When Matt Levitt, director of operations for Tahoe Blue Vodka, entered his product in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge this spring, it was David versus multiple Goliaths.
The South Shore liquor company, just 1 year old, was competing against behemoths like American Harvest Organic Spirit Vodka — a product from the same company that developed Grey Goose — in the prestigious New York tasting competition. Even becoming a finalist would be a feat.
“We sent it off thinking, ‘If it’s as good as everyone says it is, maybe it will come back with an award,’” Levitt said.
Tahoe Blue Vodka not only won an award, it took home top honors in the unflavored vodka contest at what Levitt calls the “most widely recognized” spirits competition in the U.S.
The New York City-based Ultimate Beverage Challenge picks journalists and buyers for the judging panels, according to the organization’s website. The experts blind taste the products and then score each one on a 100-point scale. The category’s highest scorer takes home the Chairman’s Trophy — an award Tahoe Blue Vodka can now call its own.
“Winning a Chairman’s Trophy is huge for a fledgling brand on many fronts. One, the Chairman’s Trophy signifies that for this year’s competition, that brand showed the best qualities under totally blind and therefore fair and unbiased conditions,” Judging Chairman Paul Pacult wrote in an email.
Levitt and his business partners began developing Tahoe Blue Vodka in early 2011. He and his wife, Melody, were vacationing with another couple when they started talking about launching a brand that would embody what they loved about Tahoe.
Levitt Googled ways to start a private label liquor company and quickly realized that no comprehensive guide existed. So he continued using the Internet to find sources for items like corks, glass and, of course, vodka that he brought together to form the product.
The three-blend vodka is now distilled in Mountain View, Calif., and distributed to locations around California and Nevada. The Tahoe Blue brand speaks to the clarity and smoothness of the liquor, according to Levitt.
“You ever wake up with a product idea? This was one of the ideas that just came out of the blue,” Levitt said. “Everything that we love about Tahoe, we wanted to relate through this brand … The business was never about making the product in South Lake. We’re headquartered here, we pay taxes here, we donate money here.”
While Tahoe Blue Vodka is Levitt’s side job — he pays the bills by selling paint — he said he wants to keep expanding the company. He hopes to have Tahoe Blue Vodka on shelves throughout California and Nevada by next year and transition to running the company full-time.
“We’re one year into it and it’s selling really well. It’s a lot of work, a lot of door knocking, and it’s just a matter of spreading the word,” Levitt said. “It is what they do in (the competitor’s) case, while this is just kind of a hobby for us. That’s what makes the award all the more remarkable.”