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Effie Panagopoulos crafting exotic spirits from Greek traditions for global cocktails with KLEOS

Photo for: Effie Panagopoulos crafting exotic spirits from Greek traditions for global cocktails with KLEOS

17/01/2024 Come on a voyage into the exciting world of spirits entrepreneurship with Effie Panagopoulos, the visionary force behind KLEOS, a unique and exotic spirit inspired by Greek old traditions.

In this exclusive interview, Effie reveals her fascinating journey as a first-generation Greek-American, a former High School Spanish teacher turned spirits enthusiast and the creator of the "better for you" alternative to white spirits.

Explore the struggles and achievements of starting a brand from scratch, from moonlighting at liquor tastings to being the National Brand Ambassador for METAXA brandy in the United States. Discover the "eureka" moment that inspired Effie to create KLEOS, a super-premium offering with a compelling story centered on the protected designation of the origin ingredient, Mastiha.

As Effie discusses misconceptions, funding problems, and the unwavering pursuit of her entrepreneurial aspirations, the interview reveals the determination and passion that drove her success.

Want to learn more about Effie Panagopoulos and the compelling tale behind KLEOS Spirits?

Check out the interview to see how the entrepreneurial spirit brought a taste of Greece to back bars in 16 states and six countries.

Image: Effie Panagopoulos

Tell us your origin story.

I am a first-generation Greek-American of immigrant parents, born and raised in Boston, MA.  I majored in languages in college—French, Spanish, and Italian, and my first job out of college was actually a High School Spanish teacher, and my last years in college I had also gotten certified as a personal trainer and spin instructor.   I moonlit doing liquor tastings and events for every brand under the sun—Midori, Chambord, Kahlua, Stoli flavors, SKYY flavors, Grey Goose flavors, and thought what an easy job, and hated working 9 to 5. My first Market Manager role was with Bacardi in San Francisco, and I was then recruited by Remy Cointreau to be the first and only ever National Brand Ambassador for METAXA brandy in the US.  That was the job that brought me back to Greece and I had my “eureka” moment in 2008 at a beach bar in Mykonos, where everyone was doing shots of “mastiha”, and I instantly thought this could be the next St Germain.  I actually consulted for the largest mastiha brand in Greece to help him enter the US market, and it didn’t work out financially for us to work together so I decided to go at it on my own, and improve upon the category and create a truly super premium offering.  At the time in NY, I was lucky to be surrounded by many spirits entrepreneurs who were friends, and thought if he can do it, I can. I had to take a “real job” again and worked as a US Marketing Manager for iconic liqueur brand Disaronno before I finally decided to jump head-on into entrepreneurship.  I did a bodybuilding show to get myself disciplined to conduct a capital raise managed to raise a  friends and family round of $280,000 and started KLEOS off my mother’s couch in Boston in 2018.  Today we’re in 16 states, 6 countries, and I recently closed a Seed Round of $1.8m to start to scale.

Why you wanted to start your own business and what triggered that?

First I have to say that entrepreneurship is something that was always in me.  I had the lemonade stands; I sold a shitton of Girl Scout Cookies. My personal training business card when I was 20 yo, had a photo of Discobolus and was called "THE NEXT LEVEL Training” with the quote "The Egyptians build pyramids. The Greeks ran marathons. What’s your excuse?” 

When you are the child of immigrant parents who left the old country to make a better life for you, it’s almost a duty to be better than their generation. My Dad loved telling the story of coming to the US with $20 in his pocket.  I was the first in the family to go to college.  Because we grew up poor, I never wanted to feel that way as an adult or start a family and have my kids feel that way.

The reality is after you’ve been in this business long enough, building brands from zero to hero, there comes a point where if you have entrepreneurship in your blood, you think, "Well I keep making all these people tons of money, I want to do it for myself."  Being in New York in the post-2008 economic bust was a time when TONS of liquor start-ups were on the horizon, and I had friends doing these brands and thought I had something really special with KLEOS and Mastiha, and that there should be bottles of this spirit on every back bar, and with such a viable proposition, and delicious liquid, I couldn’t NOT do it.  I also did a slew of consumer and bartender focus groups to validate the proposition—both liquid and packaging. That’s the beauty of having worked in the industry both on the sales and marketing side.  The sales side gave me insight into what the market wanted, and the marketing side gave me rudimentary basics on how the strategy goes about with new brand propositions—focus groups.  Many start-ups don't do them.  No better way to test the market than to ask them what they think in a systematic, organized, unbiased fashion.

Image: Effie Panagopoulos

What were the biggest misconceptions you had in running your own business that you discovered in your first years?

You think you know everything because you’ve been in the business and then some crazy sh*t happens on the production line! I still can't laugh about it, but all I can say is when it comes to making custom bottles and caps: Ask for many many samples, and many rounds of Quality Control. 

