Linhang Ren and Lauren Lee met at Yale University while working on separate degrees, when their passion for the food and beverage industry brought them together in an unexpected way – to create a fine spirited ice cream – an alcoholic ice cream brand, in layman’s terms – known as A, WAY – and launch it right here in Shanghai.
A, WAY is a means for them to rediscover and reconnect with their roots as well as bridging cultures by combining premium spirits from around the world with Eastern ingredients, all in a single edible ice cream cup.
But A, WAY is a lot more than just alcohol-infused ice cream; it’s a lifestyle brand with an experiential space flagship store, in Shanghai’s newest entertainment venue, INS. Since launching less than a year ago, they’ve already partnered with luxury brands, high-end hotels, boutique airlines, and more, becoming one of the hottest new products to come out of this city. So what’s all the hype about?
Well, we sat down with Linhang and Lauren to learn why they chose to combine alcohol and ice cream, what’s so different about their products and brand, and how they’ve already garnered quite the international following.
You have a pretty interesting backstory. Why did you decide to start your own fine spirited ice cream? And why did you decide to open in China – and Shanghai more specifically – as opposed to New York where you two were previously working or elsewhere around the world?
A, WAY began as our dream – one that took us both down completely different paths than we originally intended. We met at Yale University through our shared mutual interests in the food and beverage industry, hospitality, lifestyle brands, and a love for bar culture.
Linhang is a serial entrepreneur and brings experience in restaurant management and investment, whereas Lauren worked previously as a bartender in New York and Connecticut, incorporating Asian ingredients in her cocktails, and using her sense of taste to discover unexpected food and drink pairings.
Beyond the trends we noticed that led us to select fine spirited ice cream as our first core product, a primary motivation for starting our brand in China is our shared heritage here. Despite having grown up in the United States and having travelled to and lived in other countries that provide us with inspiration, building A, WAY here is a way for us to 寻根 – or seek out our roots. Shanghai specifically is the perfect city to open our first flagship store, as it’s a city that brings together East and West. This bridging of cultures is reflected in our products, which combine premium spirits from around the world – elements that have representative power of places (like gin being traditionally associated with the UK) – and Eastern ingredients that originate from China and its surrounding countries, all in a single cup.
What is A, WAY, and where does the name come from?
We define A, WAY as follows: "to be authentic and express our true feelings and mood, while embracing the ups and downs in life." In defining it as such, we can analyze A, WAY in three, interconnected parts.
“A” is an indefinite article that allows for unlimited possibilities through its indefinite nature.
“,”is a punctuation mark that indicates a pause, a reminder to take a pause in life. It’s not easy, especially in today’s complex and chaotic society to truly relax and just breathe.
“WAY” refers to a method, style, or manner of doing something. There are no “what ifs” or “buts”—just A, WAY.
We then incorporate other brands into our own brand when working on collaborations, for example: A, 天目里 WAY, A, 1942 WAY, A, RADi WAY.
How are A,WAY’s ice creams different than any other pre-packaged ice cream?
Our products draw inspiration from the ingredients themselves, cocktails, and desserts – both classic and modern – plus personalized tastes. They range in ABV from low (4% ABV) to mid (5% ABV), depending on what amount of booziness suits a particular flavor. It’s already hard to create ice cream at such a high ABV – any higher than 5% ABV and the ice cream would not be able to freeze.
All of the juices we use in our products are fresh squeezed, and for ingredients like herbs, we insist on using fresh leaves and not syrups to obtain the purest flavors.
We work towards creating an experiential space in our flagship store unlike any ice cream scoop shop or store selling ice cream products. Rather than your standard “ice cream parlor,” we are more of a lifestyle brand for adults to explore the best spirits from around the world combined with ingredients and flavors native to Asia.
Why focus on alcohol as the common thread that connects your products?
One of our slogans is”快乐可以更快乐” (Happiness can be even happier.)
Put another way, A, WAY’s goal is to make ordinary products extraordinary, and alcohol has two distinct qualities that make it the perfect common thread between our products. First, alcohol is representative of place, people, and culture – something that carries both tradition and innovation within a single bottle.
Focusing on the spirit we use in our chocolate ice cream, made with Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Scotch, we think about how a 12 year old whisky is a product of many years of labor, something that matures amidst all the lives that were lived in those 12 years, and a product of care and dedication. When crafting our products, we want to harness and do justice to the amount of experience, or dare we say “spirit,” contained in that spirit…
…Which brings us to our second point. Alcohol elevates other ingredients by extracting flavors from ingredients that can’t be released by other methods, such as through fat or sugar, which is what carries most of the flavor in non-alcoholic ice cream. We’re able to get more complexity out of ingredients themselves, which translates into greater depth of flavor in our products overall.
Chocolate itself is rich and nuanced, but when paired with a sherry cask whisky that carries its own complementary flavor notes of dark fruits, chocolate, and spice, there’s a greater synergy. We do not discriminate based on type of spirit when we do R&D, but seek the best harmony of all the different elements present, and aim to strike a balance between the fragrant components inherent to the spirit and the aromas both inherent in the other ingredients and those that are released in the presence of alcohol.
On the business side, the use of alcohol enables us to work with some of the largest alcohol and spirits importers such as Diageo, MHD, Pernod Ricard, and Suntory.
Would you market it more as an ice cream or a cocktail?
We view our product as something that forms a bridge between these categories, along the lines of a cocktail in solid form. By doing so, we can preserve the flavors of ingredients at their peak – such as fresh squeezed juices and herbs – in a way that’s not possible with other “RTD” (ready-to-drink) formats.
