MILWAUKEE – The vodka industry is a moneymaking machine dominated by brands like Smirnoff, Absolut and Grey Goose.
Considering the stiff competition, breaking through as a new brand can be difficult. But that didn't stop Eric Clappier and Bill Hersch from launching Griffon Brands LLC, a Milwaukee company targeting a specific niche: premium boxed straight vodka.
Clappier, owner of the design and marketing company ADX Creative, and Hersch, an entrepreneur who has 35 years of promotions experience, started Griffon Brands three years ago with the idea that they could exploit a gap in the market. While premium boxed wine already had left its mark on the market, nobody had packaged premium spirits in boxes in the United States, in part because the bags in the boxes were not yet designed to handle the alcohol content, they said.
"We didn't want to just follow and be another bottled product," Clappier said. "We wanted to really do something unique and different to the market."
The box provides numerous advantages over bottled vodka, Clappier said. The boxes can be packaged, distributed and displayed more easily and are less likely to tip over than bottles.
These advantages would make their product appealing to people looking to have vodka during summer parties, Clappier said. Additionally, the box, made from 100 percent recycled materials, is more eco-friendly than its bottle counterparts, having a 70 percent smaller carbon footprint, Hersch said.
Wanting to make sure their vodka could compete with other premium brands, Clappier and Hersch brought on Boris Nayfish, who used to work in vodka manufacturing, to advise them on the taste and help create their website.
"I just wanted to bring a little more European [perspective] because, in the United States, vodka is a mixed drink," Nayfish said. "I wanted to have our vodka taste similar to European vodka brands."
The vodka is made in Lawrenceburg, Ind., using Griffon's recipe.
Griffon's founders hope the company's launch will establish a new category in the spirits market and position them in the forefront of an emerging market. They believe they will be successful in part because "it draws people to the aisle," Hersch said.
Early indications show their product, Griffon Vault, is catching on, they said. They launched it in Wisconsin in June and then in Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota. The goal is to expand to 17 states within a year. They've managed to secure accounts with more than 50 retailers in Wisconsin and the top 25 retailers in Ohio, Clappier said.
There's no reason to think the company won't succeed, said Jerry Zavorka, vice president of sales at Capitol-Husting Co., Griffon's Wisconsin distributor.
"The product quality is there, and it's very competitively priced," he said.
The packaging concept is unique and the price point — $14 to $15.99 — would make the product appealing to a wide variety of people, Zavorka said.
Despite being the largest spirits industry in terms of sales volume, however, the vodka industry is not growing as fast as some of its counterparts like bourbon, whiskey and mescal, said Tom Pirko, president of food and beverage consulting company Bevmark LLC.
"It's a very, very difficult market to penetrate," he said.
Pirko also doubts the appeal of boxed spirits for Griffon's target audience. For the wine industry, boxes helped prevent the oxidation of wine. That problem doesn't exist in the vodka industry.
Clappier said Griffon should still be able to differentiate itself from its competitors and sees the combination of product quality and innovative packaging as a winning formula.
"It's not going to replace the glass bottle category, but within a portion of our audience, it adds just another flexibility to them, whether it's for travel or social activities," he said. "It broadens their options."