You may be running your own business but you are still at the mercy of your vendors and production partners, and you need to VET them very seriously before moving forward and have protection clauses in your agreements in case anything goes haywire.

How did you go about funding your spirits brand?

When I say I did a bodybuilding show to get disciplined for my capital raise I mean this: I tracked every rep and every set I did in an undulating periodized lifting program and then tracked every gram of protein, carb, and fat I was taking.  Alongside that laser-focused obsession, I started a spreadsheet of contacts I could reach out to that I thought were high net worth, were successful entrepreneurs, and friends and family I could trust to share a business plan with.  Along the way, friends introduced me to friends, and I pitched something like 200x to close 8 investors to raise the first $280k with nothing but a vial of liquid, and photo of the design, and a pretty tight business plan with volumetric and cash flow exercise modeled out.  Once I launched in Boston, I realized it wasn’t enough capital, and by then having a physical product, and the Greek community embracing KLEOS, I was able to raise a Bridge of about $200k and that money lasted me through Covid.  During Covid, I did countless zooms on raising capital and got VC lists, and it took me 15 months to close $1.8m in a Seed round last Jan—all from angels—no VCs.  It went similarly:  I did a Zoom called MidWest Tech connect, and at a Tech fundraising conference found the lead investor who loved spirits and helped round up another 10 angels who wrote the first $500k.  Fundraising is a job in and of itself. It is time-consuming and you have to also be very laser-focused. It is also a numbers game. The more ppl you pitch, the more you close.  Obviously the better you qualify your investors in terms of what industries they invest in, what stage, and what their risk tolerance is, the better. My cap table is super diverse.  Many Greeks, Latinos, African Americans, and women.  It’s awesome to have now 60 some odd angels who are ambassadors of KLEOS in their own right.

Image: KLEOS Spirits

Share with us how you refined your sales process to get on-trade placements. Your spirits brand pitch?

KLEOS is a “better for you” alternative to white spirits meets the cool new cocktail ingredient.  Mastiha is a PDO—protected designation of origin ingredient, coming from trees that grow on one island on the entire planet, and kills H pylori, the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers and acid reflux.  Smells like eucalyptus with tasting notes of cucumber, mint, and sweet tea.  It’s been called “bartender’s olive oil” in the press because it mixes 1:1 with every base spirit on the back bar.  Clocking in at 110 cals, 4g sugar in 2 ounces, it is low cal, low sugar, low abv, so unlike most cordials, you can drink it by itself, use it as a low abv base in cocktails, AND use it as an ingredient.  It is a workhorse for your back bar and at $1 /oz pour cost, is a steal for drink menu placements.  More than that it’s exotic—your Greek vacation in a glass.

What sort of objections you were having from retailers?

"No one calls for this"—and in Boston, objectively this wasn’t true.  There were already 2 mastiha brands in some liquor stores, so I’d ask them for the opportunity to sell in their store.  The best one was Whole Foods.  I sold 18 bottles in my first tasting (only ONR Friend came through and bought a bottle!) and he was by far the toughest buyer I dealt with in MA.

Image: Effie Panagopoulos

What sort of objections you were having from bartenders?

Not many!  This is a drink menu brand so the timing of pitching is super important to make sure you can get it on drink menus (many bars print 2x p year, quarterly, seasonally, and monthly).  My difficulty launching in Boston as a first market, is many people view KLEOS as a summertime-only proposition.  I have so many boozy recipes—variations on old fashioned, last words, corpse revivers, so it took convincing to get on winter menus and get bartenders to think of KLEOS as seasonless.

What do you do to create consumer pull for your brands when it comes to marketing?

Store tastings are KING.  We average 6 bottles sold in a tasting.  It creates word of mouth because people get excited to discover this cool thing with some residual health benefits and a gorgeous bottle, and we skew 60/40 females/males.  Women tell their friends.  

What in-store promotions work best according to you?  

We taste 3 serves: Neat, the KLEO-patra (Kleos, basil, and lemon), and the KLEO-ccino (Kleos and Cold brew coffee).  Both are low-calorie and easy to make with 2 or 3 ingredients.  So you have to keep it simple and easy to digest (pun intended).  Both cocktails are “familiar”—one like a mojito, one like an espresso martini and both are low-cal versions of these well-known drinks.  So all of a sudden, I have taken an esoteric spirit and made it relatable, and show the consumer how to use it for home entertaining.  And because it’s so unique, that consumer becomes the influencer in their social group, showing the new cool spirit from Greece they uncovered.  I also train the ambassadors very well, in terms of how to handle objections.  They know how to sell KLEOS to a vodka drinker, tequila drinker, whiskey drinker.

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