Vodka just got a little gayer. Halsted Vodka, which launched last month, gives fifteen percent of its profits to local GLBT charities in Chicago. Now after three years of development, it’s spreading from the gay bars to the rest of Chicago and beyond. Jennifer Schulze, one of Halsted Vodka’s five founders, explains how they got started and where the brand is headed.
What came first, the idea for vodka or the idea to give back to the LGBT community?
We were looking for a way to give back to the LGBT community. We did a lot of research and a lot of focus groups to come up with the product that has the most impact, and that led us to vodka. The gay community drinks more vodka than anybody else. It’s a huge part of the social fabric in a very positive, celebratory way. It is the spirit of choice in the community, so that’s how we ended up vodka.
How did you develop the product locally in the Halsted community?
Members of our team are members of that community. Every person we’ve talked to about it was excited on a number of levels. The fifteen percent going back to the LGBT community is what everyone is most interested in. There is no other spirit that does that. There are plenty of spirits that sponsor events in the community, but none promise fifteen percent of profits and fifteen percent of company equity. From there, we found that people also embraced the idea of an all-American vodka. Many of the vodkas are from Europe, and a person in our focus group said, “Why not an American vodka?” It’s one-hundred-percent American. It’s a craft vodka made in a facility outside of Denver.
How else do you try and stand out in the market?
The really good news is that it’s terrific vodka. There has been this flavor boom. We are not flavored vodka. We may go there eventually, but we are definitely a luxury-brand vodka that has a really smooth taste and no burn, and that’s really unique right now. Everyone has been so focused on flavor. We thought a way to make our mark was not to go down that path and to try and produce a really wonderful drink. We’re finding people really like to drink it straight because it’s so good. You can’t say that about a lot of vodka.
How far are you looking to expand?
It’s a very slow rollout starting in Chicago at gay bars, but we hope to expand beyond that to mainstream bars and package stores. I’ve been asked by patrons at the bar, “Where can I buy a bottle?” So far we’re not in a package store, but we hope to be soon. We want to be everywhere in the country. We’re a Chicago brand, but we want to expand to Miami and New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles. You name it. We have big plans for the brand. (Nolan Feeney)
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