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Vodka by a veteran, for veterans (and other cocktail lovers)

Courtesy of Travis McVey

Travis McVey, a Marine veteran, has won several spirit-industry awards for his new Heroes Vodka.

Between sampling and selling his first batch of Heroes Vodka, Marine veteran Travis McVey concocted a catchy marketing slogan.

“Some people drink to forget. We drink to remember,” McVey said in a phone interview this week, referring partly to two friends, Marine buddies killed in the line of duty.

“I was sitting at the VFW on (a recent) Memorial Day with some other veterans. I was looking at the bar,” McVey said. “I was thinking: No one has ever really marketed a veteran-owned spirit company. And what better name than ‘Heroes?’ Everybody has served, but the guys who didn’t come back are true heroes to me. I wanted to create a product that would be in honor of their service, something that people could raise their glass to and give a toast.”

The first vodka made by a veteran for veterans hit stores last February in Tennessee, where McVey lives. For distribution, he partnered with Nashville-based Lipman Brothers. This fall, Heroes became available in six more states, including New York and Georgia, and the company plans to expand into New England and the Pacific Northwest. A portion of the profits will be used to help ex-service members, McVey said.

In addition to winning several spirit-industry taste awards for its self-described “slightly toasty and roasted” flavor, Heroes offers an intriguing business test case. Veteran entrepreneurs – McVey calls them “vetrepreneurs” – aim to tap an ultra-loyal, 22 million-member veteran community to shop their services or push their products, including: wild salmon, a "defensive driving" school, appliance repair, a barber shop and, now, vodka.

Veterans buy from veterans: That’s the hot saying in ex-military financial circles, particularly with hundreds of thousands of former service members unable to land jobs. That patriotic consumer base has convinced more than 3 million men and women who have served the country to launch small businesses, reports the National Veteran-Owned Business Association. The group uses a two-word logo and mantra: “Buy veteran.”

“Veterans are going to give me a first look” for their next vodka purchase, said McVey, 42. “But that’s also because veterans are known for their quality of service. It’s who we are, and how we’re trained. So, yeah, veterans will give another veteran a shot. That’s just what we do.”

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McVey’s personal tale also seems to resonate, he said, with some of the store owners who stock his spirit. He served as a member of the presidential honor guard from 1989 to 1992, providing support to President George H.W. Bush. Two fellow Marines with whom he trained and served have since died in the line of duty – one in Afghanistan, one while working as an Indiana state trooper.

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“The retailers just open up to me when I tell my story. I think my closing rate is 95 or 96 percent,” McVey said. His friends who inspired the spirit "were great men and great Marines.”

But at a time when the Defense Department has been told that a major drinking problem exists within its ranks, McVey must carefully craft his message, which is accompanied by bottle labels adorned with red-and-white stripes, a blue background and a silver star. His web site plays a military-esque musical score with a marching beat.

A study requested by the department, and issued last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine, found that the rate of binge drinking in the military increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 47 percent in 2008, the latest year for which data is available.

“So there is a culture (of alcohol) – it’s young people and it’s high stress,” said Dennis McCarty, a member of the committee that authored the report and a professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “That’s the challenge for (the Defense Department) – to deal with a culture that tolerates those levels of use and, in some ways, tacitly supports it with less-expensive alcohol being provided on bases,” McCarty said. “I can’t speak to the (Heroes Vodka) product.”

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Said McVey: “This is being marketed in a responsible and a classy way. It’s not about getting hammered. It’s about toasting our heroes and their service to our country. For the people who drink responsibly, we want them to raise their glasses with Heroes.”

His vodka, made only with Iowa corn, retails for $13 to $16 for a 750-milliliter bottle, $18 to $20 for a liter bottle and $21.99 to $27.99 for a 1.75-liter bottle.

Courtesy of Travis McVey

As a Marine, Travis McVey helped protect President George H.W. Bush. Two buddies from that unit later were killed, one in Afghanistan, one while working in law enforcement in the US.

McVey declined to say what percentage of his proceeds will ultimately go to veterans groups, explaining: “We didn’t put an exact percentage on there because people critique it, whatever you do.

“The veterans get paid first. I’m in business to make money for my family, and my family are veterans. So they’re equal partners and it’s a split between myself, the veterans, and Robert (Lipman, president and CEO of Lipman Brothers).

"My goal is they make just as much money as I do off thisBecause my two friends that died are guys I went out and had a few drinks with and trained with. That’s the reason I created this brand so that’s the reason why I want this portion to go back to veterans."

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