Happy Hour with Whynatte founder Jesse Altman
The man behind the drink talks booze, and how one simple dare changed his life
Founder Jesse Altman admits that Whynatte started in 2005 as a late-night dare to pair a shot of Jägermeister with a latte. It was the spark that would eventually become the canned coffee energy drink now found in bars, liquor stores, and groceries all over Atlanta (and beyond). At the time, Altman was running his own financial services company despite earning a degree in molecular biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2000. He started sharing his discovery with friends and, soon enough, it became a thing. Altman continued working in finance by day, but by night he'd schlep the drink from bar to bar to spread the gospel of his Whynatte shots. In 2007, Altman sold his share in the financial services company to pursue Whynatte full time.
Sans alcohol, Whynatte works well by itself as a ready-to-drink cold latte. But the sleek black and gold can has also found a special place in bars where it gets mixed with Jägermeister (the dare still works), whipped cream vodka, Fireball whiskey, you name it.
Whynatte is decidedly not the stuff you find at reverent temples to cocktail classicism. In fact, it's tremendously popular at places like Smith's Olde Bar and the Vortex, and even the Cheetah. Why not?
Tell us about your early days in the latte-as-a-mixer business.
When we first started selling Whynatte, it was literally out of the back of a car. We were making home-brewed lattes in our kitchen and selling to bars around town by the gallon in milk jugs. We knew there was a market for coffee as a mixer. Then we got Taco Mac as an account and that was when we realized there was no good way to keep doing it like that — it wasn't a scalable model. We started looking at the ready-to-drink options, and realized that if we had a great-tasting latte in a can, we'd have something that would address all the roadblocks that had prevented coffee from being a more widespread mixer in bars. Originally, it started off as Jägermeister and Whynatte, then Jameson or Bailey's, and now the most popular mix is probably Pinnacle Whipped Vodka.
What drink best expresses your personality?
The Mind Eraser. What.
Describe your first experience with mixing drinks.
Back in the day, I started out very rudimentary, things like Jack and Coke. When we first started playing with latte recipes, we didn't know what would taste good, so we went back to classic recipes like the Irish Coffee. It had to be stuff that was quick and easy for the bartender.
What drink do you wish you had invented?
Fresca if nonalcoholic, the mai tai if we're talking alcoholic.
What was the last great drink you had?
The Deal Closer, which I had at Apotheke in New York a few weeks ago. It's a speakeasy-type place, no sign, deep in Chinatown. The drink was a combo of vodka, cucumber, mint, lime, vanilla, and what they called "local Chinatown aphrodisiacs." It just hit the spot on a hot New York summer day. As far as Whynatte drinks go, my favorite drink at the moment is the Lightning Bolt, which is Whynatte with RumChata and a splash of vanilla vodka, mixed together in a tall glass over ice. It tastes kind of like the milk you'd have left at the end of a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. This is one of those drinks that people try, and you just see them look at it like, "What the F was in that?"
When you hear the following, what immediately comes to mind?
The Cheetah: Naked chicks. Also, the Cheetah sells more Whynatte than any other bar in town.
Fried chicken: The Cheetah
Jägermeister or Rumple Minze?
Rumple (I'm going to get eviscerated for saying this!) because it tastes like a Thin Mints cookie when mixed with Whynatte.
Favorite place for a drink in Atlanta?
On a hot afternoon, give me the watermelon margarita at Fox Brothers, which is fantastic. Otherwise, really anywhere if I'm watching a good local band perform — could be Smith's, Vinyl, Star Bar, Terminal West, or any other local music venue.
Hopes for the future of Whynatte?
Our first order of business is to launch Whynatte in a few new cities before the end of the year. We've used Atlanta as something of a laboratory, figuring out what works and what doesn't, and we intend to take everything we've learned here and apply it to new markets. At the same time, we're working on expanding distribution at grocery, convenience, and package stores in Atlanta. There's an undeniable link between people drinking Whynatte in the bars as a mixer, and then eventually purchasing it from retail to drink on its own (without booze). Long term, I see more of our sales coming as a standalone beverage, but the mixer side of our brand is what makes Whynatte unique and special. As for new flavors, we've put in some work on a few line extensions, and hope to have something new on the shelves at some point next year.