Meet the Founders: Lisa and Tom Johnstone of Optimist Drinks
Drinks are designed to enhance social gatherings, but alcohol isn’t for everyone. Fortunately, Lisa and Tom Johnstone have crafted a cheerful solution.
After rethinking drinking, the husband-and-wife duo launched their own line of distilled botanical spirits. Inspired by the natural beauty of California, Optimist Drinks serves up real flavor, conversation, and connection for everyone to enjoy. Or, as Lisa and Tom like to say, “Alcohol is optional. Bring your own buzz.”
Recently, we caught up with Lisa to learn more about their journey and hear her advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
01 Why did you start Optimist Drinks?
We love good drinks, but we were bored of booze! Or, more precisely, we were over the effects of alcohol — the way it impacted our sleep and made us feel the next day. We wanted to create high-quality crafted and balanced spirits we could enjoy at home or out with friends, without the ethanol. Tom and I have always loved experimenting with complex flavors and the whole ritual of creating cocktails, but we wanted to moderate our alcohol consumption without compromising on flavor and fun. We also wanted to make the dawn surf a little easier.
More and more people are reflecting on their relationship with alcohol — most of us who drink would benefit from moderating our intake. That decision shouldn’t be the barrier that stops us from getting together, but taking a break may mean going out and socializing less. It is more important than ever to truly connect (smartphones down, please!), but we need grown-up inclusive options beyond second-rate sugary mocktails or juices.
Ultimately, we wanted to build a purpose-driven business focused on mental and social wellness; an ethical, sustainable company that helps shape a better future for people and our planet. Besides the direct health benefits of drinking less, Optimist Drinks also contributes 2% of all sales to non-profits providing mental wellness services for youth in underserved communities. Meanwhile, we’re also working towards B Corp status, formalizing our commitment to organic goods.
02 What obstacles did you face along the way?
Where do I start? We were at the vanguard of a whole new category — taking on Big Alcohol by introducing an entirely new product. That was a challenge in itself. Then, just as we began working with our master distiller in DTLA, the pandemic shut everything down. When they reopened, they made hand sanitizer rather than our products. We found another distillery, but that one was shut down by a fire. Then, our bottles got stuck just outside the Port of Long Beach for weeks. When we finally launched — months later than planned — a polar vortex froze those bottles as they were en route to our first customers.
Every day brings its own challenges, but we absolutely believe in what we are doing. We’ve worked with incredible people who helped bring this to life and we have been overwhelmed by the response to Optimist Botanicals. People tell us they’ve been waiting for something like this for years!
03 What lessons do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Before you begin, know that this will be an extraordinary challenge. There are a myriad of reasons why most people don’t start their own business. Other than parenting, it has been the hardest undertaking of our lives. Still, we would do it all over again in an instant. Entrepreneurship is terrifying and exhilarating on a daily basis. So, remember to breathe and stay true to your original idea — it is precious.
Be ready to learn and never stop learning. Allow things to evolve organically, because you can’t control everything. Surround yourself with good people you trust as advisors, colleagues, or just friends to help you through the harder days and tricky decisions.
If you can avoid trying to do all of this amidst a pandemic, that’s probably going to make it easier. But, honestly, there will always be something in your path that you will need to elegantly leap over or bulldoze through. Develop resilience, find joy, remain conscious of the high points, and learn from the challenges. It also doesn’t hurt to start a meditation practice!
04What’s on the horizon for Optimist Drinks?
We’ve been fortunate enough to build partnerships with fantastic retail partners like Bristol Farms. We are excited to continue to build on those and get our drinks into more glasses to offer people a genuine, crafted, and complex non-alcoholic option.
We’ve also brought Optimist Drinks to some of the finest cocktail menus in Los Angeles. Now, we’re excited to broaden our gaze and expand our reach into other states. We’re also working on a new flavor expression that will be ready just in time for the holidays!
05 How do you keep work/life balance? What drives/inspires you?
It’s important to step away and get out into nature to breathe. I like to surf, go on a long hike, pick up a book, or seek out some creative inspiration. Things tend to work themselves out when you stop thinking about them so directly. The subconscious creates space for the magic to happen.
Tom and I share the same desire to build a meaningful company that makes our children proud, one that will make our collective future better. We are facing some serious existential challenges as a species, so we need to be active optimists who work for the future we believe in. We need to see things clearly, come together, and make things happen. Active optimism — let’s drink to that!