At the Southern Champion headquarters, Merrilee Kick stands at the window of a conference room, looking down at the BuzzBallz production line below. The energetic conference room is decked out with a stage, a long table, lounge area and a corner bar laden with XIII Kings Vodka, Andrew John’s Gin, Crooked Fox Bourbon and, of course, baseball-sized brightly colored cocktails-in-cans called BuzzBallz. Below on the warehouse floor, 2,000 cases of Closet Freak wine sit on pallets, ready to be shipped to California. Beyond that, 15 flavors of BuzzBallz are being mechanically canned and packaged under the watchful eyes of the staff members.
“They’re selling so fast we can’t keep up with production,” Merrilee says. “The distributors are selling it faster than we can make it. We’re going as fast as we can.”
Downstairs, near the kitchen where employees get free lunch every day, she shows me a laboratory where every batch of spirits or BuzzBallz is tested, some are tasted and then they’re kept sealed on a shelf for quality assurance. Every batch from the past two years is logged and kept on that shelf.
The lab isn’t far from the shoebox R&D room, which is peppered with little barrels, an eclectic assortment of jugs and beer ads on the walls. Flavor extracts line the shelves and all around the room new creations are being blended, tweaked and blended again. The team comes down frequently with new ideas—a mint chocolate chip cocktail, for example—and in this little room, someone makes it a reality. Sometimes companies, beverage distributors or grocery store chains, request an exclusive product. Here, they can whip up a small batch for them to taste and approve.
Inside the Southern Champion headquarters, a warehouse in Carrollton, the air smells boozy and the walls are vibrantly colored, just like BuzzBallz popular ready-to-drink cocktails: Strawberry Rum Job, Choc Tease and Tequila Rita. “A lot of people don’t get our humor,” Merrilee says. “People my age don’t always get the names. It’s a millennial play. It’s light and young.” Vivid, sly and punny, BuzzBallz are the foundation of Merrilee’s entire business. If it hadn’t been for BuzzBallz, Southern Champion, one of the only women-owned distilleries in the country, wouldn’t exist.
“I used to be a high school teacher at Plano West,” Merrilee says. Before that, she was a jack of all trades. She came to Dallas to work for Ross Perot at EDS. She was a computer programmer working 110 hours every week and there she met her husband. After a few years, they moved to Africa. There, Merrilee got into film and TV, working as a screenwriter and an actress on shows like Barney & Friends and Walker, Texas Ranger. She continued doing commercials and voice overs in Sweden, and then, back in America five years later, she worked for seven years at CBS Radio, anchoring news at The Ballpark in Arlington.
“The hours in film and TV are hard,” she explains. “You’re working every holiday and being the newest person on the team, I got to do all the grunt work. I did that for seven years and then got my teaching certificate so I could have summers and holidays off with my kids.”
Merrilee was certified to teach in marketing, business and computer science and she loved it. But at the same time, she took advantage of Plano ISD’s teacher enrichment program, which paid for her to get her MBA.
“BuzzBallz was my Master’s thesis project,” Merrilee says with a smile. “I was grading papers by the pool, wondering about my final project. I was having a cocktail and next to me there was this round votive candle that I had bought when I lived in Sweden.” The two came together in her mind. “I thought wouldn’t it be fun to have a round party ball for a cocktail?”
After she got her MBA in 2009, she decided to take the project live. “I didn’t have any money. I’d go to investment places, incubators, banks—places that said they helped women. Well, no. They don’t do any of that. Everyone turned me down, ‘You’re just a teacher.’ ‘Alcohol is a guy’s world.’ ‘You don’t know anything about it.’”
However, six months after she’d first pitched to them, Opportunity Bank called her back. “They got me a loan and I took out a home equity line of credit on my house and it was just enough to get it started.”
The way she thinks about it, every new business has ten chances to fail and one chance to win. At first, BuzzBallz came out with only six flavors; today there are 15. Merrilee is the first to admit she had a lot to learn.
“When I was writing my thesis project, I didn’t know what a malt beverage was,” she says. “Think about Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade—I thought those had vodka in them. There’s alcohol in it but it isn’t vodka. These are malt beverages and it says that in tiny print. But in the ready-to-drink space, that’s all there was. Now there’s more competition. I get a Bud Light Limearita and I expect tequila, but really it’s flavored beer that tastes a bit like a margarita.”
The problem, as Merrilee saw it, was not just what was in ready-to-drink cocktails; it was also the way they made her feel. “Those are all cheap malt-flavored products and they make you feel full and fat. If you’re wearing a little black dress, that isn’t how you want to feel.”
Then came Merrilee, bringing juice, liquor, kosher and gluten-free ingredients into the ready-to-drink cocktail game. “No one else was doing it. And you couldn’t buy things by the single unit. It was all four-packs, six-packs, and they were all in a metal can or a glass bottle. I wanted to mix and match colors. I wanted to sell different flavors in a six pack, not just six strawberry daiquiris. I wanted them to be fun and cute and to fit in the hand.”
So Merrilee created the first plastic can in America. “Everyone did metal ones, but I wanted a metal lid on a plastic can.” She specifically wanted a sphere. “I come from a family of scientists. A sphere is the strongest shape possible; all sidewalls have the same pressure threshold. I wanted a can that could hold 95 pounds per square inch of pressure if I put carbonation in it. I wanted it to be beach safe, I wanted it to float in a pool, I wanted it to breathe so that the can can go in the freezer without exploding, so it can be shaken and dropped without rocketing. “I designed it, got it to work, developed machinery around it and created BuzzBallz.”
