DC sometimes gets a bad rap for being a government town. But when you truly take a look at the people of this city, you can find some thoughtful and creative entrepreneurs. One of those people is Kevin Larkai. When it comes to entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry in The District, most people think of craft beer and wineries. But through a partnership born in Europe, Kevin has brought a new vodka to watch to the shelves of the DC spirit market. We met up with him to hear the scoop on his locally sold French liquor: Blackleaf Vodka.
Like a lot of great Washingtonians, Kevin has an interesting backstory. Born in Nigeria and raised in Bostwan, he didn’t make his way to the United States until high school where he attended school in a small town in Oregon. He eventually made it to the East Coast where he studied at George Mason for college and found a new home in Washington, DC.
So how did Kevin end up selling French vodka in Washington, DC? By chance meeting in France, Kevin met Bertrand Laclie, the owner of Maison Rene Laclie. Inspired by Laclie’s passion for spirit-making, a partnership to bring Blackleaf to the US was born.
Blackleaf Vodka gets it’s name from the desire to convey the two things that define it: premium taste and organic ingredients. Part of what makes the vodka organic is that the wheat is grown without pesticides or fertilizer. As an added bonus, the bottles feature a design with less glass than competitors.
To convey the premium positioning on the product, the Blackleaf bottle is sleek, black, and features clean lines. Organic, Kevin explains, doesn’t have to be simple or humble. In this case, organic means the product focuses on quality ingredients and minimal environmental impact, but it doesn’t compromise on a sophisticated look or taste. But an organic, premium product also doesn’t have to break the bank. Blackleaf Vodka sits at a modern price point on the shelf, generally priced between Tito’s and Grey Goose. So any dinner party or night out can get a taste of Blackleaf.
2020: A Year of New Beginnings
While 2020 has been a tough year for the food and beverage industry, Kevin has been able to explore new ways to distribute Blackleaf Vodka. Before quarantine started, he was working with a new distributor who was helping expand his distribution to liquor stores. But once the shutdown started, he didn’t know what to expect.
Kevin’s previous distribution strategy relied a lot on visiting liquor stores and providing tasting to guests. He also focused on expanding the vodka’s availability at restaurants. However, he quickly pivoted to more on online and liquor store sales. After all, people were looking for drinks for their backyard happy hours more than ever.
“I just had to persevere and keeping going,” Kevin comments when I asked him how COVID-19 has changed his business. He feels the pandemic gave him a push to explore more online sales and expand outside the restaurant market.
With help from his new distributor, you can now find Blackleaf Vodka in a number of liquor stores in DC, Maryland, and soon Delaware. Kevin can also ship nationwide with a few exceptions like Virginia and Pennsylvania. Virginia fans will have to make a quick trip to DC or Maryland for now but Kevin hopes to be in Virginia liquor stores soon.
“I like DC a lot,” Kevin comments. “There is such a great food scene here. There are so many nice places and Michelin restaurants.” While sales for home consumption are doing well, Kevin is looking forward to the days when we are all dining out together again.
When we met Kevin last year, he mixed us a few of his favorite drinks. We usually hear from marketing and other sellers that good vodka is odorless and flavorless. However, the folks at Blackleaf believe the right ingredients and distilling techniques can create unique and special flavors. We tried Blackleaf by itself before mixing cocktails and found the taste was very smooth but had a recognizable character.
Kevin’s go-to cocktail for us was the French 1889. It’s mixed with 2 oz Blackleaf, 2 oz Prosecco, 1 oz Elderflower liqueur, 1 oz lemon juice. The bubbles from the Prosecco and fruity flavors made this a perfect summer cocktail.
The Blackleaf Mule also puts a refreshing summer spin on an otherwise standard mule. A splash of grapefruit juice adds new life to this bar classic.
New for 2020, Kevin partnered with Blackleaf’s brand ambassador and beverage director at Roy Boys, Frank Mills to develop a new cocktail featuring the vodka: Black Excellence. They spent a great deal of time working to get the recipe just right. “Before, we had beet juice in there but beet juice can be polarizing,” Kevin laughs when describing the drink. Here’s the recipe to try at your next home happy hour – sans beet juice:
1.5oz Blackleaf Organic Vodka
1oz Chamomile Tea
0.5oz Pineau des Charentes
0.5oz Agave Nectar
0.25oz Yuzu Juice
1/2tsp Acivated Charcoal (1 capsule)
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe or martini glass.
You can find Blackleaf Vodka on the shelf at many DC restaurants including Roy Boys, Frenchy’s Naturel, and Unconventional Diner. Be sure to look out for bottles in a growing number of liquor stores and consider buying online. Keep up with Kevin on Instagram @blackleafvodka.