IN THE SUMMER OF 2005, Sharelle Klaus ’92 stood in the kitchen of her Seattle home, surrounded by spreadsheets, bottles of flavorings, mixing bowls, and measuring apparatuses. She was working on another batch of lavender soda — the 128th test that week. Her two young daughters were completing school assignments at the kitchen table, and her two sons (an infant and a toddler) were about to wake from their naps. She carefully measured out grams of sugar and tested the pH level of her latest brew.
This was the start of DRY Botanical Bubbly, now a multimillion-dollar beverage company selling sparkling, nonalcoholic botanical sodas in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the nation and beyond.
Expanding to a company of this size was a secondary goal to Klaus, the founder and CEO of DRY. Her main motivation? Promote inclusion. During her four pregnancies, she noticed that many events — from New Year’s Eve parties to work gatherings to brunch with friends — had alcoholic beverages as a centerpiece. Those who could not or chose not to partake were left with water or a can of soda.
“I’m a big foodie, and during those years, I felt really left out,” remembered Klaus. “Why didn’t we have an option when we can’t or don’t want to drink? I’m not anti-alcohol, but I think you should be able to celebrate without it. It became really clear to me: Why don’t I create one?”
Botanical flavors and how they might pair with different foods simmered in Klaus’ mind: basil soda for pairing with Italian food. Soda infused with juniper berries. A bold drink laced with rhubarb flavors. Excited, Klaus reached out to connections she had in the business world. They almost all told her, “Don’t start a beverage company.”
The First Flavors
Getting any startup off the ground is a major feat, but beverage companies have unique challenges. Moving from initial ideas to a product ready for consumption is extremely challenging.
“In the beverage industry, early profit margins are very low,” said Klaus. “Building a brand and distributing are extremely expensive. It’s operationally challenging, financially challenging — more so than in other industries.”
But Klaus knew a good idea when she saw one. She called a food scientist who gave her a one-hour crash course on creating beverages from scratch. She purchased ingredients, cleared her kitchen counter, and got to work to create the first batches of DRY Botanical Bubbly.
“I just knew we could change the way people think about drinking.” — Sharelle Klaus
Klaus barely slept in the first months. She frequently worked on the company from 6 a.m. until noon; took over child care from her husband; and then worked again when her kids went to bed, until about 2 a.m.
After seven months, DRY’s first four flavors were ready for commercial production: lavender, lemongrass, rhubarb, and kumquat. “I wanted to push the culinary palate envelope and test what people might be willing to try,” she said.
Klaus envisioned her beverages served in restaurants with the same ceremony of pouring champagne into flutes. She began calling restaurants throughout the Seattle area. Soon, 30 of Seattle’s top restaurants had DRY sodas on their menus.
The Pacific Northwest supermarket chain QFC asked if they could sell DRY. Local upscale supermarket chain Met Market called next. “Within a few months, I was in over my head because we were getting so many orders,” Klaus said. Without a distributor in place, she drove to local QFCs to drop off cases of DRY sodas.
“There’s no one path to success, but there are few beverage companies that make it to the end [either being acquired or becoming a cash flow-positive company],” she said. “I knew we could change the way people think about drinking.”
Determination to Succeed
At the age of 10, Klaus knew she wanted to start a company and be a CEO. “It never dawned on me to work on someone else’s creation. I’m at my happiest when I’m creating my own thing,” she said.
Klaus chose Seattle Pacific because the Christian school was in the busy, opportunity-filled city of Seattle. Although she majored in political science, she also took many business courses. “Those finance and accounting classes are still some of the most valuable learning experiences I’ve had,” she said. “A big portion of my life now is the finances of the company.”
As for many business leaders, a low point came with the 2008 recession. “We had hired a bunch more people. We had just received a big commitment of new financing and a partnership with Starbucks,” Klaus said. Two weeks later, the investor backed out, and Klaus was forced to cut staff, going from a team of 20 to six overnight. Shortly after, Starbucks canceled the partnership.
