Behind the Brand

Achieving the Unexpected: SIA Scotch Whisky and the Woman Behind It

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Aug. 3, 2022

Has a drink with a friend ever changed your life?

It’s not exactly a typical experience, but that’s what happened to Carin Luna-Ostaseski, the founder of SIA Scotch Whisky, when a friend invited her out for a drink—a glass of scotch.

Carin, in her early 20s at the time, didn’t drink Scotch. She said no.

Fortunately, this friend was a bit persistent. As Carin tells it, her friend said to her, “That’s like saying you had a glass of red wine once and now you don’t drink any red wine at all. The problem here is you haven’t found your brand. I’m going to take you on a whisky adventure.”

He delivered on that promise, and she fell for Scotch that night.

“It changed the way I thought about Scotch,” she said in a recent conversation with Breakthru. “I loved hearing the bartender talk about blenders, about distilleries, and this idea that these whisky makers were putting product in barrels for future generations. I thought that was so beautiful—it’s like this legacy spirit that they might not even ever get to taste.

“I really appreciated that whisky is this sit down, go slow, take your time drink—it’s not a party drink or a shot. You really get a connection with someone over a glass of Scotch whisky that you don’t get with other spirits.”

Fast forward to the present: Scotch has become Carin’s passion and her livelihood. After becoming a devoted student of Scotch, sharing her favorite blends with friends and hosting tasting events as a hobby, she eventually created SIA, “a brand for everyone.”

We talked with Carin about her unexpected journey to become one of the first-ever Hispanic founders of a Scotch whisky, the award-winning liquid itself, and her passion for giving back and building both the next generation of Scotch drinkers as well as future entrepreneurs.

From Creative Director to Brand Founder

“I don’t have a very typical story—I didn’t grow up in a distilling family; I didn’t work in the industry; I’m as much of an outsider as I could possibly be.

“I am Cuban American, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. I grew up in Miami, Florida, where I studied graphic design, my career for 17 years. I was a creative director for major media organizations like ABC and Reuters in New York, then I moved to California, where I did a similar role.

“I tried to introduce many different friends to Scotch over the years, and realized they had the same reservations I had. I started hosting Scotch tasting events, as a hobby on the side, and I really learned what it takes to convince someone who is not a Scotch drinker to become one. And through the years, I started making blends in my kitchen, kind of chemist style, and eventually that’s where the seeds were planted for creating a brand.

“I thought, ‘this is it—this is how I can introduce a whole new generation of people to a spirit that I love so much.’”

SIA founder Carin Luna-Ostaseski

The Story Behind the Name

“I had already attempted to trademark 5 different names, and they were all taken. I took a step back and thought, let me go through the Scottish Gaelic dictionary, so I did that word-by-word, and I landed on SIA. It means the number six in Scottish Gaelic.

“Six is my favorite number, there were six whiskies in the original blend, and it could also stand for ‘Scotch Is Awesome.’

“I like that it’s short and easy to pronounce—in a category with complicated names, SIA is very short and sweet. And because it is so short, you can print it really large on a label. The designer in me appreciates that you can read it far away on a shelf, or a dark bar.”

Let’s Talk about the Liquid

“The liquid itself is very approachable. What I learned in these tasting experiences is that the nose is almost 80% of the taste experience. So, if you smell it and get too much peat or smoke on the nose, you might decide it’s not for you.

“It was really important to not have any of that, so mostly you get vanilla and caramel on the nose, then a little bit of citrus and honey in the mid-palate, so you have a gentle finish. It’s a great introductory whisky—sometimes I even call it a gateway Scotch.

“I’m not looking to convince anyone to stop drinking their favorite brands. This is for someone who doesn’t know where to begin: there is an entire world of people who have never even tried Scotch. I always say to start with SIA.”

An Award-Winning Blend

“We just got a listing in Rolling Stone magazine as number four of their top 13 recommended whiskies, so that’s a huge victory for me personally, to see it out in the zeitgeist in that way.

“And in terms of our industry, we have received a 96-point rating from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. We outranked brands that are way more expensive and way more well-known than we are.

“We also received a Double Gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2014, and an outstanding best in style 90-point rating from Whisky Advocate Magazine, which was the highest rating that they gave a blend in 2015.

“It’s still such a new brand in this category, so to get these kinds of awards right out of the gate was really inspiring, and also motivating to know that we are on the right track.”

Once a Designer, Always a Designer

“As a graphic designer, you always think about your end person in mind. I talked to more than 100 bartenders, bar managers, and store managers to ask, ‘What makes a good bottle for you?’

“The bartenders and managers said, ‘Make sure it has a nice long neck so I can pour my drink; make sure it fits in my speed rack or my well; and make sure it doesn’t have foil, because bartenders get cut with the scotch bottles.’ And so, I used a tearaway plastic cap.

“Store managers said, ‘Make sure it doesn’t take up a huge shelf space. And if you can avoid having a box … it’s wasteful.’ I wanted to be good for the environment and sustainability, as well as for the customer.

“I used all that feedback in the experience as I considered design and usability for the package.”

Giving Back: The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund

“I’m a big believer in the power of paying it forward and giving back. None of this would have been possible were it not for the people who took my phone calls, responded to my emails, and helped me out.

“So I’ve been doing the same thing from day one.

“The first year of SIA, I reflected on how much money I made and how much I could spare. That first year was only $100, which I was able to give to a local charity; the second year was $200, to an underrepresented group of female entrepreneurs in tech.

“Then it grew and grew. This last year, we were able to give a quarter of a million dollars away in grants. We gave away $10,000 grants to 25 minority entrepreneurs. And during this time, that meant they could pay the rent or keep the lights on. Or hire someone or keep them employed during COVID.

“It also came with a six-month mentoring program, where I personally mentored each of the entrepreneurs. I think the biggest gift that came from it was the community they established among themselves—they were able to build relationships and a network of support.

“I’m really proud of the program. It will continue to be a grant and mentorship program, and we will expand into more markets.”

Achieving the Unexpected

“Everything about my story is unexpected. If you say, oh I’m going to meet the founder of a Scotch whisky brand, you probably expect to meet an older, white Scottish gentleman with a beautiful accent who has been in the industry a long time. And instead, you get me: a Hispanic woman living in California who was not from the industry.

“It’s not an expected path to creating a brand. It was funded on Kickstarter. And so, even the brand itself, you might expect that it would have that heavy, peaty smoke. You might expect that it’s very expensive—but SIA retails for $39 on the shelf. So, there are a lot of checkboxes of, this is not what I thought it would be. And that’s okay.

“The other part of the unexpected, is that it goes both ways. I expected that it would be this old boys’ club, but it’s been such an amazing and inviting group of people, welcoming diversity and someone’s new perspective. I never expected I’d get to work with the master blenders for Johnnie Walker and for Buchanans, or that we would score a 96 Point rating so early in our journey.

“I also never expected, but fully welcome, the incredible creativity in the cocktail versatility I'm seeing with SIA out in the market—mules, tiki drinks, SIA espresso martinis and so much more!

“I love that phrase, ‘achieve the unexpected.’ If this can inspire someone to do something that’s out of their comfort zone, then it’s all worthwhile.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Stay tuned for more details on this year’s grant program and learn more about The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund here: