Black’s Distillery in East City is under new ownership and, for those who with a penchant for vodka with a unique flavour twist, that’s good news indeed.
From the outside looking in, much remains the same at the location at 99 Hunter Street East on the corner of Mark Street. In fact, the Black’s Distillery name is being retained, and the familiar gin, vodka, rye, barley, cassis, and cherry whisky liqueur offerings remain in supply and available.
What’s now new is Hip, a relatively new but increasingly popular kid on the vodka block. The brand has taken up residence at the distillery, offering vodka in mango, watermelon, and bubble gum flavours, each in a bottle that, yes, has a unique hip-like shape.
Hip Vodka was launched in early 2017 by friends and then business partners Ray Leighton and Dave Robinson. While the latter “has gone a different route,” Leighton tells kawarthaNOW he is staying the course, guiding the brand to its fair share of the crowded liquor market.
The acquisition of Black’s Distillery from founder Robert Black, and the planned opening of another location in Pickering, is part of the effort that also sees Hip Vodka products being shipped to the United Kingdom, St. Kitts-Nevis, Cameroon, and Jamaica, and domestically to Alberta, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island.
“My goal is to build the brand of Black’s, to build the brand of Hip, to support local, and to grow the business,” explains Leighton. “Hip is a global brand but I want to keep building and promoting the culture of the Black’s brands. That helps Hip and it also helps Black’s.”
“I didn’t want to change the name — Black’s has been there since 2018. A lot of people know it. There’s a lot of synergy there. We have different product audiences but it’s good to have both. Our brand is one segment of the market. The brands provided by Robert Black have a different market segment. This is good for both brands.”
A resident of Port Perry, Leighton settled on Peterborough as the location of a brick ‘n’ mortar outlet for Hip Vodka products due to its relatively close proximity to his home. He says locating at an existing distillery is a huge bonus.
“To build a distillery from scratch takes an extremely long time,” he says. “You’re dealing with the government and, as anybody who has ever dealt with the government knows, it takes quite awhile to get things done.”
“I’ve always liked Peterborough,” Leighton adds. “I like the small town community that’s starting to grow. There are a lot of positives there. Being in Peterborough allows me some uniqueness — that I’m building something and hopefully, as I build it, the community supports it.”
Noting that since Black’s is a distillery, Leighton says patrons can sample existing Black’s products as well as Hip’s lineup of vodkas along with its Hip Gin Silver.
“We just recently hosted a small event there, Cocktails And Chaos, for about 25 women who wanted a night out,” says Leighton. “They learned about charcuterie and cocktail drinks. It was pretty successful.”
“Black’s will continue providing a location to buy products, but I want to grow it to become a small event place. We can only handle 20 to 30 people but it’s a great landing spot for a small party.”
Reflecting on how far his venture has come, Leighton says the initial focus was on standing out as unique in the very crowded alcohol market.
“The first thing that attracts people is the branding — the design and the attraction of the packaging,” he says, adding “With alcohol, that starts with the bottle itself. My partner (Robinson) and I came up with the design.”
“As for the name, I wanted it to be simple. I looked up ‘hip’ in Urban Dictionary. Basically, it means cooler than cool. I like to think of us as that. It’s a fun brand. This is not the product you’re going to have a cigar with. We’re not a fine Scotch. We are a very fun brand. We want you to have a party.”
With the Hip brand already having gone global, Hip Vodka is produced at multiple distilleries and shipped in batches. Meanwhile, the marketing of Hip apparel via the website is another revenue stream. Leighton says a non-alcoholic Hip Caesar mix, branded as Cajun Candy, will soon be available at Sobeys stores as well as at Black’s Distillery.
Hip’s Pickering location, says Leighton, will open in December or early January, followed in the latter half of January by a soft launch at Black’s Distillery, with the date yet to be determined.
“We’ll be distilling half our product in Peterborough and the other half in Pickering. The Peterborough location is the flagship. Pickering is not a destination distillery — it will be more of a retail store.”
The evolution of Hip, says Leighton, has been “such a personal journey.”
“I don’t think of it as ‘Wow, I’ve achieved this.’ I look at it as a journey, as each day I’ve got to tackle this and keep building the brand.”
“If you don’t know the alcohol space, if you don’t have good branding, you will not survive. It doesn’t matter how good the product is. Hip Vodka sells itself. That’s why I believe it’s going to be a significant player down the road as I slowly build the brand.”
For information on Hip Vodka, including a full listing of its product offerings, visit www.hipvodka.com.