Lifelong Florida resident Mark W. Smith blended business and pleasure with a midlife career switch and is now poised for a significant surge in one of the most bloodthirsty rivalries of the beverage industry – the vodka market.
Smith founded Perfect 1864 Vodka in the mountains of France in 2004 and, along with Regional Manager Anabelle Espinal, promotes the vodka grass-roots style wherever parties and people meet in Palm Beach and around the world.
“I couldn’t get the name ‘Perfect’ out of my head,” Smith said, recalling his initial impression of the vodka. “It was an international brand, I love to travel, and I like the South of France. I didn’t really enjoy all my other companies and I thought it would be a great way of life.”
Newly named Vice President of National Sales Director, Ernest W. Brodbeck, Sr. is “the perfect marketing acquisition for our premium brand,” Smith said. As former V.P. of Nolet Spirits Brodbeck introduced Ketel One Super Premium Vodka to the US market and said he hopes to “reach new heights and revenue growth” for the Perfect 1864 brand.
A Tale of Two Vodkas
After a series of successful businesses, including a financial planning firm, a charter boat business and an employee leasing enterprise, Smith became intrigued by a client’s story of the ‘Perfect’ vodka made in the monasteries of France in the 1980s. Several shiploads were sent to Russia but the business dissolved after the collapse of communism there.
In 2004, at the age of 47 Smith plunged into the venture with a renewed Perfect 1864 Vodka trademark, a considerable monetary investment and an uncompromising search for a distillery that could live up to the ‘Perfect’ name. He shipped four leading brands of vodka to five distilleries in France, challenging them to create vodka equal in quality to those he’d sent over.
The Perfect Distillery
Smith flew to France to tour the five distilleries but was initially disappointed with the results.
“I didn’t see anything perfect,” Smith said. “I told myself I didn’t want to be just another vodka on the market with a name. If it’s not true, how are you going to call it ‘Perfect’?”
Then Smith arrived at the final distillery, the Grandes Distilleries Peureux, located in the town of Fougerolles in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. The distillery was founded in 1864 by Auguste Peureax who codified the traditions of the master distillers of the region and later gained distinction for its fruit brandies as well as its wild Morello cherries macerated in liqueur and Kirsch syrup known as Griottines®. Eager to launch a line of vodka, distillery President Bernard Baud assured Smith he could create a liquor superior to the samples Smith had sent.
“It was really looking like a fairy tale,” Smith said, recalling the distillery’s 400 stainless steel tanks and pristine floors.
The final blend includes filtered soft wheat certified by millers of Brie-Champagne whose customs of quality date back centuries. The fermented wheat wort is distilled five times and filtered locally by the distillery to approximately 192 proof – nearly pure vodka. Spring water from the Vosges Mountains is added reducing the vodka to 80 percent proof. No charcoal filters are needed to clarify flavor, according to Smith.
Sink or Swim Vodka Marketing
Once the tanks were full Smith focused on marketing his new vodka grass-roots style. Though The International Wine and Spirits Record (IWSR) noted a decline in worldwide vodka consumption for the first time in a decade in a recent report, it indicated a ‘growth in cocktail culture’ in the U.S. and Canada despite the economic downturn. Up against popular competitors with deep pockets and celebrity endorsements, Smith’s greatest struggles were yet to come.
“I did 42 different renditions of the bottle,” Smith said. “My original business card had a fleur de lis, which is a flower that lives in the swamp, so it never drowns when the flood waters come. The symbol was also used by French Royalty. It was the perfect logo.”
Florida distributor Legacy Imports joined forces with Perfect 1864 Vodka in 2005, choosing New Orleans for the site of the North American launch. Tragically, a month before the unveiling Hurricane Katrina made landfall giving the fleur de lis its first opportunity to sink or swim.
“We went to New Orleans and helped start a charity, The Crescent City Restaurant Rebirth Project, a nonprofit organization helping the hospitality community, and out of that, Mayor Nagin gave us the proclamation for the Perfect Day, every April 20th,” Smith said.
With a 6-foot inflatable bottle as mascot the ‘Perfect’ team promotes its namesake with taste tests and specialty drinks at hot spots, charities and events like The Salsa Music Awards, The Grand Prix in Monaco and The Cannes International Film Festival. The brand was recently positioned in the upcoming Showtime series ‘Ocean Heat Miami’ and a movie in development, called ‘A Perfect Martini.’ This year the brand, which retails for about $35, became available in five new states and has attracted the attention of larger liquor distributors.
“Now, it’s about brand recognition. What I’ve done here in Palm Beach County, I want to duplicate in Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans.”
But when will Smith know that he’s reached perfect success?
“When everybody in Russia is drinking it, when it rolls off peoples’ tongues,” Smith said. “Instead of saying ‘Absolut’ or ‘Grey Goose’ they say, ‘Give me a Perfect.'”
Agata Andrazejczak, iwsr.co.uk/
Marisela D’Baldriche, marketwire.com