Exclusiv Vodka: Can a Good Spirit Be Too Cheap To Succeed?

I tried Exclusiv Vodka last night. It’s a inexpensive cheap vodka from Moldova, just ten bucks for a 750 ml bottle. I wish I didn’t know it was that cheap before I tasted it, but since I did, I might as well judge it both on its innate quality (as I perceive it) as well as on more superficial factors, like how cool it seems. To start with the latter, it’s a handsome bottle (pictured, lying on a satin sheet, waiting to be ravished), with a silver, blue, and black color scheme and relatively straightforward labeling, including a stylized x in the name and a small engraved, oddly-shaped polar bear. It’s not handsome like a bottle of Grey Goose, but has the right silhouette. When I cracked it open for the first time I was suprised at how flimsy the cap felt in my hand. They clearly picked the cheapest cap in the cap catalog. All the more money to put into the liquid.

I drank it in the form of a vodka martini, which, in my case, just means drinking super-cold vodka in a chilled martini glass. It’s very easy to drink, with none of the harsh astringency I associate with cheap vodka. The first couple of sips have a defined sweet edge. As for tasting notes? Well, there are none. It’s vodka. It tastes like the philosophical definition of nothing, which is one more reason it succeeds. It’s what vodka should be, a crisp breeze that enlivens the senses, conjuring a variety of flavors in the mind if not on the palate, then disappears without a trace. For a brief moment there’s pear, melon, grape, a touch of honey. Then, nothing. Outer space. It’s a fine vodka, and I enjoyed it very much. But is it too cheap to succeed? 

Among all spirits, pricing for vodka is the most out of whack, and blind taste tests can yield any number of results. Yet, living in the world we do, where the actual goodness of a thing is just one part of the total value proposition (please punch me for saying that), it raises a more difficult question. Suppose Exclusiv is among the best quality vodkas on the market? Would it follow that, at $10 a bottle, it will soon be the number 1 vodka in America? Good stuff + low price = win. Right? 

After all, it has the vodka bona fides. It’s from Moldova, which gives it the authenticity of being from the Russian Empire but also a soupçon of exoticism, since nobody’s ever had Moldovan vodka over here before. It’s made from "winter wheat" which is the first harvest of the year, where the grain has a natural sweetness that has developed under the cover of snow. And the water used in it is really clean, something about being filtered through limestone mountains. It’s won a couple of awards, including Double Gold in the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which sounds like a big deal.

And it tastes good. It passes the martini test, and would cruise along just fine as a vodka in any cocktail recipe. And the bottle looks cool enough. You probably wouldn’t see this in a bottle service setup at No. 8, but if you present it nicely enough in your home bar, people will be impressed. Bust it out at midnight when the party’s in full swing and nobody’s looking at labels and you’re a hero. It would make a nice enough rail vodka at a bar, too, and probably deserves better. But the rail’s a lucrative space.

But will people trust a $10 vodka to be good, even with people like me saying it is? Well, maybe. Two-buck Chuck wine was a huge hit, and I had some that was awful. Exclusiv is far better. When I’m at a bar and order a vodka martini, I tend to lean toward Stoli, but I think all the premium brands – Ketel One, Belvedere, Grey Goose – are nice. Yet, if I knew I could get an Exclusiv martini for five bucks less than a name-brand martini, I’d probably go for it. They all look the same in the glass, so nobody but me and the bartender would know. 

So, Exclusiv Vodka is a bargain at $10 a bottle. The name might be a bit of a misnomer, but I’ll take it all the same. Will you? 

Industry Insiders: John Meadow & Curt Huegel; Partners, LDV Hospitality

John Meadow (left) and Curt Huegel (right), the partners behind LDV Hospitality, have never been busier. As the duo responsible for such hot spots as Veritas in New York, American Cut at Revel Resorts in Atlantic City, and Scarpetta, which has locations all over the country, they’re on a tear, but they always maintain the quality of their various venues. Their latest must-visit spot is No. 8, an upscale Chelsea nightclub they opened with Amy Sacco that carries on the tradition of the legendary Bungalow 8. We chatted with the hospitality duo to find out how they keep sky-high standards across their growing portfolio of properties.

Where are you from?

John Meadow: I grew up in Connecticut and went to Choate Rosemary Hall and Cornell hotel school.

