Vancouverites Jonathan Der and Flora Ma launched ONLY vodka soda in Hong Kong, unveiling the city’s first low-calorie, zero-carb, and natural flavoured reinvention of the classic highball. The co-founders enlighten us on their vision for the future of health-conscious alcoholic beverages in Asia.
Jonathan Der and Flora Ma are the brilliant forces behind Hong Kong’s groundbreaking health-conscious alcoholic drinks label, ONLY, dedicated to serving “only” the healthiest, most refreshing, and best-tasting ready-to-drink beverages. They first launched in 2021 with two refreshing flavours of vodka sodas that catered to the local palette- Tahitian Lime and Yuzu Ginger, only to later introduce their newest crowd-favourite, Guava Hibiscus.
Originally hailing from health-centric Vancouver, when the co-founders first moved to Hong Kong, they both witnessed a huge market gap and potential for innovation in the alcohol and spirits space. They made it their calling to introduce Asia to health-conscious beverages, drawing inspiration from Vancouver’s mindful drinking culture, and are now actively looking to diversify their drinks portfolio.
The friends and business partners are passionate about sharing “the right way of drinking” with city dwellers for guiltless social drinking. Moreover, each can of vodka soda is made to be low calorie, carb and sugar free, and all-natural flavoured, with the motto “drink good, feel good!”
In conversation with Flora and Jonathan, Hive Life gets a taste of their innovative ready-to-drink concept, as they illuminate us on the backend of their operations while sharing their aspirations for the future of ONLY in Asia’s health-conscious alcoholic beverage market.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves- how did you cross paths?
Flora began: “I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Vancouver, and spent most of my life there. I studied finance and accounting, and started my career as a chartered accountant. I [later] moved to Hong Kong, and went into management consulting, and then did banking at Goldman Sachs.”
Working as a banker in her most recent role, Flora, driven by her passion, left her job to make ONLY her full-time priority.
Jonathan followed: “I am from Vancouver. I ended up in Hong Kong since I went to City University for exchange. I was supposed to go home, but I fell in love with the city and ended up staying. I started my career here in real estate and I did that for about eight years. I eventually left real estate to [work on ONLY] full time.”
Flora added, “Although we are both from Vancouver, we did not know each other there. Jonathan knows my [sister-in-law], so when my husband moved here about eight years ago they got introduced. A year later, I came here and we all became friends, and have been for a very long time now.”
Is a vodka soda both of your go-to orders at the bar?
Flora shared, “Vancouver is a super health conscious city, everybody works out, and cares about what they put in their body. Nutrition and wellness is a big priority for everyone. Growing up there, we both had that in the back of our minds. In university I was also in a sorority and whenever we were drinking, most of us would be having vodka sodas- it was my go-to drink, only a hundred calories or less! Basically, it was one of the cleanest drinks, neutral tasting, plus you don’t have many hangovers.”
Jonathan, on the opposite spectrum, had a taste for more intense flavours in his drinks, however, he mentioned “As I got older, I could not handle beer anymore, and got bloated easily. The calories included, it all added up. Vodka’s a good alternative for people that don’t want to drink beer, it has the same percentage, but half the calories, 80 cal versus 150 cal for a beer.
It was a massive trend in Vancouver and still is a big trend. We realised one day, this type of drink does not exist in Hong Kong. There is a gap in the market, we saw an opportunity and we just got together.”
What has been your most well received flavour by consumers in Hong Kong?
“When we first started, we launched Tahitian Lime and Yuzu Ginger, both very citrusy flavours. Tahitian Lime is our take on the classic cocktail, and Yuzu Ginger is a more exciting, spicy flavour, and an ode to our Asian origins. Even the Guava Hibiscus flavour is more Asian inspired, and was a more exciting one that many people gravitated towards. We want to make flavours that are refreshing, exciting, with Asian inspired choices to make it more special.” said Flora.
Jonathan emphasised, “We are not just a vodka soda company, we are a beverage company and in the future, we will work on other spirits, while focusing on the health conscious approach, with zero sugar and low calories, to fill that gap.”
How did your idea come to life, from conceptualising a drink, to making the final product?
Flora shared, “Around 2019, we saw the rise of hard seltzers and spirit-based seltzers, such as White Claw® and Truly. We were aware of this trend and we [wanted to introduce] something similar to Asia. In 2020, we got together and [hoped] to fill this gap. We were passionate about the drink and wanted to bring that in Hong Kong, and across Asia as we expand.”
Jonathan continued, “We had an idea, but everybody has ideas, [it’s about] how you put that idea into an actual product. [Hence] we did plenty of market research, talked to many experts in the industries, and read articles. We were determined, used our resources, and we found someone in Australia, where everything is made.”
Flora concluded, “We would first ideate the flavours, and speak to our beverage developer, then reiterate the flavours. After they send us the first samples, we’d have the first try, and I remember the first time we tried it, it tasted way better than we thought it would, it blew our expectations.
