Old Dominion Spirits President and CEO A. Townsend Lunsford, Jr. isn’t a vodka drinker. At least he wasn’t before he and a few buddies gathered around a table to contemplate his plan to enter the business of producing spirits.
The Warrenton, Va. native and VMI alumnus still fancies himself a wide-chested bourbon man, and if the spirits aging process was less intensive, he’d likely be telling me about his latest whiskey. Instead, he’s celebrating locally-owned Belle Vodka’s emergence in the industry.
“Everyone says it’s so doggone smooth,” Lunsford explained. “But ironically, the vodka in the Belle bottle was picked by bourbon drinkers. When we were doing the blind tastings, I got all my buddies to help. I look back on it, and realize they were all bourbon drinkers. I thought, ‘Son of a bitch.’ But nobody had any preconceived notions, and no one had any favorite vodka they were comparing it to. Everyone just picked the best tasting vodka and it’s in that bottle.”
The bottle he describes is crystal glass with a frosted aesthetic. Even the term “belle” elicits the Southern charm Lunsford speaks with, and the logo alludes to this with a subliminal image of a woman with bright lipstick and a large sunhat. A liter of the vodka is currently available for $23.99, and is newly available in DC this month.
When asked about their sales approach, Old Dominion’s Regional Sales Manager Billy Reilly says, “We’re looking at a multi-tiered program. What’s good about this vodka is that it’s back-shelf friendly and front-rail promotable. It’s a good brand at the right time in a waning vodka market. We want to give the old brands a good run.”
Reilly is the prototypical salesman, with a booming voice and infectious charisma. He’s focused on capturing the eye of mixologists and spirit professionals with Belle – and with his experience in the industry and knowledge of the DMV.
“It’s been a fantastic journey [for me] the last 30 years, and now it’s time to take this brand to the top,” Reilly says. “This area is the right place at the right time in bar history and mixology to make this run.”
Still, buyers tend to lean in favor of purchasing brands they’re familiar with, which makes it tough for newcomers to keep up with the staples of any industry with immediacy. However, Lunsford is confident in the product, and knows people who try Belle enjoy the smooth spirit.
“We’re so new,” he says. “People that enjoy it and like it buy it. Plus, bartenders are always looking for something new that they can work with namewise. For instance, you can’t put Bacardi in a ‘Jingle Belle’ at Christmas, and you can’t put Grey Goose in a ‘Hell’s Belles’ at Halloween.”
With expansions into North Carolina and West Virginia underway, Lunsford knows he’s entering the ring with the heavyweights of the industry. This is why he often goes back to the bottle’s presentation, because it’s stunning craftsmanship proves the product can hold its own on a shelf in your local liquor store, or in a dimly lit nightclub for the tastemakers of any city.
“It’s a big market and I don’t mind competition. I thrive on it. We’re looking forward to that. We’re puppies compared to those guys, but puppies grow up to be dogs. I did not build and design this to be a local brand – we want to grow.”
Lunsford’s original plan to make a splash on the spirits scene dates back to 2007, but the project was put on hold until 2012 because of “life.” A busy career selling corporate jets took this former football player around the world, but Lunsford was determined to pursue the business.
“Life sort of got in the way back then, but I knew I was going to restart as soon as I could. Once it’s in you, it’s in you. Where we are positioned right now, having two of the top three distributers in the country, Breakthru and RNDC, as partners, we are very fortunate and excited.”
To coincide with the expansion in availability, Lunsford has also begun to undertake sponsorship opportunities such as horse races and boxing events, and Belle is now the featured vodka at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va. For the history buff, these happenings are right up his alley.
“We do polo and a lot of charity work, and we’re hoping to be a sponsor for some races,” he says. “If you look back [from] a historical standpoint, what were the biggest sports in the 40s, 50, 60s and 70s? Boxing and flat-track racing. What’s old is new again. I don’t think those [sports] will go away, so we’re going to try to work with those industries.”
Lunsford plans to build a distillery in Fauquier County by the end of next year, and to expand to the bourbon market in the foreseeable future. Though one would think it would be difficult to match a name as clever as “Belle,” Lunsford assures me he already has an idea.
For now, he’s keeping his cards close to his chest. Perhaps for his bourbon, Lunsford will get a group of vodka drinkers to pass samples around, until Old Dominion Spirits gets it just right.
Belle Vodka is currently available in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina and will launch in DC and Maryland this month. Photos shot at POV prior to DC launch. For sales inquiries, please call Billy Reilly at 202-439-2001 or email him at [email protected]