Does the world really need another premium vodka? And if so, is Michigan the place to launch it?
Childhood friends and Michigan State College of Law-mates Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring think so, and both have put aside lawyering for the time being to bring Dragon Bleu vodka to the United States.
Dragon Bleu is a blended vodka distilled and bottled in the Grande Champagne area of France. It is made from three different grains, --wheat, barley and rye-- unlike typical vodka which is made from just one. Goldring and Rapp discovered it while traveling together in Paris in 2005.
"We ended up at a gourmet exposition of small producers," Rapp says. "There, we met Patrick Brisset, a gentleman who has been a producer for the largest cognac brands, and he had been showing off this vodka. We tried it and fell in love with it."
Initally, neither Rapp or Goldring had any intention of becoming liquor importers. They were both still students at the time, with Goldring at MSU College of Law and Rapp finishing his undergraduate degree at MSU. "It was initially, 'How can we get more of this for ourselves?' " Rapp says. When they discovered it wasn't available in the U.S., the idea was hatched to bring it over and distribute it.
Their company, RGI Brands, was bankrolled with angel investors among their family and friends, although Rapp declines to say how much the initial investment was.
Goldring and Rapp met as children at summer camp. Goldring spent his early years growing up in Tel Aviv but his family came to the United States during the first Gulf War to be out of harm's way. Rapp grew up in Bloomfield Hils. While they didn't have plans to go into business together, Rapp says, they've always been close and share a similar entrepreneurial spirit.
Paris by way of Michigan
Launching a new liquor brand means dealing with Michigan's fairly Byzantine liquor laws. In Michigan, the state sets the minimum price and controls the distribution of all liquor. About half the price of any bottle of alcohol sold goes into state coffers, because of taxes, licensing fees and the like.
Rapp says that hasn't been much of a problem –not least because of their legal education.
"The laws are archaic – they are really really concerned, in a way that makes you think we're preparing for another Prohibition," he says. While there are certainly disadvantages, the MLCC tries to make it easy to navigate the system with materials that help licensees understand their rights and responsibilities.
Also, says Rapp, the state's tight regulation actually helps Dragon Bleu since it puts all the brands in Michigan on a level playing field. Bigger brands can't offer retailers special prices, or throw in a few extra cases, for better shelf space. A small brand with a devoted following at a particular store will get just as much prominence as, say, more popular vodkas like Grey Goose and Ketel One.
Regulation aside, the current economic climate and our general Midwestern lack of glitz does beg the question "Why here?" –why launch a new, high end liquor brand in Michigan rather than a Chicago or New York?
The low barriers to entry because of the tight state control on liquor sales was a big reason, Rapp says. But more than that, it's the roots the two partners have in the Mitten State that made it attractive. "There's a certain vibe in Michigan -- everyone feels they know everybody. There's connections everywhere," he says. "We have a lot of networks here, it's easier and more comfortable for us."
As they gain traction the two friends are planning to gradually roll out Dragon Bleu across the Midwest. Interestingly, people from cold, wet states drink more vodka and more imported vodka, Rapp says.
Finding an audience
Winner of a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year (according to RGI's website), Dragon Bleu launched here in August, and RGI is beginning to get some re-orders, according to Rapp.
Unfortunately, recent turns in the economy haven't bode well for the premium brand alcohol. The vodka hasn't sold especially well at Holiday Market in Royal Oak, according to assistant liquor manager Adam Nickerson, but that's pretty common to new brands. It takes time to build word-of-mouth and Dragon Bleu is still in its earliest days.
Dragon Bleu's higher price point, around $32 per bottle, also doesn't help in the current economy. "We have a lot of high end vodkas, but they aren't flying off the shelves," Nickerson says. "Unless anybody has had it at a bar or at a friend's house, no one has the money to kind of test it out."
Bigger brands can spend more money on promotion and getting their product name out there, which translates to more sales in the stores. According to Nickerson, vodkas in the $15-$20 price range are selling very well while high end brands such as Dragon Bleu are taking a hit because people can't justify luxury items in the current economy.
Still, Holiday Market likes to keep the vodka in stock because any new product could suddenly take off, Nickerson says.
"We really don't turn new items down," he says. "Any new vodka could be the new trend."
Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring at Sentaur
Dragon Bleu on the rocks
Dragon Bleu served up
All photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.