to shop online via our website to discover distribution partners that deliver to multiple states within the U.S. as well.
You’ve listed a number of fascinating signature cocktails on your website, each of which uses fresh, native Bahamian ingredients to set it off. What are some delicious traditional pairings you can share with us?
•Conch Salad + Sky Full of Stars (L&B vodka-based twist on a local classic made from sweetened condensed milk)*
•Caribbean Lobster + Rose Mango Smash (Mango)*
•Boiled Fish + Lemongrass Switcha (Lemongrass)*
•Jerk Chicken + In Exile (Smoked Pineapple)*
*Signature Bahamian ingredient
What is your best advice for someone set on breaking into this industry?
There’s a funny saying, “If you hang around the barbershop enough, you’re bound to get a haircut.” Is it possible that breaking into the industry is just as simple as that—submerging yourself in the business and beginning to ask the right questions? I believe this is where you begin to identify the evolving needs of consumers and customer pain points. That very attentiveness could be the key to unique value creation for those looking to break into the industry. There’s something alluring about an unforgettable imbibing experience; these amazing moments with friends and family are what could give birth to unique opportunities to have a positive effect on the industry. Improve every day and learn the business, then you have a genuine shot at doing something great!
What is your big picture vision for adding value, beyond your excellent contributions to the wine and spirits industry?
By leveraging the strength of our brand, which is supported by our core values, we have a unique opportunity to influence large-scale social change and become the voice of a generation destined to shape the future.
What do you want people to know most about your vodka?
We’ve been referenced as a “whiskey drinker’s vodka.” We believe in our artisanal quality and craftsmanship, which boasts a flavor built for sipping. Our bear is a symbol of strength; a passion for making a stronger tomorrow. As a society, we pride ourselves on the concept of building a better future and that is at the core of Loft & Bear’s values. This is a labor of love that everyone deserves to experience firsthand, so we invite vodka drinkers everywhere to sip and enjoy this phenomenal journey with us. Cheers!