When Bronya Shillo launched Fishers Island Lemonade in 2014, people in the Nutmeg State and beyond didn’t know how to react to a high-quality cocktail served in a can. “They didn’t know where to put me, they didn’t know how to categorize it,” the Bloomfield native says.
But these days the ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail market is booming and consumers are thirsty for craft cocktails they can enjoy at home, or in this case, at the beach. “It’s fantastic to see just about every liquor store starting to have a cooler door for these items,” Shillo says.
Fishers Island is now available across Connecticut, throughout New England and New York as well as in other states. The company has also garnered a fair share of praise, from a writeup in Forbes to winning gold medals in the 2020 and 2021 Denver International Spirits Competition and the 2020 SIP Awards.
Shillo’s company is based out of Mystic, though she lives in Rhode Island and the drinks are produced via contract out of state. Other Connecticut companies producing RTDs include Drink Mechanics, Litchfield Distillery and the Cocktail Chemist. “The consumer is becoming wiser to the ingredients, and they’re demanding better ingredients and they’re willing to hunt those things down,” Shillo says. “But they also understand that they’re paying for more quality and they’re paying for a higher ABV.”
Shillo still has many family members in the Hartford area, but her drink was inspired by summers spent on Fishers Island. The famous island is technically in New York but is only about 7 miles off the coast of New London and is culturally linked to Connecticut.
Shillo’s family owns the island’s Pequot Inn, famed for its light-up dance floor. She got started working at the bar young and gravitated toward the world of craft cocktails and beer. Next came beer brewing, and she thought about launching an alcohol brand. Instead of beer, however, Shillo was drawn to one of the Pequot’s most celebrated drinks, the “FIL,” a cocktail made with vodka, whiskey and lemonade.
Working at The Pequot Inn during the summer months, Shillo would batch large quantities of the cocktail in advance of weekend crowds, but she never seemed to make enough. “We would always run out, and I’d constantly be pulled off the bar to try to make more,” she says. “So I just scaled up and batched more and eventually decided that this would be a great item to bring off island.”
The beverage line’s flagship product and namesake is the Fishers Island Lemonade, which is inspired by the FIL cocktail recipe and serves as the base for the company’s other cocktails. The lemonade gives all the drinks some sweetness, but it’s not a so-sweet-you-can’t-taste-the-alcohol drink. Each cocktail I sampled had a strong booze background that allowed the ABV to shine through.
My favorite is the flagship, which is made with premium vodka, whiskey and lemonade and is deeply refreshing and light enough to be a beach drink but robust enough, with a 9 percent ABV, to still taste like a true cocktail. The pink lemonade adds real cranberries to the recipe, mellowing out somewhat the flavors of the original and making the drink lighter, with a 7 percent ABV, and a little sweeter. Other options include the spiked tea, which pairs the hard lemonade with fresh black tea, and the Frozen Spirit Pops, a frozen drink that is pure adult summer fun.
When I speak with Shillo at the start of the summer, she is looking forward to getting her family’s Pequot Inn open after 2020’s COVID-dampened season. “We’re really excited to get the season going and everybody gets to see each other and kind of come out for a drink and a dance,” Shillo says.
For those of us who might not make it to the island this summer, the next best thing is waiting in a can.