When three twenty-five-year-old guys walked into the service entrance of the Lawrence, Kansas, luxury hotel, The Oread, they were full of hope, if a little lost. Liber & Co co-founder Chris Harrison’s neighbor worked at The Oread, and had invited the trio to use its commercial kitchen to expand their stovetop-developed Spiced Tonic recipe to sell back to the bar as a craft cocktail mixer.
Chris, Robert Higginbotham, and brother Adam Higginbotham were greeted by a 30-gallon steam kettle that they had to ask for assistance to turn on. Once it was operational, they looked into the 30-gallon kettle and then back at their piece of paper with their stovetop recipe—a rich and complex spiced tonic made with real cinchona bark, a natural source of quinine. How would teaspoons and cups transform into cups and gallons? There was nothing to do but get out the calculator and start doing some math.
Prior to this pivotal preparation, Chris was living in Lawrence, working in a genetics lab, Adam was living in Austin and shipping tastes back and forth with Chris, and Robert was working as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. The three had been kicking around an entrepreneurial idea based on the dearth of exceptional bar syrups that could help home bartender create cocktails equivalent to those found in the best bars in the world. They liked the name Liber, meaning “the free one,” the Roman god of fine drinks and good times.
So when the opportunity arose, the three met in Lawrence, Robert using his frequent flyer miles and taking what then was a nauseating risk—putting $1,500 of bottles and labels on his credit card.
Robert reflected on that rough transition in The Oread’s kitchen, transforming small batches to a large one, “Hours later it was time for dinner service and we were still in the way. They were trying to go on about their business. We were washing dishes to try to keep everybody happy so we could finish. Finally, we had 19 gallons of tonic syrup. We brought it out to Chris’s truck in 5 gallon buckets and it was sloshing everywhere. Eventually, we got back to Chris’s apartment, feeling totally defeated by the process. Of course we had to have a drink! It was 11 at night and we were exhausted and we still had hundreds of bottles to fill by hand, one at a time. Somehow, we got it done.”
Robert took some bottles back to DC in his luggage. After he made a gin and tonic for a friend who managed a grocery store near Robert’s DC residence, the friend was so impressed that he ordered a case for the store. “He wrote a check to me personally because we had no bank account at the time. That was five years ago and he’s still a customer. Amazingly, we were profitable on our first case. We went right back in with our earnings and spent on more inventory.”
With Robert an entrepreneurial spirit, Adam an avid cook, and Chris an avid cocktail enthusiast, the three formed an ideal partnership in Liber & Co, which thrives on the trio’s mutual love of food and beverage. The experiences they were constantly trying to create at home for family BBQs, dinners with friends, and impromptu cocktail parties were something they wanted to share with the world, providing mixers that were the same quality as those being made behind bars.
“What was out there before was high fructose. Artificial. Nuclear,” said Robert. “While there were all kinds of high-end spirits, liqueurs, and bitters, there were still no cocktail syrups with high-quality, thoughtfully sourced raw ingredients, made from real fruits and vegetables. We wanted to fill that void because we understood that the discerning cocktail drinker’s day in the sun had arrived. We’d witnessed the wine boom and the micro-beer boom, and knew that cocktails’ turn was next.”
Chris moved back from Kansas. Together, Adam and Chris experimented and created and marketed. And soon, their big break came. “We had pitched to HEB grocery stores because they really support local business. We thought it hadn’t worked out but then we heard from them again. They wanted the Spiced Tonic we made in Lawrence. And they wanted our Texas Grapefruit Shrub. At the time those were the only two we had and they were kind of ‘out there’ in terms of flavor and they wanted both. To put a single case of each product in each of their stores had Adam and Chris in the kitchen for 18 hours. And HEB had 90 stores! It was overwhelming, but we knew that if they were dedicated to our product, we had that support, and that we’d find a way to make it work. We did. By 2014 we were all three back in Austin, moved in to a dedicated 3,000 sq ft space, and we’ve grown from there.”
Today, all three men are full-time employees of Liber & Co., and their stovetop batches have transformed to 220 gallon tanks. Next year, they have plans to move into a 10,000 sq ft space, and their semi-automated production line will be upgraded to fully-automatic. In 2015, they produced 50,000 bottles, every one of which was capped by hand. This year, they are on pace for 70,000, some bottles being made especially for bars buying at larger liquid volumes. In other words, life at Liber is pretty sweet.
What is it like to live in Austin? Robert says it’s a blast: “We’re all from College Station. The city is booming, young, with a great music and art scene. It takes well to a brand like ours that is small, entrepreneurial, and created from scratch. People respect and support that and it shows in our dedicated consumer base who loyally attend our events.
It’s great to sell nationwide, but so cool to have people loving what you make right in your back yard. Our goal is to equip people with what they need to personally make what they need to replicate the best bars in the world. We provide lots of great recipes, but we like the idea that people will use our products to come up with their own expressions of themselves. We hope we empower our customers to follow their own intuitions and use their creativity to come up with something entirely new.”