Curt Huegel: I was born in New Jersey and lived in 16 different places by the time I graduated from high school, including Chestertown, Maryland (twice) and Arlington, Virginia. My mother was a decorator – she would buy fixer-up houses and I knew when she finished the bedroom we were moving.

How did you get into the restaurant business?

Meadow: My first job was at the Plaza Hotel in the food and beverage program. It was tough grind, but also very exciting to work in such an iconic company in the center of it all. My family was right around the corner growing up, and we’d always go to the Plaza for Easter.

Huegel: I have always been in the hospitality business – I worked my way through college waiting tables and after graduating I owned my first bar in New York City on the Upper East Side and never went on a job interview.

Meadow: It was important for me to own my own business. I was 24 and I met Curt and we opened a bar together called Local on 33rd and Eighth with some other partners. It was a grand slam. Then I left and opened a place called Gin Lane in the Meatpacking District. Gin Lane was a tragedy – I lost everything. There was lots of hype and lots of celebrity, and then it was tragically out of business. I learned a lot from the experience.

What made you decide to launch LDV Hospitality and what was that process like?

Huegel: I had always been in the bar and restaurant business, and the reason for forming LDV Hospitality was the natural progression from doing one-off restaurants. We wanted to create a hospitality company that would fill a void. LDV Hospitality’s first project was partnering with Scott Conant to form Scott Conant Management and open Scarpetta in the Meatpacking District in 2008. We learned that choosing your partnership wisely is paramount to your success in this business.

Meadow: We went on to do Veritas, where we brought in (executive chef) Sam Hazen. Veritas was awarded a Michelin star and got a three-star review in The New York Times. Then we developed the new Revel projects in Atlantic City, Azure, American Cut, and Lugo Caffe—the original location of Lugo is at One Penn Plaza. We wanted to do something on a more accessible, commercial level. It’s a heartfelt, passionate project at a level that’s attainable to the masses, yet with the same level of true hospitality of our other places. That’s largely the future of our business. American Cut and Lugo are the brands we want to run with now.

How’s are the Revel properties going so far?

Huegel: Things are going very well and we believe that the three restaurants that we opened at Revel – American Cut, Azure, and Lugo Caffé – are on par with any other restaurant in any casino or hotel project in the world.

Tell me about No. 8.

Meadow: For our last, most exciting deal, we partnered with Amy Sacco for No. 8. Amy represents an organic, real aspect of social life in the city. It’s very organic, it’s very natural, and it feels like New York City. There’s no shakedown to get you to spend $10,000 on a table. You’re either on that guest list or you’re not, there’s no negotiation at the door. As with all of our businesses, we take care of our guests. It’s working. It’s going great.

With so many different bars and restaurants to oversee, what’s an average day like for you? Do you go to an office or do you divide your time between the venues?

Huegel: My average day is long. With so many venues to oversee you have to believe in your staff – we have a director of operations that we trust implicitly. Our time is split between the office and venues and we visit them at night to see them in action as often as possible.

Many people have tried and failed to do what you do. What advice would you give to a young person interested in owning and operating upscale restaurants and lounges like yours?

Huegel: The hospitality business has to be something that you love and are passionate about. It picks you, you don’t pick it. One simple secret to success is to always be striving to exceed your guests’ expectations.

Meadow: It’s either all buzzwords, or you make it something real. We’ve created a team of empowered individuals and we’ve been aggressive about developing a brand.

London Opening: Buddha-Bar

The veritable epitome of pre-Millennium glitz, glamour, and decadence, the Buddha Bar brand represented all the swinging internationalism of the onset of a bright new century. Alas, its London outpost fell victim in 2010 to the sobering, post-2008 reality. But just as we witness the resurrection of the Beatrice Inn and Bungalow 8 in New York, the London Buddha-Bar has risen anew in Knightsbridge, its globally-visioned grooviness fully intact.

Cheeky cocktails like Oh My Dog!!! and the Heart of Darkness (we’ll spare you the Colonel Kurtz quotes) complement the sort of sexy, elaborate pan-Asian treats so beloved before the comfort food onslaught. The decor, naturally, is gloriously extravagant, a sensual overload of neo- Colonialism, Oriental baroque, and, well, lots of flashy 21st Century lighting. Buddha, naturally, also makes an appearance, this being his kind of hang.