The Land of Middle Earth, Hobbits, Bungee Jumping, the Purest Water and Air in the World, and...VODKA?

Bungee Jumping High Above Queenstown, New Zealand.

42° Below Family of Pure
& Exotic Vodkas.

42° President & Founder Geoff Ross - Cutting Edge Marketer.

Australia’s Winning Team: Sebastian Raeburn, Ben Davidson, Regan Touma

Darcy Fowers of Los Angeles Mixes Helio-tini From Above

Competitors took time for Jet Boating on the Shotover River.

Editor Roy Hahn with US Journalist above Queenstown

      New Zealand vodka? Hmmm?. It just doesn’t sound quite right, does it? It certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue like Champagne from France or Sherry from Spain. When most people think of vodka regions, the names Poland, Russia or possibly Scandinavia would be the first places that come to mind.
      Well, we all better start opening our minds a little as 42 Below – the first vodka to ever be produced in the minnow Antipodean nation known as ‘the land of the long white cloud’ – is fast finding its way into the hottest bars across the globe and sitting comfortably amongst the several other vodkas now calling themselves ‘super premium’.
      The moniker of ‘super premium’ - where 42 Below positions itself - is the fastest growing spirit sector in the US. While standard vodkas (think Smirnoff, Finlandia etc) continue to decline, this relatively new band of luxury brands are a reflection of the shift in attitudes and greater awareness by consumers to buy top quality spirits.
      The rise and rise of 42 Below is quite a fascinating one. Savvy owner Geoff Ross began distilling the prototype for the spirit that he hopes will become the “most sought after vodka in the world” in his modest garage in the New Zealand capital of Wellington just over seven years ago.
      The initial idea came while watching an advertisement for American vodka on board a plane coming back from the United States.
      “My initial thought was an American vodka?’, that’s a bit strange”, quips Geoff. “America is the home of bourbon and wasn’t somewhere I would ever associate with a vodka. To me vodka needs to come from somewhere very cool, natural and pristine. I thought New Zealand had the feel of a Sweden of the South Pacific, only cleaner. So in Theory we should be able to make our own vodka”. So he did.
       After scouring the country for an active still, Geoff’s wife finally found one for sale in Auckland. They purchased it, put it in their garage and immediately got the ball rolling. After three years, the first bottles of 42 Below hit the shelves. Initially Geoff did everything from the distilling and bottling to the distribution and face to face marketing. Now he’s built a young, energetic and passionate team of individuals pushing the product across the globe.
       Although Geoff admits there were skeptics initially (which he was expecting anyway), he’s certainly the one who’s laughing now. The accolades have been coming thick and fast for these so-called ‘upstarts’, with the UK’s Independent newspaper voting it as the equal best vodka in the world (with Belvedere), as well as winning a gold medal at the World Spirit Awards this year.
      “When I said to people ‘New Zealand vodka’, some people thought I had rocks in my head”, Geoff recalls. “When I said I wanted it to be more expensive than any other vodka on the local market, they thought I’d really gone mad. If I’d researched the idea, I’m sure the research would have said don’t do it. In three years, we’ve become the highest selling super premium vodka in New Zealand”. Indeed.
      Geoff comes from an advertising background, having been a Client Service Director with global giant, Saatchi & Saatchi for eight years. It is this creative pedigree that is highlighted in a marketing strategy that is both original, cutting edge and often controversial. He’s been threatened with legal action from rival vodka companies and come under fire from various parts of the media for some of their executions. But it's all part of the grand plan, Ross admits. 
      “While working in the advertising industry, I was sick of great ideas being killed off by bureaucracy or because they were too edgy or risky. Rather than get twisted about it, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is and create my own brand. This was the initial motivation for leaving the ad world and applying those ideas to my own business. From the start I wanted to do things differently. Do them in a way that would get people talking about us. Because we are smaller than the major liquor groups, we need to do stuff that stands out. Taking risks actually works in our advantage.”
      Undoubtedly their biggest publicity stunt so far was the recently held inaugural 42 Below Cocktail World Cup, a ground breaking and innovative event that brought 32 of the finest bartenders from around the world to the ski fields of Queenstown, New Zealand to compete in a team-based cocktail competition. The idea was totally unique and the setting mesmerizing. Teams consisted of three people each, from all corners of the globe including the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. “We wanted to hold a competition with a difference,” Geoff says. “We wanted something that captured the New Zealand spirit and energy. So we decided to be as extreme as possible and put the bartenders really through their paces and hold the competition on the side of a mountain, on an ice bar.
      “Cocktail making has two elements - there is the craft of experimenting with different flavors and the stress of working under pressure. So we have weaved them both into the competition. Also, by getting together some of the best mixology minds in the world in one place, this has provided a great opportunity to encourage experimentation and the sharing of ideas and flavors.”
       Over the course of five days, the competitors took part in a whole range of extreme activities - from bungee jumping and riding in Shotover jets, to helicopter rides and skiing. If that wasn't enough, some even made cocktails while doing the activities. The highlight was certainly good sport Darcy Fowers from the Spider Lounge in LA, who balanced on the side of a helicopter in a bikini - mid flight - and made a cocktail in the process. The trip culminated in the competition proper, held al fresco on the side of Coronet Peak.
       The subzero temperatures did nothing to dampen the mood of the day, and such was the extent of camaraderie and friendship amongst the competitors and media, that I don't think anyone really cared who won by the end of the day. Of course someone had to though, and the gong went to one of the Australian teams with their drink the Killer Bee.
       The executing was remarkable on the part of the hosts and really is a credit to the ingenuity of Geoff and his team in pushing the boundaries and offering something vastly different than had previously been done anywhere. He’s already thinking about next year’s event and of course doing something that will again turn heads. By this time next year, I highly doubt if the words ‘New Zealand vodka’ will be the oxymoron it once seemed.

Naren Young is a freelance journalist who specializes in global drink trends and the liquor industry. He has written for several high profile publications around the world and currently resides in Sydney, Australia.