Retirement at age 40 turned out to be pretty boring for Terry Olson. "There's only so much you can golf…and when your friends are still working…"
Not a sob story for sure, but with time on his hands -- the good part was spending days with his children, driving to school, jamming Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra 'til they loved it -- Olson started a post-retirement career as the creator and founder of ZIM'S Vodka
and its parent company, The Rebel Spirits Group.
Now with the kids grown, the Grosse Pointe Park resident and former minor-league hockey player is pouring his time into the vodka brand he began researching nearly four years ago and started selling in January.
In just eight months, ZIM'S, which Olson casts as a competitor in the ultra premium class of vodkas, has 300 accounts -- all upscale restaurants and country clubs. ZIM'S, which bartenders have told Olson could be as catchy as asking for a Stoli, is a shortened version of the Polish word for potato.
At the Spirits International Prestige Awards in Las Vegas in mid-August, ZIM'S, a potato-based vodka, took platinum in the taste category for its ZIM'S 59 and bronze for ZIM'S 81. In the bottle design category, ZIM'S 59 took bronze.
ZIM'S, which is made in Poland, is getting noticed for many reasons, says Olson, who used to run a marketing company.
It's made in Poland from potatoes -- not from wheat or other grains -- is gluten-free and comes in a low-calorie version and a higher-proof version. There's ZIM'S 81 and ZIM'S 59. Most vodkas are slightly lower proofs and slightly higher in calories.
He went with potato as the base ingredient and Poland as the manufacturing point to honor the history of the spirit. He runs the company with his best friend, Bruce Carroll. They drive around metro Detroit in cars plastered with ZIM'S logos.
"If you want the best wines you think of France and Italy. For beer it's Germany, Belgium, and I have to say Canada because that's where I'm from," says Olson, who goes by T.O. "When you get to vodka there's no question it's Russia or Poland."
"At one point in time I was thinking about making it here…I looked into it and I told my buddy we're going to get on a plane and go to Poland and see how it's done," he says. "The homework and research I did found out like 95 percent or more of vodkas in the world are non-potato. I wanted to go back to potato. It's more costly, but it's superior."
Working with Poles and Poland's international trade reps, they formed the product that became one of the latest metro Detroit craft liquor start-ups.
"It was a really cool process. We spent a number of days with their chemist going through my recipe, tasting it in all the different ways you'd serve it: room temperature, chilled, with cranberry soda, with Diet Coke," he says. "We tweaked it and once we got it all down I said OK this is it. They did the first batch."
Then there was the hiccup of the long delivery overseas and getting the cases through customs.
"I thought the shipment would be here for Thanksgiving. We missed that. Then Christmas and we missed that. Then New Year's. It finally arrived Jan. 7."
"Then we found out that January, February, March and April are the worst months for the liquor business. There is the holiday hangover: Bills to pay, people want to wind down and start fresh," he says. "So what we decided to do while all the liquor salespeople were waiting for the slow months to pass was go out and kick butt on the street."
Their first restaurant was Tre Monti Ristorante, Hour Detroit's
restaurant of the year. Country clubs and Joe Muer's signed on. "Their customers will seek us out.
"We're very grassroots…We're out there spreading the word about ZIM'S."
ZIM'S also has "a group of ambassadors" around the state, signing on new vendors. Plans are rolling out to expand outside of Michigan this fall.
"We've already shipped all over the United States," he says. "Now we want to get into the next markets: Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Calfornia, New York, Texas…"
Source: Terry Olson, founder, The Rebel Spirits Group and ZIM'S vodka
Writer: Kim North Shine