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Spirits and sales are high at fast-growing Buckeye Vodka

Buckeye Vodka’s Ohio sales surged by more than 33 percent to more than $1.5 million in Ohio alone in 2013, and the Dayton-based distillery’s owners are projecting another robust increase this year as they lay the foundation to expand the spirit’s sales footprint to other states.

That’s an impressive start for a vodka brand and a parent company, Crystal Spirits LLC, that are both still two months shy of their third birthday. The first bottles of Buckeye Vodka appeared on store shelves and in restaurant bars in April 2011.

Brothers Jim and Chris Finke, along with Tom Rambasek and Marty Clarke, started developing the Buckeye Vodka concept in 2009 after noticing that the spirits market was growing despite the recession. Liquor sales remain remarkably steady during an economic downturn, and they rise during a recovery. The Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Liquor Control reported last month that Ohioans spent $898 million on liquor during calendar year 2013 — more than ever before.

Buckeye Vodka is part of a rapidly growing trend of entrepreneurs across the country, and across Ohio, starting their own micro-distilleries to produce relatively small batches of whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, specialty liqueurs and other spirits. State officials say the new law that took effect in 2012 will trigger growth and expansion in an emerging industry, promote tourism, create jobs, generate tax revenues, and create new demand for Ohio agricultural products such as fruits and grains.

The impact of that law has already been felt in the Dayton area, which is now home to a half-dozen distilleries either open or in various stages of development: Indian Creek Distillery, producer of Staley Rye Whiskey, in Miami County; Flat Rock Spirits, producer of Stillwrights bourbon and moonshine in Bath Twp. near Fairborn; Buckeye Distillery in Tipp City, which is unrelated to Buckeye Vodka and which produces flavored liqueurs; S and G Artisan Distillery/The Spirits of Yellow Springs, makers of flavored moonshine and European-style liqueurs; and Belle of Dayton, a distillery planned for Dayton’s Oregon District which will produce vodka, bourbon and single-malt whiskey.

Buckeye Vodka’s maker is by far the largest producer among the local distilleries. It is in the top 10 in sales at many Dayton-area liquor stores, including both the Kettering and Washington Twp. Arrow Wine & Spirits stores, Arrow officials said.

Part of Buckeye Vodka’s appeal is price: A standard-sized “fifth” (750-milliliter) of Buckeye Vodka costs less than $20 in most markets — it’s $19.25 in Montgomery County — and that price point is considerably lower than some heavily promoted imported vodka brands. Dayton-area vodka drinkers know a bargain when they taste one, and the product’s name and hometown cachet don’t hurt, either.

“Dayton is our number one market —the local community has really embraced us,” Finke said. “But Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati are catching up.”

Buckeye Vodka has entered into sponsorship deals with venues such as Playhouse Square in Cleveland and Riverbend Music Center south of Cincinnati so that Buckeye Vodka is the only vodka served at those popular entertainment destinations, Finke said. That has helped introduce Buckeye Vodka to consumers outside its hometown turf. And the increasing availability of Buckeye Vodka in other Ohio markets has surged since the product was introduced: it is now available in 415 out of the 466 agency liquor stores in the state.

Buckeye Vodka became available in Kentucky a year ago, although Finke acknowledged that sales in the state famous for its bourbons “have been slow,” especially in the Louisville and Lexington areas, Finke said.

“We figure that’s probably because of our ‘Buckeye’ name,” Finke said. “But in northern Kentucky, we’re doing better.”

Overall sales, including shipment of inventory, of Buckeye Vodka rose 47 percent in 2013 from the previous year, Finke said, although the privately owned company doesn’t release total sales figures. State officials said 56,249 bottles of 750-ml bottles, and 18,130 1.75-liter bottles, of Buckeye Vodka were sold in Ohio in 2013.

Both Finke and Rambasek say expanding Buckeye Vodka’s geographic footprint is an important part of their long-term plans for the brand, but they’re coy about what states they’re considering, or when they’ll make their move. They noted they get emails from states such as New York, California, Arizona and Florida that have large Ohio ex-pat populations asking when Buckeye might become available in their states.

“There’s no exact timetable, but we may be ready to start something in the next 18 months,” Finke said.

Flavored vodkas are all the rage now in the national spirits market, but Buckeye Vodka hasn’t strayed from its core, unflavored product. Finke said he and his business partners are exploring a couple of “all-natural” flavored options, and may unveil some that are “not too prevalent.” He declined to divulge details of any of his experimental batches.

Besides, the company’s “regular” unflavored vodka is winning acclaim well beyond Ohio’s borders. Buckeye Vodka has won seven national or international awards at spirits-rating competitions in its brief existence, including a gold medal and “Best Buy Award” in the Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute’s International Competition in 2011 and a silver medal in the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition, in which it also was named the 2012 Ohio Distillery of the Year.

Here’s how the Beverage Testing Institute described Buckeye Vodka: “Neutral nose with cream and grain nuances and a satiny dryish medium-to-full body and a long, clean sweet pastry, peppery spice, and mineral accented finish. An exceptional smooth and clean vodka for every application.”

Finke said high-quality, distilled water from Crystal Water Company — the water-supply firm owned and operated by Buckeye Vodka partner Rambasek which shares a South Patterson Boulevard address with the spirits company — is a major driver of the brand’s success. After all, 80-proof vodka is 60 percent water, so the better the water, the better the vodka, Finke said. And the convenient access to high-quality water adds to the efficiency of Buckeye Vodka’s operation and helps hold down its price, he said.

For the grain spirit portion of the vodka, Finke utilizes corn grown in Ohio and the Midwest, and distills the spirit 10 times or more to remove impurities until it reaches nearly 193 proof before combining it with the distilled water to produce vodka, Finke said. A final filtering process that takes two to three days produces the final clean-tasting spirit that is bottled.

Crystal Spirits recently added two employees — it now has nine — and part of their role is to be a brand ambassador of sorts, traveling to markets and leading spirits tastings in which vodka drinkers are invited to compare Buckeye Vodka to its more expensive competitors.

“Our vodka stands up to any of the imported and more expensive brands,” Finke said.

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