When finding a balance between all the different components, which is certainly different in “ice cream” than in a cocktail, Lauren’s process is informed by her bartending background, and this is ultimately reflected in the final product.
What are some challenges you faced in product development and consumer education during the launch of this brand?
One of the main challenges we faced was creating ice cream that could freeze at a range of 4.5%-5.2% ABV. Conventional ice cream formulation often only uses alcohol in trace amounts – about 1-2% ABV maximum – or they even use other ingredients, like extracts, to mimic the flavor of spirits. However, we wanted true alcoholic ice creams and sorbets, and thus ended up spending almost two years on R&D – one in New York and another in Shanghai – to create the proper formulation with locally available ingredients. As a result of our experimentation, we were able to create a naturally low-sugar formula, with most of our flavors having less than 100 calories per cup.
As fine spirited ice cream is something new to China, specifically ice cream with such a high ABV, often times guests are surprised that they can actually get tipsy off our ice cream. Hence, why our products are for adults only.
While some may question our motivation behind only creating alcoholic products at this stage, we’re adamant that the space and overall vibe we’re curating demands this specialized focus for the time being.
Tell us more about the ingredients you use – how you source them and the R&D that went into which flavors you’ve paired together.
Given China’s robust supply chain, we are able to source the high-quality ingredients from all across the country and internationally to create the specific flavor profiles we aim for. For example, for our sorbets and fruit-driven ice creams, we work with suppliers that work directly with farmers to source desired varietals of fruits from specific regions.
In the course of R&D, we also discovered that different milks work best with different ice cream flavors. Sometimes we need to bring out a rich creaminess and other times we must select a lighter milk that presents cleanly and doesn’t detract from the fresh fruit flavors. Thus, we always look for the right fit, whether the dairy is imported, domestically produced, or uses imported milk cows.
When doing R&D, Lauren goes into the creation phase with a rough idea of the desired final product flavor in mind. There will be adjustments made along the way to create the optimal end result, always with the palate of the end consumer in mind. We also layer flavors together – through adding other varietals of fruit or different formats of a specific flavor (think coconut milk, coconut water, and coconut shavings) to increase complexity.
Which ice creams are your favorite flavors, and do you plan to develop new ones in the future?
The two we believe reflect our ethos of finding our roots and bridging different places through flavors are: The Old Fashioned – a Taiwanese black sugar and aged tangerine peel ice cream with Bourbon; and Lilia – a sorbet made with Fujian and Thai longan, Yunnan white tea, vodka, and French elderflower liqueur.
When crafting our Old Fashioned, we wanted to recreate the feeling of the classic Old Fashioned cocktail, down to the spirit-forward character, but also incorporate elements of our heritage that are more familiar to palates here in China. As for Lilia, we made 40-50 versions before landing on the final one that utilizes two types of longan, each with their own intensity and expression. We also sourced white tea from Yunnan – highly floral with a gentle bitterness – which is perfect for a flavor designed to capture the idea of purity.
Seasonality is at the forefront of our thoughts, and we are always undergoing R&D to improve our current offerings and push forward with new products in line with factors such as time of year and day.
You recently opened a flagship store in INS 复兴乐园 – ideal not only for purchasing for takeaway, but also for enjoying an (edible) libation and snack. How does this flagship store-meets-bar fit in with the ethos of the brand?
When envisioning our first location, we wanted to create a cozy, comfortable space that we ourselves would love to hang out at. That’s why we like to call our flagship store “The Lounge.” At our lounge, our offerings encompass both familiar and novel flavor pairings, with the aim of elevating any occasion.
We also want to take advantage of our location inside the charming, historic Fuxing Park, as well as INS 复兴乐园 – a bustling lifestyle establishment that is Shanghai’s newest entertainment venue. We add to the neighborhood by being a destination where patrons can have an ice cream and wine after work, pregame before heading upstairs to one of the seven nightclubs or other F&B establishments in the complex, or have a quiet place to relax.
But that's not all. This is also a space for creativity and collaboration. Periodically, we team up with local artists and designers from the realms of art, fashion, and other lifestyle concepts to give friends and guests an ever-evolving, immersive, and uniquely A, WAY experience.
Since you are working with many high-end and well-known liquor brands, what partnerships and collaborations have you established this far? What other uses for the product exist beyond the storefront?
While our storefront serves as a center for showcasing our product range, we also work with a variety of venues and platforms such as luxury hotels, airlines, nightclubs, restaurants and bars, and fashion and other lifestyle-oriented brands.
So far, we’ve worked with Ritz Carlton, Edition, Waldorf Astoria, W Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, Bellagio, 404 Clubnotfound, RADi, among others. We’re especially proud to collaborate with spirits brands on flavors such as our For Play – a cherry and Sichuan tangerine sorbet – with Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch, Mango Margarita with Don Julio tequila; and Renewal – a green grape and perilla sherbet with Tanqueray No. Ten gin. And this month, we’ll be releasing an exclusive flavor in collaboration with SG Shochu, the same SG Group behind Speak Low, Sober Company, and The Odd Couple, so please stay tuned!
What does the future hold for A, WAY?
We look forward to expanding to other cities, more exciting collaborations and limited-edition flavors, as well as continuous development of products that innovate in lifestyle experiences for adults and spread our passion for spirits culture.
To learn more about A, WAY, visit their Official WeChat account by scanning the QR below.
A, WAY, F101, 109 Yandang Lu, by Nanchang Lu, 雁荡路109号F101室, 近南昌路.
[All images by Sophie Steiner/That's]