When Tadeusz (Tad) Dorda launched Chopin Vodka in 1992, the idea of a luxury vodka was virtually unheard of in the spirits world. The overwhelming perception was that it was a flavorless liquor best suited for mixed drinks and not much else. But that didn’t stop Dorda from opening his distillery that specialized in potato vodka in the heart of Poland using only hand-selected ingredients.
It turns out that he was on the leading edge of a movement that would sweep across the alcohol landscape, the rise of the small-batch high-end spirits and consumers expectations. In the last thirty years since he made it his mission to change people’s perceptions about vodka, we have seen an explosion of premiumization across the market, from tequilas to whiskeys to gins and everything in between.
These days Dorda is still on a mission to raise the awareness of vodka as a sipping beverage, one with nuances and subtleties. His family-owned business distributes a portfolio of three single-ingredient Chopin vodkas-potato, rye, and wheat alongside their Chopin Family Reserve that is aged in fifty-year-old Polish oak barrels worldwide year-round. They also will be re-launching their collaboration bottle made in conjunction with fashion designer Vera Wang later this year.
We jumped on a Zoom call with Dorda to discuss how he helped change perceptions, where he sees the spirits industry heading next, and how he has managed to stay independent and successful for three decades.
What led you to create a luxury vodka?
Tad Dorda: It wasn’t about creating a luxury vodka; it was about starting to say something about vodka in general. I had traveled across the world for years and had enjoyed many fantastic whiskeys and wines, but I realized that vodka was a forgotten spirit even though it was the biggest selling one on the planet. Someone had written the wrong definition about it, and everyone believed it. People thought it was supposed to be tasteless, odorless, and colorless. I wondered why anyone would actually want to drink something like that. That bothered me since it was a part of my Polish heritage.
So, I set out to create a product that highlighted the terroir that the ingredients that made Chopin were grown in. Vodka traditionally was made from three essential ingredients – potato, rye, and wheat, but so many when we started and even now are not. Instead, they are made from a variety of items. From day one, our message was to educate the consumer that vodka can be so much more if you are willing to try something more expensive made from better ingredients.
You have advocated an appellation system for vodka; why?
Dorda: It all comes back to elevating the conversation about vodka. Right now, consumers really don’t know where their vodkas come from and what ingredients are used in them as a whole. They are shocked when I tell them that only 5% are made from potatoes, that they are not from where they think they are, that many are flavored for a reason, to cover up poor quality liquids. We will never produce flavored vodka.
There is a reason all of our bottles and many others in the luxury category tell where they are from and what is in them. The story is what the consumer wants. They want to feel your passion, they want to feel your heart, they want something authentic. Research shows that people are drinking less but drinking better. A system like the one you see with wine and many whiskeys would greatly benefit the vodka industry.
Your partnership with Vera Wang is something out of the ordinary for Chopin. Why do it?
Dorda: I know it’s trendy nowadays for celebrities to get involved with products, but it’s usually for two reasons. Either you pay them, or they think they will make a bunch of money because the product is hot. I found out that Vera loved Chopin Potato and drank it for years; she didn’t just start liking it for a campaign. So, when we met, I suggested that maybe we make something together out of our shared passion for potato vodka.
She liked the idea, so I made fourteen different distillations using different potatoes and brought them to her to taste to pick out her favorite. Once she picked one, we decided to merge our worlds, to bring fashion and vodka together. She designed the bottle and I the spirit, and together we brought something different to the market. Hopefully, that will increase the conversation around vodka more and help educate consumers to expect something better. Everything we do aims to open people’s eyes to what vodka can and should be.
What has been your key to staying a successful independent distiller for three decades?
Dorda: We do everything ourselves. We have our own distributor, Chopin Imports, that brings all of our products into the United States and that lets us control all aspects of our brand. We also have, from day one, worked closely with all of our suppliers and farmers and have built strong relationships with them that ensure that we are receiving the highest quality products. My family is also closely involved with all aspects of the company. Three members of my family work directly with me. My daughter Alexandra is our brand manager and my nephews are involved too. Piotr is our export director, and Wojtek is a regional sales manager. Together we chart the path forward for Chopin. We are a family brand and will stay that way as long as I am around.
Our message must be getting through to our customers because we are growing double digits, and we keep expanding our footprint. We will continue to educate consumers on the beauty of vodka and keep working to bring new and exciting products to the market.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.