Ever since the black-ops initiative Our/Vodka opened its first distillery in the German capital Berlin in 2013, the outspoken ambition has been to build a global business through local relevance. But it takes a lot of commitment, courage and dedication to walk the walk and talk the talk. Specially if you strive to be an independent player like Our/Vodka in a major team such as The Absolut Company. Meet David Mizrahi, captain of a ship with the ambition to become a small fleet.
During the American prohibition period that lasted between 1920 and 1933, alcohol was completely banned in the US. No manufacturing, transportation, importing, exporting orselling of spirits were allowed. Of course, that didn’t stop thirsty Americans from drinking. Instead, a black market for moonshine spirits, speakeasy-bars and mob-controlled establishments blossomed in all the major cities. When the ban was lifted, things went back to business as usual in most parts of the country, except for in one location: New York City. The complicated zoning regulations in Manhattan made it (almost) impossible to open and run any local distilleries. The dry-spell lasted for a good 85 years until a bunch of Swedes decided a change was due. But the struggle was real. It took the passionate people behind the brand Our/Vodka 5 years, some 200 meetings with city officials and a change in the zoning law to be able to finally fire up the distillery pots.
And the very same passion that could impact local legislation and pave the way for artisanal spirits manufacturing in the borough of Manhattan, runs as pure as New York City tap water through the entire Our/Vodka organisation. And at the very top, CEO David Mizrahi is in control of the flow.
Could you give an elevator pitch on the story of Our/Vodka?
– Our/Vodka is an intrapreneurial venture funded by Pernod Ricard. We make spirits in our micro-distilleries located in the heart of cities, by partnering with local individuals and organization that love their city as much as we do. Currently we are operating in New York and Los Angeles with a Miami facility to open soon.
How do you find the right people to collaborate with?
– We aim to find people that have a similar set of values as we have. People that view the world in a similar way. That care about similar things. Like developing the community. Helping the environment, making the neighborhood more inclusive and better for all. This is a key element for Our/Vodkas success: to develop authentic, long lasting relationships with the community. From our neighbors, suppliers, customers and consumers to city officials and other stakeholders. We strive to make everyone in our communities feel proud of having us around. Our way of doing this is to always try to connect and interact with those around us in our “mutual love for the cities we are in”.
How do you work with creating a sense of loyalty and companionship within the organisation? There must be some specific challenges heading a company with so many operations in different countries, with different languages and different cultures?
– To begin with, at Our/Vodka I get to work with a phenomenal group of diverse people who love being entrepreneurs. I truly believe that this is the source of our resilience and cohesiveness. On my side, it’s my priority to instill a strong entrepreneurial culture in everything we do, where people feel encouraged to experiment while knowing that someone has their back. This, together with keeping our communication channels constantly open, has helped us overcome the challenges of running businesses located in different regions.
David himself is no stranger to be the odd one out in a foreign culture. Being a native Venezuelan, he is now residing with his family in the Big Apple, but his professional career has taken him from the warm Caribbean beaches of South America to the icy cold shores of northern Scandinavia.
– While completing my MBA in 2008, I asked a former colleague who worked for Absolut if I could have an internship. My application was accepted, so I packed up my life and boarded a plane to Sweden. Lucky for me, it was in the middle of the summer so, of course, I fell instantly in love with Stockholm.
Since David first joined The Absolut Company, Pernod-Ricard has acquired the business and things are now, at least partly, run from Paris, France.
But Our/Vodka has HQ’s set up in the US and is currently operating distilleries in New York and L.A on US soil.
Our/Vodka started as a black-ops within the Absolut family – how have you been supported throughout the journey of building a brand from scratch?
– We remain a black ops set up, as we are slightly removed from the corporate grid that our “sister” brands are in. I say “slightly” because we still keep ties to the larger corporation, specially when it comes to oversight and governance. For example, we have a Board of Directors with senior executives of the Pernod-Ricard organization.
How do you strategize being a small company with big financial muscles?
– We are part of Pernod Ricard group of course. But every start-up has a financial backer. Ours just happens to be Pernod Ricard. That does not mean that we have big financial muscles. It just means that we are likely never going to be late in paying therent, our suppliers or paying our team’s salaries. But that does not mean that we have the power to spend more than what our start-up business can afford.
The concept of Our/Vodka is to market small-batch spirits made in close collaboration with the local neighborhoods, nearby suppliers and produce sourced locally. This means that the location of the distillery is a key element for success. There needs to be a strong sense of community and local pride at every new destination that Our/Vodka is opening up at.
What characteristics are you looking for when deciding on expanding business into new markets in new cities?
– We are of course always looking into new possibilities to expand the business. However, our strategy is first and foremost focused on making sure the ones that are open are working well and meeting the high expectations that we have for them. We are looking for “new partners” but not for opening new cities but rather to engage in smart and interesting programs that can bring to life what our brand is all about. For example, we are partnering to launch a new product in New York in March 2020. It’s a Basil Infused Vodka produced in partnership with an organization that has a beautiful mission called Rethink NYC. We use “excess basil leaves” that are harvested in an urban farm in Brooklyn. Excess leaves means that if we had not used them, they would have very likely gone to waste. It really is a great product with a big mission –to avoid food waste. We are also exploring plans to move into other vodka infusions and perhaps even other spirts such as gin and tequila.