- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

BENSON, Minn. - Upscale vodkas such as Absolut and Skyy are getting some competition from an unexpected corner of the world: the western Minnesota prairie.

Shakers Original American Vodka, made from homegrown wheat and distilled by a farmer-owned cooperative, was introduced in late February.

In the first month, Minnesotans bought 500 cases of Shakers, as much as its creators had expected to sell in the first year. Within months, it was the top seller in the state among vodkas priced more than $30.

“We just had no idea the level of pride that people in Minnesota would take in this product,” said Tim Clarke, a co-founder of Infinite Spirits, the Napa, Calif., company behind the vodka.

Mr. Clarke knows, though, that succeeding in Minnesota won’t be enough for Shakers to make a ripple in a market crowded by European competitors and offer more than a nice bump for the Minnesota cooperative.

U.S. consumers spent about $9.5 billion on vodka last year, including about $950 million for ultra-premium vodkas, according to annual research by Impact Databank. France’s Grey Goose claimed about 61 percent of the ultra-premium market with $570 million in sales.

Shakers, in contrast, projects no more than $40 million in sales this year.

The company’s marketing was concentrated in Minnesota until recently, but the vodka slowly is being introduced elsewhere. It now is available in 14 states, with a goal of nationwide distribution next year.

Infinite Spirits is advertising Shakers as the only ultra-premium vodka made in the United States by working directly with farmers who grow the grain.

“We think that’s very important because … ultimately the bulk of what’s going to determine your vodka is in the beginning stages,” Mr. Clarke said.

Gary Hemphill, head of the New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp., said Shakers won’t be seen as a challenge to larger ultra-premiums until it has broader distribution. But the company has entered the right segment of the industry, he said.

“We’re seeing growth in the super-premium end of spirits, and in particular, we’re seeing growth in the super-premium white spirits,” he said.

The workers at Infinite Spirits also have a promising pedigree. The five co-founders were among those who started Pete’s Wicked Ale, turned it into a national brand and helped build the demand for European-style craft beers in the United States. Two years after selling Pete’s in 1998, they wanted a new challenge. They chose vodka, which accounts for a quarter of the distilled spirits sold in the country, because all of the best big labels were imported.

They also wanted to compete in the high-end market, in which the vodkas have their own distinct flavors and are intended to be served on ice, straight up or in martinis.

The product’s quality has been praised. Shakers won a silver medal at the 2003 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and received top five-star ratings from Kevin Kosar’s AlcoholReviews.com and F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal, publications that rate distilled spirits.

Shakers was among five unflavored vodkas to make Pacult’s list of the top 100 distilled spirits for 2003.

For Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., the Minnesota cooperative that produces the vodka for Infinite Spirits through a subsidiary, Shakers is a tiny fraction of its business. Most of its 45 million-gallon annual capacity is devoted to producing fuel-grade alcohol from corn, and Infinite Spirits plans to produce, at the most, a few hundred thousand gallons of vodka this year.

But production can be changed easily if demand for Shakers grows, said General Manager Bill Lee. About a dozen farmers now produce the wheat for Shakers, and Mr. Lee said many more would like to do so.

“If we’re successful, this may turn out to be something very good for investors in our co-op,” he said.

It already has been good for the tiny municipal liquor store in Benson, a town of 4,000. Gross sales at the store have increased by more than $100,000 this year — all because of Shakers, said manager Pat McGeary. Residents and tourists are buying it for themselves and for gifts, he said.

Mr. Clarke, while acknowledging that his company still faces a lot of work to sell its new brand nationally, said it is looking beyond vodka.

“We will also participate in other categories,” he said. “I don’t want to tip our hat which ones, but the name of the company is Infinite Spirits. We were not set up to be a vodka company. We’re going to try a bunch of different things.”

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