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The Sweet Spot

The cannabis drinks company, Sweet Justice, is ready for business in Michigan...
By Gretchen Van-Monette
Photo - Jacob Lewkow
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The Sweet Spot feture image

How Sweet Justice, the cool cannabis cola from Canada, came to be is a story of serendipity intersecting with poetic justice. Soda was an obvious choice and a unique offering in the nascent Canadian cannabis market.

Three of the four co-originators— Jocelyn Tse, David Pilchuk, and Marc Ross—led flagship brands at Coca-Cola Canada for a combined 40-plus years.

The group became good friends after realizing their like-mindedness at company social events. “Our love of cannabis, emerging products, and the convergence of culture was always a strong connection point between us,” says Tse.

The fourth co-founder, Eric Frape—financial controller with career roots in corporate development and capital markets—and Pilchuk were friends from their university days. “We didn’t know it at the time, but Eric and I were beginning our careers as ‘product testers’ at school,” jokes Pilchuk.

BACK IN THE DAY

In the legacy days, Pilchuk and Ross ran early product trials at numerous kitchen parties. They concocted their cannabis-infused drinks using various Coca-Cola products (as the base) and mixing in THC oils.

It was a sunny afternoon in 2019, while enjoying some fine Canadian weed lakeside, when the idea of developing a lineup of cannabis-infused drinks bubbled up in conversation.

When pandemic-induced career evaluations brought the four cofounders back together in 2020, they spent more time brainstorming on what to do with their shared beverage business acumen and appreciation for cannabis.

The idea of Sweet Justice was born—Canada’s first cannabis infused cola. “It was a convergence of so many things,” says Tse. “It was the right time for the right product, made by the right people.”

“We decided on the name, ‘Sweet Justice’ because the expression perfectly captured our journey together,” adds Tse. “How we all met, what we went through parachuting out of corporate life during the pandemic, our love of good times, and mutual admiration for cannabis.”

COOL BEVERAGE HOT FROM CANADA

There were other weed-infused beverages in the Canadian market, but the micro-dosed sparkling waters or high-sugar, heavy, syrupy flavors didn’t appeal to Tse or her partners, and they realized a massive untapped opportunity.

It took 18 months of research and development to create the familiar, comforting cola flavor the team wanted to offer discerning adult drinkers. Formula development underwent multiple iterations before passing the high bar the group had set for themselves.

“We wanted something we would enjoy drinking ourselves—a refreshing, great taste that makes you crave another,” says Tse. “We didn’t see it on dispensary shelves, so we decided to go for it.”

Inspired by the taste and experience of Mexican Cola, the final formula uses scant amounts of real cane sugar (no high-fructose corn syrup), natural cola flavorings and essence, and lower carbonation (to minimize gas bloating) to deliver a smooth, balanced traditional cola with a THC twist.

“We wanted the WOW factor when people first take a sip,” says Pilchuk. There is little or undetectable cannabis taste in the soda pop, just full flavor and bold cola aromas.

“We all knew the benefits of cannabis from first-hand experience and saw the market had a space to fill for a globally recognized product that would appeal to many people for various reasons,” says Tse.

Launched in 2021, Sweet Justice made history by establishing Canada’s first cannabis cola, has since expanded its assortment to seven drinks, sold in 2500-plus dispensaries, and is now the largest independent cannabis beverage company in Canada.

BUZZ WITHOUT THE BOOZE

As more people forego booze for the benefits of cannabis, Sweet Justice is poised to be an appealing alternative.

“In our circle of friends, we’ve noticed that many just aren’t into alcohol like they used to be and are proactively cutting back,” says Tse.

Consumer trends show alcohol consumption is declining among adult drinkers. On the flip side, the non-alcoholic and alternative beverage categories are showing steady growth. People still want to have fun in social occasions, but now these moments don’t necessarily have to include alcohol.

Many are frustrated and tired of waking up with “hangxiety” – that dreaded combination of hangover and anxiety, adds Tse. With mental health and wellness top of mind, seeking out better-for-you alternatives that can deliver instant gratification and fight the fear of missing out continues to be an active pursuit.

