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Contrarian vodka maker charts its course

Dan Sherman

When David van de Velde worked for Holland America Line, he was entrusted with piloting cruise ships through rough seas and all kinds of inclement weather.

That experience of staying the course through choppy conditions serves him well in the unpredictable and fiercely competitive business of liquor distribution.

As owner and president of Luctor International for the past 20 years, van de Velde has guided the Reno importer past the rocks of competitive attacks and fickle consumer demand to emerge as an award-winning supplier of super premium vodkas and gins.

“We like to be bold and go against tradition,” said van de Velde.

“Whatever the rest of the field is doing, we do the opposite.”

Going against the grain, as it were, is evidenced in the stylized bottles of gin and vodka van de Velde produces under the Van Gogh label.

“Every day a new vodka comes on the market,” said van de Velde.

“It’s a flood of product.We had to be different.”

Van Gogh vodka is produced in Holland and shipped in bottles decorated with three-dimensional Van Gogh paintings.

“We had a unique name, Van Gogh,” said van de Velde.

“We had a unique vodka made in a 150- year-old distillery in small batches by people who have done this their whole lives.We needed a unique bottle.”

The Dutch native and former sea captain devised a manufacturing process requiring artisans and raw materials from five countries and a handful of patents.

“It takes three months to make one of our bottles,” said van de Velde.

“We start with glass from Germany, because that’s the only place you can get ‘virgin glass’ which has not been mixed with colored glass.”

“We then take our bottles to Paris, where they are etched.We designed a patented process that involves wrapping the center of the bottle in plastic first, then burning it off, leaving a clear space where the paintings can be added.”

From there the bottles go to Belgium where they are silk screened in 12 colors.

Then they meet up in the Holland distillery with corks specially created in Portugal that have been freeze-dried to prevent crumbling.

And that’s all before a single drop of vodka enters the picture.

Just like their namesake, the Van Gogh team thinks about color and visual impact.

“Presentation is everything,” said van de Velde.

“Especially in the food and beverage business.

Consumers demand the best.

And they’re always looking for the next thing.”

Staying ahead of consumer demand led van de Velde to plunge headfirst into the world of flavored vodkas.

“There were some out there,” said van de Velde, “but the flavors weren’t bold.

They ‘sort of ‘ tasted like chocolate or apple.We wanted our flavors be so bold that you would say, ‘Oh boy, that’s chocolate!”

Van Gogh rolled out seven flavored vodkas: lemon lime, orange, raspberry, vanilla, apple, chocolate and pineapple.

The nearest competitors in terms of number of flavors is Stoli with five and Absolut with four.

The flavored vodkas drew high praise from industry experts, along with awards and recommendation from the industry chronicler, The Spirit Journal.

“When it comes to innovation and doing things properly from start to finish with a product,” said Journal editor Paul Pacult, “few people in the world of distilled spirits have impressed me more than David van de Velde.

His vodkas and gins are production and marketing textbooks not only in attention to detail but in flair and a sense of fun.” With recognition in the vodka world growing like hayfields for Van Gogh, van de Velde went out searching for the next marketing frontier, and he found it in the martini.

“We made the best vodka we could, so we set out to create the perfect martini,” said van de Velde.

“Our distillery in Holland also makes liqueurs, so we came out with a line of the first vodka-based liqueurs which are a perfect marriage with our vodkas.”

Calling his concoction the “balanced martini,” van de Velde suggests blending his vodkas and liqueurs together since they have the same vodka alcohol and base ingredients.

He has rolled out liqueurs flavored with apple, raspberrychocolate, Dutch chocolate, triple sec and vanilla.

The marketing leverage of having his own liqueurs is a bonus.

“When we call on a customer, we sell a bottle of Van Gogh vodka and throw in a bottle of Van Gogh liqueur.

It’s a great added value that really gets their interest.”

What’s next for van de Velde and Van Gogh vodkas? What uncharted waters will he steer his company into? Only van de Velde knows for sure.

For he, like every single one of us, is the captain of his fate.

Shaken not stirred …

The name is Bond.

James Bond.

If you have a hankering to say those words over an icy cold Van Gogh vodka martini, there are many establishments in this area you can do it in … but only one serves 102 different kinds of martinis.

That’s Roxy’s Bar in Reno’s Eldorado Hotel.

Behind the bar most nights you’ll find Manager Donovan Finch, who contributed recipes to the Van Gogh Martini Recipe Book.

“We serve a good amount of Van Gogh Vodka here,” said Finch.

“It’s a high-end premium product and our guests seem to like it.”

Ask Finch to concoct a Euro- Cosmopolitan, and he will blend the following: 11/2 oz Van Gogh Vodka 1/2 oz.

Cointreau 1/4 oz fresh Lime juice 1 oz Cranberry juice.

Roxy’s will supply the martinis.

You bring the cloak and dagger.