Local vodka owners are taking the spirits market by storm.
WRITTEN BY SHANNIN STEIN
PHOTOS BY HALL CREATIONS PHOTOGRAPHY
In 2011, Tahoe Blue founder and CEO Matt Levitt woke up from a dream inspired to create a vodka that captured the essence of his home of 10 years, Lake Tahoe.
“I wanted it to reflect the geographic beauty of Lake Tahoe, but also the lifestyle of Tahoe,” Levitt says. “It needed to be clear, pure, smooth … And it had to taste good.”
Bringing a dream to life
Using their savings, Levitt and his partners, including longtime friend Chris DeMay, began investigating what it would take to launch their own private-label vodka.
“There’s no manual for this,” Levitt says, laughing. “We learned by taking baby steps and meeting people.”
They formed relationships with wholesalers and vendors, rented storage space from friends, and found a distiller who worked with the team on creating their own proprietary vodka.
Levitt admits he wasn’t much of a vodka drinker before he started the company, so it was his goal to create a vodka he’d want to drink without needing mixers. The winner was a blend of corn, sugarcane, and grape vodkas mixed with Tahoe water.
Ask Levitt his drink of choice these days, and he’ll say with a grin, “Tahoe Blue and soda with an orange.”
The other thing Levitt was certain of was that the vodka brand they were creating needed to have a foundation of philanthropy — a commitment to protecting the nature that inspired its creation. Named after the Keep Tahoe Blue environmental campaign and based in South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Blue Vodka donates a portion of its profits to the Tahoe Fund and the League to Save Lake Tahoe, in addition to sponsoring countless events, environmental cleanups, and fundraisers in the area.
“What’s good for us needs to be good for Lake Tahoe,” Levitt says.
The little guy
On Leap Day 2012, the first order of 100 cases of Tahoe Blue Vodka arrived at Levitt’s doorstep. Tahoe Blue already had been turned down by the area’s major and boutique liquor distributors. What many would see as a barrier, Levitt and DeMay took as an opportunity. They applied for a distributor license, took pictures of bottles in the snow to create vendor sheets, and went door to door to every restaurant and store in South Lake Tahoe.
“[B]asically selling vodka out of the back of my car,” Levitt recalls fondly.
Instead of looking to grow by forcing Tahoe Blue into multiple markets, Levitt and DeMay kept their focus on building strong relationships and on community investment in the Reno-Tahoe area. Fast forward to 2017, and Tahoe Blue Vodka now is the one of the best-selling premium vodkas in the Reno-Tahoe market.
Even while keeping the business model small and regionally focused, Tahoe Blue’s visibility and reputation have continued to thrive. Tahoe Blue now can be found at upwards of 600 points of distribution between Reno and the Bay Area, including at retail outlets such as BevMo, Total Wine, Raley’s, and Safeway. Perhaps most notably, in 2013, Tahoe Blue was named Best Unflavored Vodka in the World out of a field of more than 80 premium and top-shelf vodkas at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York.
Levitt says he wishes he would have known how competitive the liquor industry was before he got into it, but that same competition has helped him carve his own path.
“We’re a grassroots, ma-and-pa company, in an industry dominated by giants,” he says.
The company turned its efforts to the Sacramento area in mid-2016 and already has added 200 more accounts since last summer.
“You only get one chance to introduce your product into a market,” Levitt says. “We‘ve only scratched the surface in Sacramento.”
Shannin Stein is a Sacramento native who spent more than 20 years in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry as a general manager, operations manager, and event planner for many of the area’s high-profile restaurants and agribusinesses. In the last year, she’s shifted her focus to nonprofit work with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento but continues to consult for culinary and hospitality businesses, helping them with staff training, organizational management, and corporate development.
(courtesy of Matt Levitt, founder and CEO, Tahoe Blue Vodka in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Serves 1)
2 ounces Tahoe Blue Vodka
1 slice fresh jalapeño
3 ounces fresh lemonade
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
Pour vodka into shaker; add jalapeño and lightly muddle. Add ice and lemonade. Shake and strain into chilled martini glass, and float cucumber on top of drink.