We did a couple of rounds of sending back and forth, the whole process from flavour to developing took around four to six months.”
What is the inspiration behind the name “ONLY”?
Flora started, “The idea came because we wanted something that was pure, simple, and essential, such as ONLY vodka soda. It is a constant reminder of our approach and how we develop our drinks- transparent, clean, and simple.”
“We just want something direct and unisex, plus it is easy and playful for our social media,” said Jonathan.
What challenges were you met with navigating the F&B sector in Hong Kong?
Flora: “We are not necessarily in the F&B scene, and are blazing our own path. We are building connections as we go, and have been quite fortunate as people are really great. [However, since] we work more with stores instead of restaurants and bars, that’s one of the challenges that we face. Most restaurants and bar owners don’t want something with not as good margins and that are pre-packaged beverages.”
Jonathan: “ In the United States it was very similar in the beginning, but it took five years to educate consumers and business owners. Now, they serve them at some of the hottest clubs and bars since consumers are asking for the taste profile. So we are a big believer that it’s just going to take time, and we are available in one club right now called Carbon, in H Code.”
Flora: “That is something we are working towards, we are spending quite a bit of our time trying to educate consumers. We do tastings and like to speak to consumers face to face ourselves. When we started last year, there were very few ready-to-drink options, and this year, there have been several others launching. While it is competition, we believe it is great for the entire market because it’s building a bigger circle and more awareness. Now more and more consumers will gravitate towards the space.”
How did you raise awareness of your product and find retailers when you were first starting out?
Flora shared, “ I was quite persistent, and would not give up. We would offer vendors some incentives, such as doing consignment basis to prove ourselves, and get our foot in the door. These people are now some of our biggest accounts.”
“It helps if you know people too, in order to get introduced to the space,” added Jonathan.
Other than it being a health conscious alternative, what is beneficial about using vodka as a base spirit?
“It works for us because it is a clean tasting spirit. When you drink ONLY, which is five times premium distilled, you can barely taste any vodka aftertaste, and that is why our drinks are so sessionable. A big criteria for us was with the vodka, it has to be clean, neutral tasting, so it does not have that bad aftertaste,” said Flora.
Jonathan added, “Also we picked vodka soda versus hard seltzer due to the understanding of the drink. Everybody understands what a vodka soda is.”
What are your drinks best paired with?
Flora: “We always say it’s best served chilled and we prefer straight from the can. You can pair it with anything, any [drink] or food. It tastes great by itself and most people drink it for parties, barbecues, and junk boats.”
Jonathan further explained the three preferred ways to enjoy your can of ONLY: “drinking it straight from the can, pouring it out in a cup,” or as some customers prefer, “they pour it in a cup with ice.”
Can you elaborate more on your experiences as a pandemic-founded business?
Flora: “First off, [ONLY is based] in Hong Kong, while our contract manufacturing is in Australia. We sold out of our drinks last year almost twice as fast as we anticipated and could not get our new stock in time since most of our ingredients come from London to Australia, and then [the final product arrives] from Australia to Hong Kong. [Due] to the delay, we were sold out for almost three months.
The other thing in Hong Kong was that with Covid-19, there were many events being shut down. Our drinks are perfect for events, whether it is a festival, store opening or anything, the fact that there were no events really dampened our ability to make larger volume sales as well as raise brand awareness.”
Jonathan: “Everyone is more health conscious, and more aware of what’s going in their body. Our drink serves that purpose.”
Flora: “When people were spending more time at home, more individuals were having people over and were also having our drinks consumed at their homes, which helped us in some respect.”
Do you have any advice for emerging businesses looking to define their own unique flavour profile?
“Determine your own style, and figure out what speaks to you and what makes you unique, then come up with something that is perfect and works well for you,” said Flora.
Jonathan followed, “Find the right partner! I’m thankful I have Flora because you know, we add different skill sets and complement each other. Doing it by yourself could be quite lonely. So, having someone you can speak with, two brains is better than one and bounce ideas off mentally. That is what I have taken out of this whole experience so far.”
Do you have any new flavours coming soon?
Flora shared, “We will be launching a new flavour Q4 this year!”
Is there anything else we can look forward to seeing from ONLY this year?
Flora added, “Our goal is to grow our presence and penetrate more consumer [markets] and strengthen our brand awareness. We are designing a new website which we will be launching soon. We are also going to launch a new feature that has not been done by any other beverage company- stay tuned for that.
We just want to continue establishing ourselves as the pioneers in the industry for ready-to-drink [beverages]. We will have some more exciting things launched early next year.”
Besides being available online, which locations can we find ONLY at?
Jonathan answered, “One of our biggest retailers is the Hong Kong Liquor Store. We are in Feather & Bone on Mosque Street. We are also in Green Common, and various private membership clubs, including Yacht Club, American Club, Cricket Club, and in Kerry Hotel.”