By Chaning Green
Jim Bulian is the owner and operator of Old Venice, the Burgundy Room and a hidden bar in Oxford known for its grilled cheese. In 2014, Bulian launched Artist Vodka, an organic vodka that is brewed in small batches in a distillery in Washington. Originally from St. Louis, Bulian moved to Oxford and attended middle school through college in Oxford.He recently spoke with Oxford Citizen news writer Chaning Green about his business.
Chaning Green: Why did you decide to make your own vodka?
Jim Bulian: The inception of it was around July or August of 2012. It took a lot of factors; a lot of dominoes fell in place. First and foremost, I produce films. I had dinner with an actor who let me try some vodka and claimed that it was the best vodka in the world. I did some research and looked into the guy that started the company and I thought, “if he can do it, I can do it.” Plus, I could even pump the vodka through my restaurants and bars. It was also a gateway for me to be more involved in the film community. I could produce films through the sale of the vodka, and then sell more vodka through product placement in those films, which would allow us to produce more films. Plus it’s fun. It’s fun to go to New Orleans or LA for the weekend, meeting with different hotel and bar owners. Promoting your own vodka is fun work.
Green: Where is Artist Vodka currently distributed?
Bulian: We are currently carried in six states: California, Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi Tennessee, and New York. We’re at all the liquor stores here in Oxford.
Green: Why vodka?
Bulian: Well, I did my research. Vodka is the number one selling spirit in North America. I felt like, coming out of the gate, selling vodka would give me better chance than selling something like tequila, for instance. Or whiskey. Whiskeys are great, I’d like to one day make my own, but there’s already so many out there. Another reason why I didn’t do another spirit like whiskey is because it’s gonna be at least four years for you can get it out on the market because you have to age it. Then you have your eight-year whiskey and your twelve-year whiskey and so on. So, coming right out of the gate, vodka was the best choice.
Green: Where is it made?
Bulian: It’s distilled in Washington State. We partnered with a distillery just north of Seattle in Everett, Washington.
Green: How long did the process take? How long did take you to get from idea to vodka on shelves?
Bulian: Oh, it was definitely a process. It didn’t happen overnight. From genesis to when it was on shelves, it was about a two-year process. After we settled on the recipe, we had to find a designer that could get the logo out of my head and onto a bottle. Then we had to go through federal regulations. We had to finalize all designs, get it exactly how we wanted it. Then submit it to the federal government to get all these approvals. Next we needed to get our USDA certification, which took 90 days. We also had to find a bottle designer, and it took 90 days for the prototypes on those to come back. Then you have to find distributors, which can be very difficult. Fortunately, we lucked out and are working with some great people we found right away. Then there’s selling and promoting and, eventually, it gets on shelves. There’s really a lot that goes in to it. So yeah, that took about two years, and it was a long wait.
Green: What makes it organic?
Bulian: It’s made with organic, Italian farro wheat. We import that from Italy and distill it in Washington with waters from the Northern Cascades. Specifically, we get the water form Lake Spada. The lake gets over 200 inches of rain and snowfall a year, so it is a constant source of fresh, clean water. It has the perfect PH balance. It doesn’t have a mineral taste to it so it’s not very heavy in taste like water from rivers. There’s no reverse osmosis process involved with this so, instead of just a flat taste, it has a much more crisp edge to it. I went through at least 75 different vodka profiles before I settled on this one. Besides the water, I had to decide I wanted to use wheat. Then I had to decide on organic wheat and what kind of wheat and where I would get it from. There’s so much out there to chose from. I settled on the farro because it is just the slightest bit sweeter than the others. That sweetness combined with this crisp, clean water from Spada Lake was just the perfect marriage. We have yet to lose a taste test. We’ve gone up against all the top names in the vodka industry and I’m not gonna name names, but if you name the first 23 that come to the top of your head, chances are, we’ve gone head to head with them.
Green: You mentioned working with films. How so?
Bulian: Like I said, producing them, or helping them out by providing a location or some funds, things like that. Philip Mercadante, a young, local filmmaker, was working on a short film and he had a scene that took place in a coffee shop. That’s when a mutual friend suggested he shoot it in one of my bars. I let him do that and instead of a barista making coffee, it was a bartender pouring Artist Vodka. He was able to shoot his scene and we got the product placement, and everyone benefited. We also did one with Quinton Oliver Smith. Great guy and great filmmaker. A couple years ago, we gave him some funds towards the completion of his film that he shot in Alaska. We also did some product placement with Alison Eastwood, with her movie she shot in Mississippi, Battlecreek.