Plastic, the environment’s public enemy number one, is a risky choice and not one made lightly, according to Merrilee. Since they make their own containers and can control what goes in them, she has added Enso Restore.
“Plastic normally takes 450 years to break down in a landfill. After it breaks down it turns back into a fossil fuel. So to get it to break down faster, you either crush it, recycle it and grind it up into plastic bits to make Mohawk carpets, strapping tape, roads. You can also melt it into a new form. But 70 percent of all plastic ends up in a landfill no matter what you do.” Theresa Clark, a scientist in Arizona, created Enso Restore which, according to her website, helps break plastic down in four to seven years, activated when plastic is no longer exposed to oxygen, turning it into methane gas and fossil fuels. “Landfills have gotten smarter,” Merrilee says. “They can pipe in hoses and suck those gases out and it’s reusable. A woman developed the technology. I wish everyone used it.”
Once Merrilee had BuzzBallz, she needed to get it out into the world. Of the two main alcohol distributors in the country, one didn’t return her call. So she went to Southern Glazer’s Texas, who turned her down. By this point, having been turned down by banks, incubators and distributors, Merrilee was done being told “no.” She went back to Glazer’s, and then went back again, and kept coming until they relented and agreed to bring it to Dallas—only Dallas—as a test run.
But BuzzBallz took off in Dallas, gaining enough traction that Glazer’s started distributing to San Antonio and Houston. However, Merrilee still wasn’t making enough to break even, so, she reached out to Glazer’s Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. “My son and I went to a trade show for distributors with a 10-by-10 booth full of samples. We got 15 state contracts in one day,” Merrilee recalls. “Finally, we would be able to sell enough to cover basic costs.”
That was in 2012. In 2013, BuzzBallz doubled in size and in 2014, Walmart discovered Merrilee’s colorful little cocktails. Suddenly, Tequila ‘Ritas and Peach Ballz were on Walmart shelves across the country and BuzzBallz had sold six million overnight. “It became a laddered approach—we had more sales, so we needed more people, then more machinery so we could produce more, then we’d sell more and the cycle would start over again. Years later, you look out and go, ‘When did this happen?’” She gestures to her tricked out conference room.
Nine years after Merrilee had her poolside brainwave, BuzzBallz are for sale in seven countries and 44 states and have formed the base for Southern Champion distillery. While BuzzBallz tends to be a relaxed tongue-in-cheek brand built for pool parties, the range of premium wines and spirits—Andrew John’s Gin, Crooked Fox Bourbon and wines like Closet Freak—are more serious and elegant.
Merrilee pours a lot of her life and personality into her brands. Andrew John’s gin, for example, is infused with Rocky Mountain juniper, a callback to her Montana roots. The neck label sports the image of Lone Peak, where she owns a house. Now that she is deep in the alcohol industry, Merrilee has seen a lot of brands base their look on other brands; If one brand of vodka sports a unique label, six months later, it’ll have amassed a couple of copycats.
“People capitalize on a good thing and try to steal a likeness and ride the coattails of success,” she explains. “But authenticity speaks for itself. It’s got to be authentic and it’s got to be good. Our vodka is the best on the market. Is it the most popular, does it have the most beautiful label? No, maybe not. No one knows about it yet, but they will.”
Her line of vodka, XIII Kings, goes into just about every Buzzball. It’s as smooth as sin without the nail polish aftertaste that marks many poorly-filtered vodkas. “Filtering is everything,” Merrilee says. “If you take vodka and roll it in your fingers and it’s greasy, that means it still has fusel oils in it. That means when you drink it you’ll have that oily, bitter taste in your mouth. We clean it up so much XIII Kings doesn’t burn, it isn’t greasy and it doesn’t taste weird after you swallow it. We distill it eight times and filter it for five days.”
In May, the The Tasting Panel Magazine awarded Andrew Johns’ Gin, XIII Kings Vodka and Pelican Harbor Rum top scores, earning praise for their balance and clarity of flavor. “That Black Pelican Harbor Rum is a sleeper,” Merrilee puts in. “You can’t sip Myers Rum or Bacardi unless you like drinking tar. But Pelican Harbor is sippable.” Crooked Fox bourbon is a blend of bourbons distilled and aged in Kentucky and Tennessee and a tribute to those who “trusted and were betrayed.”
This year BuzzBallz sales are up 40 percent. Merrilee’s whole family works at the company: her husband, both sons and her daughter-in-law. “This gives me a legacy,” she says. “Something I can pass down to my kids.”
Even a few former students have joined the Southern Champion team and BuzzBallz have already been joined by Biggies, 1.75-liter versions of the original hand-held BuzzBallz, made for groups, and BuzzBallz Chillers, wine-based cocktails made in-house with orange wine and juice. Southern Champion also recently bought the warehouse next to them so that they can expand operations. Merrilee has it all planned in her head: a glass wall looking into the distillery, so that she can start offering tours this winter.
After almost ten years, the energy is fresher than ever. But to Merrilee, the project is about more than just good times. It’s about proving herself in an industry full of people that didn’t believe in her, carving out her own unique space where she can thrive and from there, raising the bar for ready-to-drink cocktails and leaving the industry better than she found it.