Vodka is not a drink for all palates. The novelist Tom Rachman once quipped, “Vodka is like water, but with consequences,” while comic actor Nathan Lane deadpanned, “Take a shot of vodka and hope for the best.” But the drink has its fans, plus an indefatigable local advocate in Stelios Stavrianos, founder and CEO of the Stamford-headquartered Cylinder Vodka.
In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall pulled up a barstool to talk with Stavrianos about his company and his approach to vodka.
How did you start Cylinder Vodka?
“I was bartending years ago at the age of 19 and I fell in love with the industry. I wasn’t at the legal age to drink, but when I started drinking at 21 I began really diving into the art of making alcohol and mixology. I began to wonder what it was like to make the spirit, so I started studying the art of distilling.
“I started distilling in my parents’ basement. My parents thought I was absolutely crazy, mad-scientist crazy, and I spent all of my time concocting this. That was about seven-and-a-half years ago. It took about five years to get off the ground and here we are today.”
What makes Cylinder different from the other vodkas that are on the market?
“It’s impeccably smooth. And that’s what really inspired me to create Cylinder, because a lot of vodkas on the market are extremely harsh and not easy to drink on the rocks. If you look at the finer spirits, like a good Añejo Tequila or a nice 10-year-aged bourbons, these finer spirits have a smoother finish and a rich texture, and I really didn’t think vodka had that at the time. And that’s what led me to create this and formulate this until I achieved that finish.”
I’m a bit of a snob because I prefer Russian vodka to the stuff from Scandinavia. Am I being too much of a snob thinking it is better from Russia versus elsewhere in the world?
“Everyone is different and everyone likes different things. With some people, you say ‘vodka’ and they are ‘yecch!’ They associate it with ‘harsh,’ ‘undrinkable,’ ‘petrol,’ just an unpleasant experience. I created Cylinder for those who had the idea of ‘undrinkable’ or ‘not smooth.’
“To your point, everyone has their own taste preferences. If you prefer the old country method of making it a sharper finish, that’s your preference. I drink ouzo, which is harsh — it’s as harsh as it gets. And I think if someone were to come out with a smooth ouzo, I would say, ‘What’s the point?’ I am sure there are people out in the world who would like to drink a nice-flavored spirit and not get that burn, but I grew up liking it.”
Is Cylinder only available in its Ultra Premium Vodka offering, or are there other products with flavors?
“We are working on some flavors. We are working on a jalapeño infused vodka. It’s very, very delicious.”
How did you launch Cylinder Vodka?
“I launched this while I was still working a full-time job for Merrill Lynch. I was an associate for the private wealth management team in Fairfield. I studied distilling, manufacturing and branding — and I studied distribution, but I truly didn’t understand it until I actually got my feet wet. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would walk into a liquor store and say, ‘Hey, my name is Stelios. I started this liquor company.’ It was hard at first. I think in the first six months, I had it in 20 locations. Now, we’re in about 150.
“It was a huge learning curve — it was just me and I had no help. I was with a small distribution company and I was their first spirit. They were used to selling wines and wine is a different pitch.”
And where is Cylinder available now?
“It is in on- and off-premises, about a 40% restaurant-bars and 60% retail split, which is pretty good. And we just opened our first two New York locations, but it is mostly available in Connecticut. I would say 90% of our customers are in Fairfield County.”
What is your marketing approach for Cylinder?
“Word of mouth. A lot of grassroots efforts. Going into liquor stores and doing tastings. ‘Hey, tell a friend,’ ‘Like us on Facebook,’ ‘Share us on Instagram.’ It’s about getting the consumer behind the brand and getting them passionate about it, making them consumer-based brand ambassadors.”
I assume you are no longer distilling this in your parents’ basement?
“We have a distillery in Michigan. We’re a Connecticut-based company and we have property in Stamford where we are building a tasting room and it will hopefully be open in four months. We are looking to have a distillery in Stamford, but that’s probably a year out.”
What is the vodka market like? Is this a very competitive market?
“Oh, my God. The most. Absolutely the most competitive industry and category.
“If you open a distillery and want to start with a bourbon, from start to finish, it takes time. From formulation to filling a bottle and giving it to a consumer, it could be years. At minimum, one year. What do you make in the meantime? Vodka! Vodka takes a few days to make from fermentation to filling the bottle. You can have it in the consumer’s hand in a week. So, a lot of distilleries start with vodka because it was an easy entry into the market. For me, it was different because I found a passion in trying to create a vodka that I enjoyed.”
How did you finance the company’s creation?
“I started this company from my life savings. I’m not a millionaire, I didn’t have VC money backing me. It was very hard pushing this out on the public in a very organic and grassroots effort, rather than pumping up millions of dollars in ads and hoping that it catches.”
Are you planning to go into other spirits?
“We are working on two brands. One is a nonalcoholic beverage, but I can’t really speak on it. The other is a rum content that incorporates technology and it’s a really cool concept. We’re very slowly, very conservatively working on brands that we think will push innovation in the market.”