I Tasted Donald Trump's Defunct Golden Vodka
As political opponents seek to undermine Trump’s near mythic success, perhaps no story embodies the Manhattanite’s legacy of wild-eyed, failed business ventures better than his brief foray into the highly competitive premium liquor industry.
This story was originally published on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
"This is the vodka that no one is buying...ever," said Aleks Zilcovs after pouring me a Trump and Tonic—the now-defunct cocktail Donald Trump predicted would be the number-one drink in America back in 2006.
As the general manager of Russia House in Washington, DC—home to the widest selection of vodka in our nation's capital—Zilcovs makes his living as a vodka aficionado.
"Trump promised that his vodka was going to be huge in the American market," Zilcovs continued, accidentally using the real estate mogul's one-word catchphrase. "I think they shut down the company a couple years after it was launched."
As political opponents seek to undermine Trump's near mythic success, perhaps no story embodies the Manhattanite's legacy of wild-eyed, failed business ventures better than his brief foray into the highly competitive premium liquor industry.
For years, Trump was keen to slap a giant "T" across any product, big or small, that he could get his hands on, from a travel search engine to a for-profit "university." (Trump mattresses, Trump steaks, and Trump Mortgage would all come later.)
And the timing seemed right. The mid-to-late 2000s were something of a golden age for celebrity-backed vodkas. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs became a part owner and spokesman for Cîroc vodka in 2007 and Saturday Night Live alum Dan Aykroyd conceived the idea for his now-famous Crystal Head vodka that same year, formally introducing the product in 2008.
The Donald, it seemed, wanted in on the fun.
Trump officially launched his vodka in 2007 with a massive premiere party at Hollywood's Les Deux nightclub, posing for red carpet glamor shots while gingerly caressing a bottle shaped like a giant gold skyscraper. The event was attended by some of LA's hottest celebrities, including porn star Stormy Daniels and Weekend at Bernie's leading man Jonathan Silverman.
Just four years later, though, the high-class spirit had been completely discontinued because "the company failed to meet the threshold requirements," according to Gothamist. In other words, no one was buying it.
But that hasn't stopped Russia House from trying to make a buck hawking the few bottles of Trump vodka left in circulation.
"We've had it in stock for five years. It's never sold. But now that he's running for president we thought we have a chance to get rid of the vodka…and maybe make some money."
Zilcovs took to Facebook to promote Russia House as the only bar in DC where you could get an authentic T&T. That was in September 2015, just a few months after Trump descended a silky smooth escalator to announce he was running for the highest office in the land.
In a city swamped with political operatives and policy wonks, it seemed like a safe bet.
"We thought it was going to work. Trump vodka is kind of expensive—not because it's good, but because it's rare. So we tried to play this card. We made an announcement and tried to sell it for more than the average [cocktail], but no one wants to pay for it," Zilcovs said, punctuating his speech with a hearty Latvian laugh. "So now the price is regular."
It's a shame the vodka didn't work out, actually. Trump—a teetotaler who says he's never had a drink in his life—claimed during a 2006 interview with Larry King that all the profits from his namesake vodka would "go to various studies on alcoholism and everything else."
Regardless of whether those research dollars would have ever materialized, one thing's for sure: Trump vodka tastes just so-so.
"It's not a bad vodka," said Zilcovs, who is surrounded daily by some of the best spirits on the planet. "There's nothing special about it and nothing bad...except the name."
I trusted Zilcovs but was hungry for a second opinion, so I tracked down a bottle of "The World's Finest Super Premium Vodka" for myself, setting out to conduct a very unscientific taste test.
That wasn't easy, though. It's incredibly hard to find a sealed bottle of Trump vodka for sale these days, and the few that are out there have skyrocketed in price as America races towards peak Trumpmania.
"You're lucky you got this when you did," an employee at a rare liquor retailer in New Jersey told me when I called to confirm the bottle I'd ordered several days earlier had shipped. "This didn't sell for a long time, but we're seeing a lot of people shopping for it now. We have only six left. We sold a bottle today for $380."
So, with a bottle of the potential commander-in-chief's vodka in hand, a few friends and I set out to make our own Trump and Tonics while watching the GOP Debate in Miami.
"It tastes awful—needs a lot of tonic and lime," one of my buddies said, recoiling as we sipped the booze straight.
More than the vodka, though—which I can say was exceptionally harsh but mixed reasonably well—it was the bottle that commanded the most attention.
"Looks like a solid gold brick," someone quipped.
Like so many Trump products, it was the packaging—not the contents—that stood out.
As we sucked down our T&T's, Trump bashed his opponents and touted his unrivaled business acumen as the perfect remedy to flailing American leadership.
The assertion left a bitter and explosively ironic taste in my mouth.
"There's a lot of vanity projects in this business," Sandy Wood, co-founder and CEO of One Eight Distilling, later told me during a tour of his craft vodka distilling operation in northeast DC.
Sandy knows the vodka industry—and what it takes to get ahead. "Not all of them are successful."
If you ask Trump, though, his vodka was and continues to be a resounding success.
On the night he won the Michigan and Mississippi primaries, Trump had a table of Trump wine, bottled water, and raw steaks displayed on either side of the stage where he was speaking. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had blasted Trump the previous week, claiming the alleged billionaire was more con man than business genius. Romney specifically mentioned the failed Trump vodka as evidence of such.
In classic Trump fashion, The Donald wiped away the allegation in one sentence, boasting the assembled Trump wines—which rightfully never ceased production and are readily available for purchase—as evidence that Trump vodka is still chugging along.
Of course, wine isn't vodka—unless you've never had a drink before.
"Everything we've touched has been a big success," Trump said at a separate vodka launch party in New York in 2008. "We launched a vodka that became tremendously successful. My book just went to number one and we think the vodka, likewise, will be number one. It's been one of the most successful launches ever in the history of this business."
With the vantage of a little time, we can see that hasn't been the case—but it doesn't stop Trump from claiming otherwise.
Still, Zilcovs thinks there might be a silver lining to the few bottles of Trump vodka that have been taking up space in his stock room for the past half decade.
"If he becomes the president, maybe we'll hold on to it. It could be worth something."
It could, I mused. In 2017, maybe we'll all be drinking Trump and Tonics.