Choose the most competitive spirits category to create a new product in, aim to create something unique and of the highest quality, and do THAT independently without the backing of any big corporate players in the largest market in the world.
Well that’s what the team at Diamond Glacier 33 Vodka from California, USA set out to do.
I had the pleasure of dining with it’s founders, Marilyn and Scott Robbins during my visit to San Francisco earlier this year. Cheekily I invited them for Gin Martinis for pre-dinner cocktails and we enjoyed a great dinner afterwards, and it was fascinating to hear of the challenges they have as an independent craft distillery, and they were also brilliant company.
But before we dive into the making of their singular spirit, let me set the scene for you in terms of the US market.
Smirnoff is currently the world’s leading vodka brand with sales volume of about 25.5 million 9 litre cases in 2016 and accounts for something like 20 percent market share in the USA. I know right? There are also literally hundreds of vodka brands out there, and then some, aggressively marketed, so even getting retail or on-premise expose is a challenge, even in a big place like the US.
They’re not just competing against the biggest players in the market, the dynamic American craft spirits industry has enjoyed a growth of over 20% new entrants each year with some 1800 craft distillers in the USA and over 150 in California alone.
They won Double Gold in the 2018 SIP Awards and Consumer Choice award at the same awards in 2019
So, like I said, a brave play, but this is California and that’s how they roll.
(You can also learn more about the journey in this article about Marilyn and the involvement of women in distilling on the Sip Awards blog, where they were awarded Double Gold in the 2018 Awards.)
Let’s cut right to it, Vodka marketing is known for its bling and exaggeration shall we say. So the Diamonds, are they really a thing?
The Diamonds are definitely a “thing”. At first we were skeptical especially Scott who having been in the jewelry business years ago, knows diamonds are inert and one of the hardest substances on earth. So how in the world can they be a filter medium?
Well picture if you will 120 carats of commercial castoff raw diamonds. Diamond shards otherwise relegated to the tip of a drill bit or some industrial grade sandpaper. Now enclose them in a glass tube and press vodka through them.
So what exactly are the diamonds filtering? They are filtering carbon. Like most distillers, carbon is a commonly used medium for cleaning and purifying distillates and it does an amazing job doing so. However, what we found was that very low levels of the carbon are leached off and sent down stream with the “final” product.
By placing the Diamond filter in that downstream path we now have a carbon catch. like all science knowing a little can make a big difference. Carbon and Diamonds are very similar molecularly speaking. Minus a 1000 years of heat and pressure. Like things tend to attract and that is precisely what happens.
So, can you can share that moment of inspiration when you thought, let’s make a super premium Vodka?
As for the AHAAA moment, it started with a conversation over a couple of drinks. The conversation went like thousands of similar conversations had by thousands of entrepreneurs opining about the state of business.
While most liquors rise and fall in popularity over time, vodka is the one liquor that has remained at the forefront and has rarely if ever fallen below 25% of all liquor consumed world wide. Testament to this is the thousands of brands that occupy that space. SOOO, this is going to be a very uphill battle if we don’t make something that moves the needle.
Realising that there had not been a truly premium vodka added to the landscape in over 10 years, we decided our niche was going to be making the best possible product regardless of cost. No longer should vodka be relegated to the freezers of the world.
We were going to start a vodka revolution. So we set about sourcing ingredients and experimenting for over a year. Different yeast, different fermenting ingredients, different temperatures, etc etc.
How did you go about developing your Diamond Glacier Vodka?
Being keenly aware that the quality of our water plays as big a role in the final flavor profile as almost any other single ingredient. We set about sourcing some of the purest water on the planet. That search led us to the Olfus region of Iceland. There in resides a millennia old glacier protected and monitored by the Icelandic government.
This renewable resource has been utilized by high end cosmetic companies for its mineral content and global water companies vie for a percentage of the sweet nectar. The glacier melts through volcanic rock and pools approximately 33 meters below the surface(hence our name).
Pure and untouched this natural glacier spring is captured at the source by a zero carbon facility powered by geothermal and hydroelectric power.
Never touched never filtered.
The final moment….After all the testing, experimenting and sourcing…had we done it? Was it what we had hoped? We collectively held our breath and tasted our latest batch. Eureka!
What the other batches had been missing came together and the combination of our proprietary distilling and filtering process and our world class ingredients had created a truly premium spirit in every sense of the word.
Was it a nervous, but exciting, moment to debut your Vodka?
What now? We have an amazing product in a attractive bottle, how do we get people to drink it?
Having been a consultant in the retail channel for many years my husband Scott was quickly able to put together a retail approach and within just a few short months we were in approx. 150 retail locations and then added more the following season.
Currently we are available in California only, but we are expanding into Nevada and then Arizona and Texas. Our retail partners in California are BevMo and Total Wine and More.
Next we needed the on premise bars and restaurants to carry us and that is where being independent becomes and issue. While especially in California, people love the handcrafted small batch concept, business owners are not often willing to give up the convenience of the large liquor distributors.
To combat that, we have begun building our social media following and have entered and won several global competitions. Last year we won a double gold in the SIP awards which is consumer judged. Also, we sponsor several charity events, when you start a business you don’t think about this but it has increased awareness of our young brand and has been a highlight in our personal journey to give back in ways we never thought of.
By increasing our name recognition, we encourage our followers to ask for 33 at their respective bars and restaurants. Once the buzz is created, we just keep feeding it.
While this business is full of amazing people, it is not for the faint of heart. Marketing and a huge budget can make you famous almost overnight. But growing organically and as a small family run business, you have to put in the time and sweat. The light at the end of the tunnel may be a train coming at you, but it can also be the way forward.
Keeping faith in your team and your product is paramount. Moving forward we will engage with the investor community and then the real push nationwide can occur. In the meantime, we continue to meet and network with incredible people and groups and the total experience remains both super exciting and super scary at the same time. As the saying goes “if it doesn’t scare you it’s not worth doing”.
- Nose: Slightly aromatic, no volatility from the alcohol is present, very clean.
- Neat: Noting this spirit is based on corn, as opposed to wheat or another grain, this is evident in a lightly textured and some creaminess on the palette. A lingering finish with no spirit burn or astringency. Overall very subtle and thoughtful.
- Martini: Clearly this would be a go-to way of enjoying this vodka. My general rule is with a spirit, don’t let the vermouth compete with it, so with this subtle vodka, I went very, very light on the Dry Vermouth (1:10 ratio) in both a twist or an olive version. I thought the twist spoke better to the flavour profile and balanced the rounded mouth feel of the spirit, excellent, hard to fault. Naturally, you’ll want to enjoy this very, very chilled.
Despite the gin craze globally, vodka is the market category to beat for sheer volume and sales. To go up again so much competition and carve out some of that for yourself takes both guts and vision.
Not just that, but in a spirit category, that let’s face it, has a bad rap for bling and being marketing led rather that the quality of the product itself, this is a first class release that backs up it’s brand promise.
The care that has gone into its development and production isn’t just for the label, Diamond Glacier is a first rate vodka that presents and tastes like a first class spirit is it, and one that can hold it’s own against any other super premium vodka.
4.5 / 5 stars