Klaus was discouraged but not deterred. “I knew the company would survive. I could see where we were going, I just didn’t know how we would get there yet. That was really challenging.”
The People You Meet
Growing a multimillion-dollar company was exhilarating, but Klaus says the best part has been the people she met, hired, and worked with over the past 16 years. “When you get to work with different people, there’s so much to learn. Your mind opens up to different ways of doing things.”
Klaus avidly supports young entrepreneurs and speaks at conferences, workshops, and universities. She is particularly passionate about empowering women in business.
“I’ve connected with many incredible women CEOs and founders, who helped me recognize how important it is that we create access for women: access to networks, financial support for their ideas, work experiences,” said Klaus.
DRY’s current president, Betsy Frost, joined DRY after a successful career at several Fortune 500 companies and startups. “Sharelle’s energy brings out that confidence and spark she has in life in others,” Frost said. “People want to work with her, because although she can be competitive with herself and in the marketplace — she wants to win — she is also deeply collaborative and gets joy from helping others grow with her. Right now, she is actively helping others who are entering the zero-proof market. She is motivated by a bigger vision, not just her piece of it. Both her vision and the way she gets there are incredible models for all of us.”
At times throughout DRY’s history, the company had an all-female executive team. “Our current financial director is a single dad of a 7-year-old girl,” said Klaus. “[He] has seen how impactful it is for young daughters (and sons) to see examples of successful women.”
Klaus’ own daughter, Willa Konsmo, experienced this firsthand. She sat in on some of DRY’s first company meetings as a child, grew up taste-testing flavors, and recently partnered with Klaus on a zero-proof cocktail recipe book.
“I don’t plan to go into business or start a company, but the biggest lesson that watching my mom taught me is that I don’t have to compromise one area of my life for another,” said Konsmo, who completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology last spring. “She’s always encouraged me to pursue whatever makes me happy careerwise and that if I meet the right people and work hard, a dream job is never out of reach.”
It’s About Community
“Oxytocin — the hormone linked to love and building relationships — is released when people open a bottle and drink together,” Klaus said. “It’s not just about the wine, it’s the community connecting together. I want all people to be included in that, whether they drink alcohol or not.”
In September, DRY released the DRY Reserve line, served in full-size champagne-style bottles as alternatives to fine wine. It comes in two flavors: Lavender 75 (a blend of lavender, oak, and lemon flavors), and Pear Spice.
Today, DRY Botanical Bubbly is available in more than 9,000 stores across the United States and Canada, as well as in many restaurants.
Klaus, ever a lover of creating products herself, wanted to empower others to make nonalcoholic cocktails at home.
She teamed up with mixologists in the Seattle area to create alcohol-free cocktail recipes published in the book The Guide to Zero-Proof Cocktails. The book also guides readers in craft cocktail techniques and in their understanding of how flavors work together.
Klaus is now a leader in the business world, featured by HuffPost, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and others. She was named Seattle Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year and one of Puget Sound Business Journal’s Women of Influence.
At the beginning of her journey, Klaus felt like she was blazing a new trail in her mission of social drinking for all. But the past few years have seen a rise in companies producing alcohol-free beverages and zero-proof spirits, beginning in Great Britain and now gaining traction in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the number of alcohol drinkers in the world has decreased by nearly 5% since 2000, and both wine and beer consumption have shown declines in recent years leading up to the pandemic.
“People opt out of drinking for lots of reasons, from physical health to mental health,” said Klaus. “Or they want to have one glass of wine and move on to something else. I love that this journey I began solo is now a big, real movement — bigger than any one company. Now everyone can come to the party.”
Cranberry Ginger Cider
5 fresh cranberries
1/2 cup apple cider
1/4 cup DRY Ginger Botanical Bubbly
1 lemon | Cinnamon
Muddle cranberries in a glass.
Add ice, apple cider, DRY Ginger Botanical Bubbly, a squeeze of lemon, and a pinch of cinnamon. Stir gently.
Garnish with extra cranberries (optional) and a lemon wheel.