JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bartender Irene Moore rushes vodka cocktails to customers at the W Honolulu on Friday, where Kai Vodka was the featured spirit.
The next ultrapremium prize?
An entrepreneur is betting that Kai Vodka has what it takes to be a big hit on the bar circuit
LIQUOR IS big business in Clubland. Bars try to push as much of the stuff as they can before last call, and the drink you order can be just as important as the clothes you wear or the car you drive when it comes to impressing the opposite sex.
Day and time: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays at the W Honolulu
'Hot Summer Nights'
Day and time: 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday at Chai's Island Bistro
One of the newest players to the ultrapremium liquor landscape is Kai Vodka, the end result of three years of planning by entrepreneur Marcus Bender. While the product is distilled in Vietnam (more on that later) and bottled in California, its heart and soul reside right here in Honolulu.
"Our base of operations is here in Hawaii, so we're a 'local' company," Bender said. "We decided to launch here because we live here."
Available in bars and nightclubs since June, the vodka is beginning to show up on local supermarket shelves. For those who don't want to spend the money on a full bottle at retail, Kai Vodka currently sponsors a weekly party at the W Honolulu and offers free tastings at various locations.
WITH MORE than 25 years of experience in the beverage industry, Bender never expected to be surprised by the quality of liquor produced by rice farmers working in Vietnam's Red River Delta.
"The way I got involved was truly by accident," he said. "A friend brought me a bottle as a gift and asked what I thought.
"I was intrigued, because I like vodka. So I ended up going over there and visiting the distillery."
What he discovered was a centuries-old tradition of producing vodka with yellow blossom rice that is exclusive to the area. Shortly after his first visit in 2004, he decided to move forward with plans to introduce the pot-distilled liquor to a wider audience.
Assembling a team of industry veterans, Bender began to conduct in-depth research into the ultrapremium vodka market. He discovered that the category was enjoying strong growth, and that more than half of all vodka is sold to women.
"That end of the business was very exciting," said Bender. "As a marketing person, if there was a premium product that could be packaged and positioned right, then I'd be riding the whole 'Asian Wave' thing that's hit the U.S."
At the same time, the vodka itself was like nothing else currently available on the market. Bender also decided to add a lychee flavor to the mix, in a nod to the females.
"Lychee was a flavor we thought people would love," he said. "We sort of have a male and a female version of Kai."
PART OF the process when bellying up to the bar is surveying the playing field in order to see what's available.
Kai Vodka's distinctive bottle makes it stand out among a sea of cylindrical sameness. Bender said it was done by design, even though the process turned out to be a bigger headache than he planned.
"The bottle has been an interesting saga," Bender said. "These things, on the face of it, don't look very complicated ... but they are."
The custom bottle is curved, with "Kai" embossed onto a textured section of the bottle. A plastic stopper helps to seal out oxygen while keeping things classy. No screw top here.
After collecting the base alcohol from Vietnamese farmers, Bender has it shipped in bulk to California using 21,000-liter stainless steel tanks. The liquor is then processed to get the right proof and run through a charcoal filtration system to give it a "final step of smoothness."
After launching in Hawaii, Bender plans to introduce Kai Vodka in California next month and nationwide shortly thereafter. He also revealed that more flavors could be introduced in the future.
"We're actually moving a lot faster than we thought we would," said Bender. "People are gravitating toward it because it's different.
"But at the end of the day, it's what's inside the bottle that counts. It's tasty!"
MAKE YOUR OWN
Recipes courtesy Kai Vodka; all cocktails are available at E&O Trading Co. To measure, use a 1-ounce shot glass, or 1 ounce of a liquid equals 2 tablespoons.
1-1/4 ounce lychee vodka
1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup
3 ounces pineapple juice
3/4 ounce dark rum float
Shake and strain ingredients into a martini glass.
3/4 ounce lychee vodka
3/4 ounce melon liqueur
1 ounce cranberry juice
Shake and strain ingredients into martini glass. Pour cranberry juice down side of the glass to create a separate layer. May also be served on the rocks.
Nutritional information unavailable.