FEATURE — Fall 2009

(Photo: Jennifer Weisbord, BFA ’92)

A Moving Spirit

Mixing up more than his legal career, alumnus David Mandell creates a vodka infused with caffeine and guarana. To top it off, he launches a wildly successful ultra-premium liquor business, The p.i.n.k. Spirits Company.

by C.B. Adams

“Pink, it’s the color of passion / ’Cause today it just goes with the fashion.” — Aerosmith

Although “Pink” the song was not written about p.i.n.k. the ultra-premium clear vodka, it could well be the liquor’s theme song. Proof can be found in how the company markets itself: “Just like our consumers, p.i.n.k. vodka is versatile, fashionable, and extravagant. p.i.n.k. is sophisticated, sexy, and has a playfully naughty side. From investment bankers, to designers, to hip-hop artists, p.i.n.k. appeals to the individual with an appetite for quality and who enjoys living to the fullest.”

The idea for p.i.n.k. vodka, which is the world’s first 80-proof vodka infused with flavorless guarana and caffeine, was distilled by David Mandell, AB ’96, recent president and CEO of The p.i.n.k. Spirits Company. p.i.n.k. is an acronym, but no one inside or outside the company will tell what it stands for.

Alumni Daniel Linde (left) and David Mandell were roommates at Washington University. They were together again the night the idea for p.i.n.k. vodka was hatched. Mandell became president and CEO of The p.i.n.k. Spirits Company, and Linde, COO and CFO. The two sold the company this past February. (Courtesy Photo)

Mandell remembers exactly where and when the idea came to him. In 2004, he was meeting a friend and former Washington University roommate Daniel Linde, AB ’96.

“We were out at the Skybar in Los Angeles, drinking what everybody else around us was drinking, a Red Bull and vodka. After a few drinks, I said to Dan, ‘You know what we’re trying to do here? We’re trying to make a cocktail that doesn’t make us tired,’” Mandell says. “My parents’ generation would have a glass of wine or a cocktail and follow it with a cup of coffee. This younger generation was essentially doing the same thing by combining vodka with Red Bull.”

For the next two years, Mandell spent his evenings and weekends investigating and assessing the plausibility of creating a new product that combined the punch of alcohol with the uplift provided by caffeine and guarana, a berry grown in the northern region of Brazil and Venezuela. Guarana contains a natural herbal component similar to caffeine, but it lasts longer in the bloodstream.

Mandell located a distillery in Zoetermeer, Holland, that would produce the handcrafted vodka. He found Florida Bottlers, a firm that would infuse the vodka with a flavorless, colorless proprietary blend of caffeine and guarana, developed by one of the world’s leading flavoring companies. He also worked with one of the top U.S. design firms and a leading decoration company from France to create a 750 ml bottle with a signature “pink glow.” This glow results from a unique decoration process that combines organic pink inks on a white frosted inorganic coating.

(Courtesy Photo)

“After two years, I had done all the research and put all the pieces together. Nobody was doing this and nobody had done it. It was at that point when I said, ‘Look, am I going to give this a shot?’” he says.

There is more to p.i.n.k.’s story than Mandell’s decision to launch a new vodka. To put it into context, it is important to know that Mandell was enjoying a satisfying and lucrative career as a lawyer. He was in his fourth year as the chief of staff for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a $14 billion agency with approximately 50,000 employees. Before that, he spent several years as a corporate litigator (he holds a JD from Temple University) and served as counsel to the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“I enjoyed the practice of the law, and it was certainly a wonderful, short career that led me to some other great things,” Mandell says. “I was not necessarily interested in being an entrepreneur, but as someone who is creative, I am always thinking, always looking [for opportunities]. This served me well as I decided to launch p.i.n.k.”

He was not alone in this endeavor. With the blessings of both his FAA boss and his wife, Alison, Mandell convinced Linde, the man who had witnessed the birth of the idea, to join the company as COO and CFO. They moved to New York, leased a small, two-bedroom apartment to serve as headquarters, and launched The p.i.n.k. Spirits Company on May 1, 2006.

“We learned the business bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, special event to special event. We were selling the product, getting out there, setting up events, breaking them down, and literally promoting it every day,” Mandell says.

“We learned the business bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, special
event to special event. We were selling the product, getting out there,
setting up events, breaking them down, and literally promoting it every day,” Mandell says.

During the next two years, they built the company to 27 employees with distribution to 44 states and five international markets. Along the way, p.i.n.k. Spirits received most of the industry’s top awards. Wine Enthusiast Magazine rated the vodka as a “Superb” spirit, gave it a “Highly Recommended” rating of 90-95, and named it one of the top 50 spirits of 2007. The company was given the 2006 American Graphic Design Award and the 2006 Beverage Dynamics Award for its cutting-edge bottle design. It also earned the 2007 American Corporate Identity Award for dynamic bottle design. The Beverage Information Group gave it the “Rising Star” growth brand award in 2008 and 2009 and presented it with 11 Beverage Dynamics Advertising and Promotions awards in 2007 and nine in 2008.

“We cut through the clutter. There had been some 250 new vodkas introduced just in the last couple of years in the United States, but we stood out from the pack,” Mandell says.

Mandell ensured p.i.n.k. positioned itself well by hiring strong public relations firms that traditionally had not promoted liquor clients. “We went to firms that handled celebrity and fashion because we wanted to build the brand around fashion. We chose and sponsored events very strategically, with the right celebrities, to get good press coverage,” he says.

For instance, when designer Donna Karan recently launched her new fragrance, Delicious Night, p.i.n.k.’s mixologist created a companion cocktail that is featured prominently in the marketing campaign. This type of approach has landed p.i.n.k. coverage in the New York Times business section, all the weekly news magazines, as well as a variety of trade and celebrity publications, including Entrepreneur, In Style, and Life & Style Weekly. The product also has been placed or mentioned in numerous television broadcasts, including an episode of The Hills.

Mandell has always had a clear plan for building the p.i.n.k. brand, including the addition of p.i.n.k. tequila, rum, white whiskey, gin, and sake. Yet part of Mandell’s plan was not to remain permanently in the spirits industry. He and Linde sold the company this past February to Prohibition Beverages, a company building a portfolio of spirits. Mandell says his next endeavor “remains to be seen,” but it’s safe to say he will infuse whatever’s next with just as much spirit.

C.B. Adams is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.