“Our cannabis-infused drinks are an approachable way to enjoy a family event, a day at the beach, dog walks, or BBQ with friends,” says Tse. “It’s fast-acting, discreet, convenient, and delicious [and] it mixes well in all situations and lets people indulge without stigma.”

BIG MITTEN WELCOME

It made sense for Sweet Justice to make its American debut in Michigan. “Cannabis sales in the state equal 75% of Canada’s $4 billion market, and there’s a big white space within the emerging drinks sector,” says Tse.

As complex as regional cannabis regulations can be, the Sweet Justice team found assistance and support at every turn.

“The cannabis community in Michigan is very welcoming,” says Pilchuk. “We have a great partnership with the Franklin Fields team. From product manufacturing to sales and nurturing key relationships with industry stakeholders, they help ensure commercial success.”

The product is also available at their retail operation, The Botanical Company, and several legal dispensaries across the state.

The team also spends much time crisscrossing the border to educate budtenders and cannabis purveyors about how Sweet Justice can be a refreshing alternative to alcohol and why the “drinks” experience is unique versus other cannabis formats. Their efforts are paying off .

“The Sweet Justice Cherry Cola is amazing,” says Chris Atteberry, general manager of KalKushka Lounge, a cannabis consumption lounge in northern Michigan. “The fl avor is intense and enjoyable, and it’s a friendlier option to alcohol. I can see these colas putting a new buzz on summer fun.”

OLD PRODUCT, NEW SIPS

The recipe for cola has mostly stayed the same since the 1880s advent of the beverage. Take some sugar, add water, give it a kick of carbonation, and you have the premise for soda pop.

With their Coca-Cola experience, the team behind Sweet Justice knew that a kinder, gentler soda still bursting with traditional and recognizable flavors would be their Sweet Justice.

The Twisted Classics and Vibrant Sips flavors are attainable without processed sugars or excess calories. None of the sodas are over 100 calories, which is 30% to 50% fewer than almost any standard serving of a cocktail, beer, wine, or traditional colas.

The Pacific Island Punch is a ray of tangy, liquid sunshine —a harmonious balance of sour citrus and tropical fruits, and it finishes like a peach Bellini. Elderberry Pom sails through a gentle sweetness of Elderberry, and hits with a refreshing zesty, pomegranate tang.

TWIST ONE RIGHT UP

Of course, Sweet Justice twists things up with cannabis. Their OG Cola and Cherry Cola are dosed with 10 milligrams of THC per serving. The Pacific Island Punch contains 10 mg THC, but is balanced with a healthy dose of 5mg CBD in a 2:1 ratio. The Elderberry Pom meets it in the middle with a 1:1 ratio of 5 mg each.

“These are sophisticated adult beverages with unique flavor and cannabinoid profiles to suit a wide array of drinkers,” says Tse.

Would a single can of it get a prodigious user high? Probably not, according to Pilchuk, but that’s not the point. “It isn’t about getting high or delivering the strongest hit of THC in one fast shot,” he says.

“Drinking is meant to be an enjoyable experience where you’d ideally session more than one – like with beer, wine, or cocktails at a dinner or social event. And when cannabis drinks are paired with other traditional cannabis formats, it offers a deeper, layered experience.”

COLA, COLA EVERYWHERE

Michigan’s response to Sweet Justice has been positive, Tse notes. “People are genuinely surprised and delighted by the great taste and keen to share, noting it’s the first cannabis drink they’ve had with no weedy aftertaste.”

Sweet Justice is not the first cannabis cola in North America, but based on initial sales and reactions, it has something the others do not. The company is focused on expanding its market reach and product line in other states by 2024.

“Sweet Justice’s meaning is much larger than what we were starting with,” says Tse. “It’s a culmination of unexpected and intentional moments resulting in delightful outcomes—our drinks—and it’s something everyone can get behind.”

About the Author:

Gretchen VanMonette is a Metro Detroit feature writer interested in the cannabis and hemp industries. When not writing, VanMonette enjoys a high time hiking, biking and boating around the Mitten State.

Cover, Michigan, Summer 2023