When, in 1858, John Landis Mason, a tinsmith from America invented a machine that could manufacture a jar with a reusable, screw-on lid and sealing mechanism little did he know what a lasting impression his mason jar invention would have for future generations all around the world.
And not just in home fruit canning!
Nowadays you’d be pushed to find many home picklers, preservers and canners (unlike back in the 1950s) – unless, perhaps, you live in the country. But you will find mason jars. Lots of them. There’s been a mason jar resurgence of late in line with our love of anything vintage. And they’re being used for anything and everything.
Two enterprising friends from the American South, Eric Prum and Josh Williams, have taken John Mason’s classic design and re-tweaked it, turning it into a retro-cool cocktail shaker imbibed with a dash of Southern sensibility and a twist of New York industrialism.
After spending their college years “making make-shift cocktail shakers from mason jars”, says Eric, they finally decided to do something about making a shaker proper. Voila, the Mason Shaker and W&P Design were born.
I caught up with Eric in New York via Skype to learn more about their venture and passion for cocktails.
Tell me about your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today.
I studied politics and sociology in college – that’s where I met Josh. We were first year roommates and have been kind of entrepreneurial ever since. We ran a catering and cocktail company in college which we used to finance our lifestyle. We both have a real passion for food and drink. Josh, in particular, took a year off and went to culinary school while we were in college.
Frequently we used mason jars to infuse our liquors with fruit and would make makeshift cocktail shakers out of the mason jars. They are such a durable good vessel for mixing drinks in [plus] they have the measurements on the side already. So the mason jar cocktail shaker was something that we thought about as far back as college – almost eight years ago – but neither of us was prepared to launch a company, design something and manufacture it ourselves at that time.
Throughout college I also worked for a paintball company and am a professional paint baller. I actually have my own paintball design and manufacturing company based in Germany – Style Supply. It’s kind of random but that’s how I got a lot of experience in design and manufacturing.
How did you end up making your Mason Shaker idea a reality?
After getting that [design and manufacturing] experience I started thinking back to our idea of the mason jar cocktail shaker and I pretty much came up with the functional CAD design in January 2012. We went through maybe 10 or 20 different iterations of the product [to get a functional seal]. We then launched a Kickstarter project that was very successful. I think we asked for USD $5000 and ended up getting something like USD $77,000! We opened a design studio [in Brooklyn] and got a holiday line with West Elm which was really cool.
You’ve also branched out into other complimentary products like a decanter and whisky stones. What else are you doing?
The latest product is a Summer Cocktail Kit. We’re building canvas bags which will have everything you’ll need for a cocktail picnic – a muddler, cocktail shaker, glasses. We’ve made the bag so that the bottom is reinforced with brass stud; fibre board is sewn into the canvas and it has a stainless steel frame with pockets for the glassware so you can drop the thing and the glass won’t break. It’s pretty cool.
We’re also working on a cocktail recipe book and every Thursday on Instagram and Facebook we release a seasonal recipe featuring local distillers or bartenders. We’re turning this into a book which we’ll release at the end of this year.
The short-term plan is to partner with design and homewares stores that we really like and start creating other goods and then curate them through these partnerships.
So what’s a typical day for you? Do you both juggle the work?
Josh has a day job in finance and he’s advisory. That’s where his assets are – he loves food; he loves cocktails. I’m the managing partner of the company and do pretty much everything day to day – from creating the products to managing little things like inventory levels, packaging, design, sales’ calls. I start the day checking emails, then go out to the design studio in Bushwick and work out there on design work and new products for maybe eight or nine hours. Then I come back and catch up on office-hours type work.
We do a lot of the stuff in-house. In fact, when we did Kickstarter my wife was twining every single one of the 2000 mason jars! We call that time the ‘warehouse times’ – I was practically sleeping there. I work pretty much around the clock as it is.
The weekends are when we do a lot of our cocktail development and photo shoots. We like to involve a lot of our friends and have salon nights. In the 19th century, a salon party was a totally casual party where people would get together and talk over cocktails. We host that at our design office because we have a full bar there. We built the entire office ourselves – giant long tables and benches from reclaimed lumber from a place in Brooklyn. It’s a cool creative space and we have these nights where you can try a cocktail. You’re not in a home and not in a bar. It’s a really fun thing for everyone.
I was going to ask what you do in your spare time but it doesn’t sound like you have much!
There is a lot of time that ends up being casual with the cocktail experimenting! But I really enjoy what I do right now … It’s a passion I’ve dreamed of for years. As much as I work I’m probably one of the few people who look forward to Mondays because that’s when the action is.
What’s your latest favourite cocktail?
It really depends on the season. We like to use seasonal ingredients. One that I’m drinking a lot now is one we recently did using Tomr’s Tonic [which was created by head bartender of The Beagle in New York, Tom Richter], lemon, spicy ginger, Mexican mescal and Negra Modelo beer. It’s a really cool cocktail. It’s a bit sweet but really good now that it’s getting warm here in the US. It’s kind of hard to explain as it’s not traditional. We call it The Smog Cutter.
I’m interested in your Southern roots – tell me about them.
I grew up in Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky and settled in Charlottesberg, Virginia. It’s a small university town at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I only moved to New York four or five years ago and it’s been a really awesome experience up here. I’ve fallen in love with Manhattan and Brooklyn where our design studio is but my heart is in the South. It’s cool to be able to design a product that’s a representation of both my current existence and my background.
And Josh is from the south as well?
Josh is also from Virginia – from a little bit north of me.
Have you had any who’d have thought moments?
I think the first moment was when I conceived and create the CAD design as I hadn’t thought I could integrate the cap, the lid and the metal ring, and a bevel seal that actually works. I mean, we’d thought of everything from poking holes in the top and covering it up to hinged doors that didn’t work … So it was really nice to finally come up with that.
The other who’d have thought moment happened many times [standing] in a warehouse full of thousands of mason jars and I was on a deadline to make the shakers. I had the assistance of my wife and friends but it was insane! Doing Kickstarter and the West Elm line at the same time was quite a trial by fire.
What inspires you?
I think everything in my day-to-day life and Brooklyn and Manhattan. We live on the lower east side and these two spaces alone are incredibly inspiring. Other people in the design space are inspiring us and on the cocktail side, all the relationships we’re establishing with local bartenders and distillers. Every single person has an inspiring story and it’s really fun to learn from all these people.
And if you’d like to mix up your own cocktails in a Mason Shaker, pop on over to our store, which has just launched!