What This Creative Director on Liquor Brands Learned From Opening Her Own Speakeasy

Melissa Maher took her expertise to an entrepreneurial venture

Creative director Melissa Maher knows the alcohol business well.

Over the last 12 years, she's worked with Brown Forman, Mike's Hard Lemonade and, in her current role at The Marketing Arm in Dallas, with Bacardi USA. (Tough job, right?) But after consulting with several liquor companies, she realized every brand seemed to be struggling to make meaningful connections with its consumers.

That's when she created Flask, a pop-up speakeasy in Dallas that provided a space where brands could build an immersive experience, choosing everything from the menu and music to the movie playing in the background. It wasn't just a plus for brands—it offered a unique and underground opportunity for drinkers, too.

"As a creative, opening a bar has been my metaphor to writing the Great American Novel," Maher says. "Through my experience creating marketing campaigns for various liquor brands, I saw them getting lost in the clutter of bars, so I wanted to open a space where both brands and consumers could have a meaningful and memorable experience." 

Over four weekends in November 2015, Maher set up in a converted two-story house in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas' Oak Cliff borough. Patrons were met at the door by Lucky the doorman (yep, that's his real name), and proceeded to purchase two movie tickets in the form of poker chips.

Inside, those $20 chips could be redeemed for two drinks. The menu featured pre-made cocktails, served in flasks, plus a trio of bourbons for sipping and a few beers. Movies rotated every night, but the most popular by far was The Gambler, the 1980 made-for-TV film starring Kenny Rogers.

"I've always loved the history and hospitality of liquor," Maher says. "When I lived in New York City, speakeasies and classic cocktail bars were popping up everywhere, and I had the opportunity to experience a lot of them. I also had the opportunity to work with a spirits writer, which gave me access to some of the most interesting and innovative bars and bartenders in New York City. In essence, I soaked up everything I could."

Maher considers Flask a successful concept that could pop up again with funding from investors. 

"I had a great run and hope to do it again," she says. "I have interested parties, and I would love to bring Flask to a more permanent brick and mortar. Tastes, trends and neighborhoods constantly change, so I am just waiting for the right time and opportunity."

Even with a limited run, pulling off the concept wasn't exactly easy. "Everything was put into nights and weekends—and on my credit cards," she says. "Time and money were always in short supply, but I wouldn't change a thing."

Maher learned that her experience running a team as a creative director, paired with being naturally entrepreneurial and scrappy, helped her manage her time and budget. It helped that The Marketing Arm promotes an "all-hands-on-deck" work style and emphasizes having a plan and working that plan.

"While you have the support of your full-time job, you should seek opportunities that build your resources and skill set while fostering creativity," she says. "Also, don't be afraid to share what you're working on. You never know when someone may have a contact you need."