There are many ways to celebrate April 20 — not all of them are legal.
On Friday, Alaska Distillery seeks to capitalize on the day's cannabis celebrations as it officially launches the country’s first hemp seed vodka.
“We wanted to come out with a product that was a legal product as an alternative to marijuana so people could still celebrate the movement without legal repercussions,” said Bella Coley, the company’s chief operating officer.
After three years of navigating the governmental approval process, the company received permission about six months ago from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to distill vodka from hemp seeds. The hemp seeds it uses are not produced and distributed in the U.S. Instead, they are imported from Canada.
The vodka, which is called Purgatory, will be available in all 50 states through distributors or online, where a 750 mL bottle fetches a $44.99 price tag.
On Friday, the company plans to host a kickoff party at the Chair 5 restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska, a town that Coley characterized as "hippy." It will also be featured at a Colorado party hosted by "The Hemp Connoisseur," a magazine.
Although the company has spent little on advertising beside local taste tastings, Coley has already seen strong demand for the product.
“Right now, I have like 40 pallets of it going out,” she said. This is the equivalent of 28,800 bottles.
This is a far cry from the 20 cases, which are worth about $4,500, that it sold in 2008. Sales have since exploded at the company, which now sells 14 products.
Hemp seed is hardly the company’s first foray into the niche vodka scene. Last year, the distillery’s output jumped to 5,000 cases, or $1.15 million in sales, due in part to the popularity of its smoked salmon flavor.
Overall, flavored vodka sales are booming. The segment accounts for about 27 percent of leading brand vodka volume and continues to grow in popularity as total vodka sales also rise, according to market research firm Technomic.
Coley said that Toby Foster, the distillery’s chief executive officer, is drawn to creating innovative flavors and sees it as a challenge.
“When you’re in Alaska, you were either born here, or you’re running from the law, or you’re a social pariah, and we’re all pioneers,” she said. “And it’s every man’s dream in the core of his being to be a maverick.”
While some marijuana enthusiasts may be disappointed to find out that hemp vodka does not contain any THC, one of the active ingredients in cannabis, Coley sees an additional potential customer market. Many tout the health benefits of the hemp seed, which is high in protein and contains several minerals.
“There’s a whole cult following behind it because it is one of the healthiest things you can eat,” she said. “It’s one of the most viable sources of protein that you can consume.”
As for the taste, Coley said the liquor has a very light hint of sweetness.
“It has a very herbal taste, and it doesn’t taste like what you would think marijuana would taste like, and it has a milky taste to it,” she said.