News & Features

Happy Hour Q&A with Bushwacker Spirits and Michael Smith

Welcome to our Happy Hour Question & Answer series, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.

This week’s spotlight is on Michael Smith, co-founder of Bushwacker Spirits. Smith and lifelong friend Carter Echols launched Bushwacker Spirits in May 2020 out of their office in Sarasota, Florida. Inspired by their love of the classic beach cocktail and the beautiful Gulf Coast, the rum-based cocktail was created to be poured directly over ice or blended into cocktail recipes. Learn more at

Hops & Spirits: Where does that entrepreneurial spirit come from?
Michael Smith: I really think it goes back to my childhood. I can remember when I was about 4 or 5, my grandmother left me alone in a room in her house that contained an old wooden chest full of toys for us grandchildren to play with when we visited. Instead of playing with the toys, I found a set of tools and proceeded to take the toy box and one of those old bell ringing alarm clocks apart to see how they were put together and if I could reassemble them. I wanted to build something myself rather than just play with something that was already working. Or I guess in that case, break some things to see if I could fix them or make them better. That has been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life: bend it till it breaks and then see if I can improve it. There have been many hard lessons learned from that way of thinking. 🙂 But every now and then, it works out, and something new is created.

HS: Did the idea behind Bushwacker spirits really come from trouble creating the drink while on vacation?
MS: Absolutely. I was with my older brother Hale in Apalachicola, Florida. We had arrived a day early on a trip that would eventually include our other siblings and our wives. On the evening they were coming into town, we decided to have a big batch of Bushwackers made up to greet everyone. We wanted to make some really yummy ones with homemade ice cream as part of the base. We ended up spending two hours driving to four or five different stores before we had all of the ingredients. 

By the time they arrived, we had some awesome Bushwackers mixed up, but the kitchen was a mess. It was at the end of that effort that we stood in the kitchen and one of us said, “Why hasn’t anyone ever put all of these ingredients in a single bottle to make this easier?” That was really the start of it all. Not long after that, I pitched it to my longtime friend and now business partner, Carter Echols. I told him, “I am going to run with this, and I’m looking for someone to go all in on it with me.” He called me back the next day, and then we just went all in with it.      

HS: What was the development process like for creating the Bushwacker Coconut Rum Cream?
MS: It was tough. In the beginning, we planned on just putting the flavors and liquors in the bottle and allowing for mixing that concoction with either half and half cream, cream of coconut, or ice cream to make a Bushwacker. We spent about six months working on that with a small craft distillery in Florida. We could never get it to taste like the Bushwackers that we grew up knowing on the Gulf Coast. Finally, we threw all that work out and decided we needed to include all the ingredients together to make sure the quality was up to the standard set by all the bartenders who have worked on it for the last 50 years.

In the end, the final product came from a mixing session that started at 7 a.m. one morning in the distillery. We decided we were going to work on it until we got it right. Around noon, I realized we needed to take a break because Carter had a beard full of cream and couldn’t quite focus on me. We were full of rum and cream! We headed back to our Airbnb and put our final sample in the fridge while we napped. After waking up and having dinner that evening, we popped open the sample and in one sip knew we had our Bushwacker. That is essentially the same recipe we use today.

HS: How difficult was it going through the FDA process?
MS: There were some challenges, but we had some great people willing to help us with all of the compliance processes. It was tedious, but overall it wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated. They are much more communicative and informative than you would expect.

HS: You also launched during the pandemic, what impact did that have on y’all?
MS: We had been working on everything for about eight months and had gotten our recipe approved, our bottle design completed, and our label ready for approval by the TTB. That was March 10, 2020. On March 13, a nationwide emergency was declared. So we asked advisors we had hired what this meant for us. Their reply was that we “might as well just forget about trying to launch a new brand for the next year or so.” When we responded that we had sunk everything we had into this with no back-up plan and that quitting wasn’t an option, their reply was, “Well, good luck with that.”

Our first big hurdle was to get our label approved so that we could actually have approval to make our product. The problem was that the TTB had sent everyone home. We were told that new label approvals would now take over a year, when they used to take just a few weeks. We kept calling for a month and were persistent until we ended up speaking to someone who I think worked for the IRS but was doing some part time work for the TTB out of boredom while furloughed. The next thing we knew, this individual decided to help us out and got our approval within about two weeks. 

The distiller that we had been working with agreed to bottle our first batch for us on May 5, 2020. We made 110 cases and were so proud of finally having something we could show people that had just been an idea in our head up until that point. We were also very lucky because we had planned to market our Bushwacker to liquor stores first and then go to the bars and restaurants later. The pandemic shut down the bars and restaurants, but it increased the sales in the liquor stores, making it much easier for us to get shelf space because the stores were having trouble keeping enough stock to serve their customers. 

HS: When did you realize you had something that people truly wanted on your hands?
MS: Everyone in the industry had explained that the normal timeline for a new brand like ours was very slow. We expected to be on the road promoting it in small areas where the name is already popular for the first year and then hopefully be able to expand it statewide in the second year. We figured if it took off and we were lucky, then we might expand to two or three states by the fourth year. I set up a website and a Facebook page—within 30 days, we had 5,000 followers on Facebook, and the website was getting flooded with people wanting to know where to buy it. 

I was about to make a “pitch deck” to start sending out to distributors when we had two of them email us. They sent over contracts for the panhandle of Florida and Tennessee without even requiring us to pitch it to them. We sold those first 110 cases in July and then made about 500 more in August. Within 30 days, those 500 were gone, and stores were wanting more. We scrambled to find enough bottles and materials to make two more batches before the end of the year. That last batch was 2200 cases. 

It was somewhere in that whirlwind that Carter and I just looked at each other and said, “This is it, people want it, and we just have to figure out how to give it to them.” But to be honest, there really wasn’t much time to sit around and ponder any of that. We were just so busy trying to figure out how to get enough to sell, that it went by very fast.  

HS: What’s one or two of your favorite cocktails featuring the Bushwacker?
MS: I like it right over the rocks, a little departure from the traditional cocktail that is known mostly as a frozen drink. But I have always loved White Russians, so that makes sense. And blending it with ice makes a great frozen one. But my favorite recent cocktail might be from a bar called Gilligan’s in Siesta Key. They mix Bushwacker with whipped vodka and pureed strawberries and then shake it and serve it over ice. It is phenomenal.

HS: What’s next for y’all?
MS: Well, we have gotten some great people to join Bushwacker lately and take positions in the company that will help us be able to expand. We are in five states right now and will be expanding to 10 more by the end of the year. We have another 10-15 in the works for next year. Also, we are adding a few new exciting products to the Bushwacker brand. I can’t say what they are just yet, but we are very excited about them. Keep an eye on our website or social pages and you should see them sometime in June.

HS: Where can folks find/purchase it? Or get more information?
MS: On our website, there is a link to maps with all the locations that sell Bushwacker and other information: Also, our Facebook page posts plenty of different recipes and fun information.

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