When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Southern Methodist University grad Katie Beal Brown and her husband happened to be at her family’s West Texas ranch, near Fort Davis and Marfa. They’d been living in New York City for several years, but the ongoing pandemic prompted them to move back to Texas, where they ultimately settled in Fort Worth. It also offered Brown a chance to crack the hard seltzer market with a project she already had in the works. Seeing that the vodka-based drinks end of it was starting to overload, she thought there might be room for a West Texas favorite: Ranch Water.
“I always felt really homesick and like a fish out of water in New York, coming from such a small town and community,” Brown tells Eater Dallas. “Ranch Water became my party trick to share a little bit more about Far West Texas.” Brown would serve it at cocktail parties and tell the possibly-true-but-really-who-knows legend of the “wild-haired rancher” in Fort Davis who created the drink in the ’60s, and then got so drunk on it he followed the stars on foot some 50 miles to Marathon, Texas where he was found sleeping the next day.
It took five years for Brown to figure out how to bring Lone River Ranch Water to market, and in the fall and winter of 2019, things seemed to be chugging right along. After a round of fundraising, the first order from a distributor, and working with an incubator program while formulating the drink, Brown got some amazing news: Lone River Ranch Water could go on shelves at every H-E-B across Texas if they could deliver a massive order by April 1, 2020.
But in March, the pandemic hit. The brand’s order from H-E-B stood, even though its ability to delivery was in question, but she started to hear from distributors in the process that the pandemic had made sellers uncertain as well — no one knew if customers would buy a new product or just go for familiar ones. “It was a wild ride for us,” Brown recalls. “I think every part of our supply chain was disrupted as we were trying to get the product on the shelf, but by the grace of God, we got it there.”
One of the brand’s first tastes of success, outside of H-E-B, came by way of Craft Beer Cellar in Lakewood, an independent liquor store that was one of the first to stock Lone River Ranch Water. Brown remembers calling the store to ask how it was selling, only to find it was already sold out. “That store has a really special place in our story,” Brown says.
Two years later, Lone River Ranch Water is the top ranch water brand in the country, according to Brown. It faces competition with an increasingly busy Ranch water market from Hornitos, Ranch Rider, Canteen Spirits, Capriccio Spirits Co., and tequila-profile seltzers from Cutwater Spirits, Tequila and Soda, Jose Cuervo, and Onda, among others.
Lone River expanded nationally in the spring and summer of 2021, mirroring the popularity of its namesake cocktail, and was acquired by Diageo in March of that year. Lone River offers spicy, Rio red grapefruit, and prickly pear flavors. Brown and her team have noticed people have a tendency to dress the drink up just like a cocktail, which they chalk up to the pandemic-era bartending many indulged in at home. She’s seen folks use the spicy ranch flavor as the base of a cocktail, and cans adorned with limes, hot sauce, pickles, and tajin. “When we first launched, bars and restaurants were not open for the most part. It’s been a big focus for us to figure out how to bring that kind of consumer behavior and personalization into [bars].”
Brown attributes the brand’s success to its Texas roots. “It was important to me that this be as authentically West Texan as it could be, because I knew in the beginning that if we couldn’t win over West Texans, there was no way this thing would work,” Brown says. She set out to create a product that reflects Western thinking, from the landscaping iconography on the can to the very real cowboys and cowgirls used in the marketing. “Some of them are even our own ranch hands,” Brown says. “We’ve shot most of our work out at my family’s ranch.”
Now Lone River is expanding the tequila-based hard seltzer market. The brand recently introduced the RanchRita, a margarita-style canned drink. Brown says it’s not sugary and sweet. “We’re very particular about our margaritas, even how we make them at home,” she says. So the RanchRita is more tart... you know, West Texas style.