After spending an amazing day at Phoenix International Raceway for the AdvoCare 500 Nascar Sprint Cup Series Race, Arizona Foothills met up with Mark Williams, founder of Native Spirits Limited and importer of the new ultra-premium, award-winning Russian vodka, Vektor Vodka, to chat about his local launch, sponsoring Nascar and the Phoenix Suns, going from doctor to importer, and what’s in store for Vektor moving forward.
What separates Vektor from all of the other high-end vodkas out there like Grey Goose and Belvedere?
That is a good question. I am not sure that “separates” is the best term. Vektor is “different” than others, and there are a lot of discriminators. Vektor is made from Russian Winter Wheat, it is distilled 7 times from Lux class spirit, filtered through Birchwood, and bottled in Samara, Russia by the oldest distillery in the country. This is true Russian vodka, and vodka connoisseurs genuinely appreciate it. Even non-vodka drinkers love it because it finishes so smooth. We entered 2 of the biggest tasting challenges this year. The first was the Ultimate Spirits Challenge at the Astor in New York City. We scored a 92 – Highly Recommended. There were over 350 other vodkas in the contest. The highest score was a 94, and we were the only Russian vodka in the top 20. This is a very big deal. The second was at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America in Las Vegas. There were over 600 vodkas there, and we won the Double Gold. This March, we will enter the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco.
Really, it IS all about taste, but getting people to try the vodka is probably the most difficult part. Brand loyalty in the spirits industry is so strong. It is all about marketing, packaging, and making sure that people know you are out there. But, once they try Vektor, it is a game changer. In just about every restaurant, club, resort…we are taking market share from other vodkas, and that is where brands are built. Even we are pleasantly surprised by the response.
I saw that you have a doctorate degree, and you were a military and commercial pilot. What made you decide you wanted to move from those careers into the liquor importing industry?
It was not a conscious decision to make that career change, although I am glad I did. A friend of mine asked me to investigate as to whether or not the spirits importing industry was a good business to invest into, and after many hours of research, I said “if you can get through the first 5 years, it certainly is”. That was 5 years ago… I still fly, just not as much as I would like. I am hoping this year to possibly partner up with another pilot and share a helicopter.
Your bottle has a very unique design. What was the idea behind it?
One way to get people to taste Vektor is to show them the bottle. After taste, the bottle is possibly the most talked about and recognizable element of Vektor Vodka. The design is proprietary, and the logo, name, and package are registered trademarks of the company. We like to say that Vektor is “the nectar of the elite, and is worthy of serving at the high feasts of nobility, while conforming to the ideas of modern affluence”. The traditional heraldic monogram of the letter V lends to the aristocratic surnames of Russia. The name “Vektor” is somewhat masculine, so we wanted to soften it up a little. And I think it worked. I have yet to see anyone throw an empty bottle away. I have gone in homes where people had flowers in them, and there are restaurants in town that are using the empties for olive oil and balsamic on their tables. I am always getting asked if I have any bottles. I usually tell them that the best way to get one is to empty it themselves.
You had a big presence at the NASCAR race the other weekend. What made you decide Vektor should sponsor a NASCAR event? What was your highlight of the weekend?
I am a huge NASCAR fan, and have been for years. I love the sport, and the fans are the most loyal of any sport. They support the NASCAR sponsors, and the brand recognition of NASCAR fans is over 70%. Even the NFL is only about 40%. The NASCAR demographics are amazingly different than you would think. 45% earn over $50,000/yr., 46% of the fans are between the ages of 18 and 44, which is exactly the demo for the US as a whole, and with over 75 million fans spending over $3 billion per year on licensed products alone. That is a pretty good client base. Not to mention that other alcoholic beverages have had a great deal of success.
As far as the highlight, there were many. It was an incredible week, capped off by an amazing weekend. However, if I had to pick one highlight, it was seeing the Vektor Vodka #47 JTG Daugherty-Toyota Camry, completely decked out in a Vektor black and gold paint scheme, driven by legendary NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte, on the track on Sunday for the Sprint Cup Series race.
Bar Vektor just had its ribbon cutting at the US Airways Center this weekend for the Suns vs. Heat game. Can you paint me a picture in words of what it was like at Bar Vektor?
Talk about surrealistic… This is our second year as a Phoenix Suns and US Airways Center partner. It has been nothing short of exceeding expectations. To be a part of the legacy that the Suns and the US Airway Center represents is amazing. Their uncompromising quality is one that we can really appreciate as an ultra-premium brand.
We had the grand opening of Bar Vektor on Saturday to the fanfare of all of the major media outlets, the ownership of the team, and over 15,000 fans. The activation by the Suns organization, and the design by Greg Fisher and all of the great people at Fisher Creative, even had the Suns’ executives raving.
Bar Vektor is one of the steps that the US Airways Center, and the Suns, are taking to raise the level of service, by bringing in higher-end partnerships, and providing the fans with what they have been asking for. The We are excited to be a part of that upscale move, and are looking forward to years to come as a Suns partner.
What is your favorite way to drink Vektor Vodka?
Us too 🙂 …So, where do you see Vektor expanding from here?
We have a very specific national rollout plan. We will move to the California, Texas, Colorado, and Washington markets in the first quarter of next year, and continue to expand nationwide in 2013. Next will be Florida, New York/New Jersey, and then the rest of the US. We should be in most of the control states (where liquor sales are state controlled) by April, and the balance of the nation by the end of 2013. International expansion is in the plan, and we will begin the ground work for that in early 2013.
Where can we find Vektor Vodka?
Our launch was in our home state of Arizona, and we are steadily expanding to restaurants, clubs, hotels, resorts, and other on-premise establishments. We are in about 100 in Arizona, and the plan is to be in about 500 by the end of 2012. For retail, we are in about 15 different chains and independent stores, including AJs, BevMo!, Total Wines and More, and others. Look for us in the major grocery store chains next month. Most of where you can find Vektor is on our website VektorVodka.com.