Resident Cool Girl: Nikki Blank of Sip City DC

Resident Cool Girl, VTNF Picks

Resident Cool Girl is a series dedicated to women I think are cool. That’s literally the only requirement. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoy drooling over them!

It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and I — in an extremely quaint café, no less – am indiscreetly knocking back shots poured into a Dixie Cup. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself taking shots out of a Dixie Cup, but this occasion is notable, mostly because there’s something other than $7 rum waiting for me at the other end. Its name? Switchel. The concoction goes down easily, then packs a vinegar-tinged bite – like a just-sweet-enough jalapeño margarita made by a hot bartender.

Switchel’s taste may be new to me, but its roots trace back to Ancient Greece, with stints in the Caribbean and American colonialism along the way. In the 18th century, switchel’s combination of vinegar, ginger, citrus, and a sweetener like honey, molasses, or maple syrup helped quench the thirst of farm hands, and was often spiked with rum after a long day. While the combination fell out of popularity throughout the course of industrialism, its key ingredients — like apple cider vinegar and ginger root — are often cited as go-tos for everything from aided digestion to glowing skin. So, in our #SelfCare obsessed 2018, the stage was set for an unlikely re-emergence, and Sip City was born.

Nikki Blank — co-founder of Sip City and provider of my mid-day shots — is as laid-back and approachable as I expected of the person who created a company around a forgotten recovery drink that also doubles as a cocktail mixer. Our conversation begins with us discussing how DC’s happy hour culture and infamously sweaty summers create a kind of dehydration nightmare for its residents, myself included. This, among other things, is what led Nikki to take a shot a selling switchel for reals. In January 2017, Nikki’s college roommate introduced her to Josie at the Women’s March in Boston, and the two became business partners.

Now, one year after its official genesis in Union Kitchen’s food incubator, switchel is available as three flavor combinations in shops throughout DC and Brooklyn. You read that right — DC finally has something in common with Brooklyn other than inflated housing costs. 

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My personal prediction is that this team is on the brink of something big. As someone who once shamelessly created a rum and Pedialyte cocktail the morning after a particularly festive night in Dewey Beach, I have first-hand knowledge of the limited availability of healthy cocktail pairings. This, in conjunction with Switchel’s day job as a high-quality recovery drink, could make it the beverage our sun- and spin-obsessed city has been missing. 

On that note, I hope you will enjoy my interview with Nikki as much as I did. She is both a girl crush and brand crush of mine, and I left our coffee date feeling as one does after successful Bumble date or Lizzo-backtracked workout: pretty giddy. It’s one thing to celebrate female business leaders, it’s another to get to speak to one in the flesh. To find a Sip City seller near you, click here — my personal favorite is The District!

This is Nikki, who splits her time evenly between being my personal girl crush and brand crush.

Something that really impressed me about you during our conversation is your knowledge of the ingredients you use in each switchel, and how you choose each switchel combination. Can you dive a little deeper on that? What makes the switchel so effective as a recovery drink, and how to do you ensure quality in every product?

Thank you so much! We take a lot of pride in providing an all-natural product, with simple ingredients that can be found in your pantry and contain no preservatives or extracts. First and foremost comes taste: the combination of our flavors has to be balanced and work for a variety of palettes. 

For example, our Boston flavor is a bit spicy— it’s got turmeric, black pepper, cayenne, and cinnamon. We chose turmeric because it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory and added black pepper because it increases the bioavailability of the turmeric. The cayenne and cinnamon were added for taste and use throughout history in aiding digestion and regulating blood sugar. In The Nashville, which has orange and pomegranate, we wanted something fruity and tangy in taste. The two fruits are an awesome vitamin C boost, and full of antioxidants.

We have found that after a night of drinking, other recovery drinks just weren’t cutting it— they’re full of chemicals, extracts, fake sugar and artificial flavors. When your body is trying to rid itself of toxins, you want to give it the natural nourishment to do so. I also wanted to make sure our switchel is also the lightest, most refreshing recipe I’ve ever tasted — and I’ve tasted a lot of switchel. 

Switchel also works as a mixer, which I think is genius. How did you come to the realization that switchel could compliment booze as a well as it can counteract its effects the day after?

We have our founding fathers to thank for that realization! There are stories throughout American history of senators and congressman drinking spiked switchel, and even giving bloviating speeches while holding cups of switchel mixed with rum. The vinegar and alcohol smooth each other out, creating drinks that go down quite easily — soothing, hydrating, and energizing without a sugar crash. 

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Let’s shift a little and discuss the business side of Sip City, which you founded at a very early age. What do you think was your big leap? When did you say “Oh sh*t, this is really happening!”? 

I moved down to DC thinking I would continue to work in political news, and maybe do this drinks thing on the side. Then, after a random encounter with David Letterman, the support of my parents, and the encouragement of my friends, I decided to say “f*ck it” and go for it. (Editor’s Note: we didn’t have time to discuss the David Letterman story. I have many regrets.) 

I don’t think it all really hit me until we were about a week away from launching. Up until that point, I could imagine Sip City in my head, but it wasn’t a tangible thing yet. Once I had bottles in my hand, and hundreds of people coming to a launch event, I started to feel like “okay, this is a real thing now.” And honestly, every day still kind of feels like that. I still can’t believe this is happening! 

What was the first store to agree to sell switchel? What was that moment like? 

We launched our company and our first product line at Glen’s Garden Market. Danielle Vogel, the owner of Glen’s, saw us pitch at an event, and approached us about launching at her store. It was a surreal moment for us. We had spent so much time wandering around Glen’s, imagining what it would be like to sell our product there, and the opportunity to do so came so quickly. Danielle has been an amazing advocate and mentor for us, and the Glen’s community has been so supportive. We launched at their Dupont location, and before the event even started, an adorable couple came in and bought four bottles of switchel, completely unaware that they were our first sale ever. My mom flew in from Tokyo, my Nana came in from New York, and all of our friends in the DMV area came out to support us —  I can’t imagine a better way to launch. 

I think a lot of new entrepreneurs struggle with self-doubt – especially younger ones. What has kept your eye on the prize during rough patches?

If I’m being really honest, there’s a lot of self-doubt, every damn day: am I equipped to do this? What am I doing with my life? Will other people get what I’m trying to do? How are other people so far ahead of me? Every morning when I wake up, I feel those doubts creeping up and I try to combat them with my sense of purpose and pride. I like to remind myself that I get to control, for the most part, the trajectory of this journey, and that there are so many other people out there who didn’t take this leap. Six months ago, I never thought I’d be where I am today.  When times get hard, I have a roster of loved ones and mentors who help me through it— and I can’t thank them enough. I’ve learned over time not to compare myself to others, and I’m still learning to take a step back and redefine what success looks like each day. 

Any exciting launches coming up?

We’ve got exciting new locations in the works, so stay tuned for new retailers and updates! In addition to that, we helped welcome The Wing to DC a few weeks ago, and our switchel is now being sold at their cafe, The Perch. We’ have a few partnerships and collaborations coming up this spring and summer— so keep an eye out on our Instagram and Facebook for updates!

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Interview edited for length and clarity.
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