Belle Isle Moonshine gets Transfusion from pandemic


The company’s canned cocktail is a far cry from the famed Arnold Palmer tea-lemonade concoction, but it's already making a presence in the golf drink market.

During the late 1960s, Arnold Palmer spent an exhausting day designing a course in Palm Springs, Calif., before asking a waitress to bring him a lemonade and iced-tea concoction. The drink set off such a stir with “Arnie's Army” that Palmer marketed a libation with his namesake that's still going strong today.

If Richmond, Virginia-based Belle Isle Moonshine has its way, its relatively new canned cocktail, Transfusion, will enjoy similar brand recognition within the golfing world for years to come, too. 

By some accounts, even though the drink has been around for some time, it’s gaining a stronger following among area courses and along the eastern U.S. seaboard. 

“What occurred during the pandemic was that our golf course accounts were some of our top accounts,” said Belle Isle CEO Vince Riggi, who founded the company in 2013 with brother-in-law Brian Marks and adopted the Belle Isle name from a small James River island in Richmond. 

“On-premise restaurants really went away in many states, particularly in Virginia, but one of the on-premise accounts that didn't go away, and actually flourished, were those golf club accounts."

Riggi wanted to synchronously add value and provide a solution for golf accounts by creating a fresh-tasting cocktail in a can.

Belle Isle’s Transfusion, made from 100 percent organic-based spirit, eastern Washington-sourced Concord grapes, Peruvian ginger, seltzer and lime, is distributed in more than 14 states. 

“It's not the simplest cocktail to make on the golf course,” Riggi said. “It can create a logjam, whether it's with the cart team or the restaurant when multiple transfusions are made during play, and it really interrupts pace of play.” 

So, last year, he and the Belle Isle team rolled up their sleeves and spoke to several golf course account holders to get feedback. Paul Howell, director of food and beverage at Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va., was one of those account holders. Riggi approached Howell and asked him bluntly: if he could develop one drink in a can, what would it be?

Howell, knowing how difficult it is to run poured drinks to the back nine at Kinloch, suggested the Transfusion. Since it came to fruition, Howell said the Belle Isle product has been a successful remedy for stocking beverage stations.

Kinloch does about 14,500 rounds between mid-March and November, so the addition was a godsend. 

“It's a traditional cocktail done a little different,” said Howell, with more than 11 years in the food and beverage industry and five at Kinloch. “The transfusion was here before me. It's not like we advertised it or that we're known for it, but people come in and ask for it quite a bit.”

As some stories have documented, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the drink at Augusta National and consumed it at Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif. Origins of the drink are unknown. Howell didn’t hesitate when Riggi first asked him what he’d like to see in a new product.

Belle Isle quickly got to research and development. The company sought feedback from its top golf accounts in Richmond. Once it had an overwhelming thumbs up, production began. Riggi purposely wanted an organic drink with no artificial colors or flavors, and gluten-free. Belle Isle’s Transfusion, sold in 12-ounce cans, also contains 7 percent alcohol by volume. It was brought to market in April 2021.

In the process, because the state of Virginia revised distribution rules due to the pandemic, Belle Isle started offering it on its online platform.

Riggi said that was a game-changer because the Transfusion can be delivered to 41 states via online orders. That has had a correlation to product development.

“Before direct consumer, we probably were rolling out a product a year,” said Riggi. “With direct consumer, it allows us to really move quickly with testing products and do it more directly. It’s allowed for significantly faster feedback, so we’ve been rolling out a product a month with the new model.” 

Howell added it’s been a win-win for his team. Kinloch goes through roughly 180 bottles of Belle Isle product a month when they pour the transfusion and other related beverages. He didn’t have an exact number on the Transfusion cans, but said they “are moving quite a bit.”

Even though the Transfusion targeted the golfer demographic, Riggi’s hope is that it has mass appeal to the non-golfer as well. 

In the end, golf’s populace helped the beverage gain a following. A tasteful one at that. 

“Look, the golf course demographic has created a buzz for this cocktail that would not have otherwise been known,” said Riggi. “It's been really eye opening.”

Sounds like a similar path Palmer took.