Discovering the innovative new Zing Vodka in an interview with Phil Maloof
By Jon Shakill
When it comes to an American-made story of entrepreneurial success, the legacy of the Maloof family tells it well. It all started with the first-generation Lebanese immigrant Joseph Maloof settling in the Wild West, in New Mexico in the early 1900s. It wasn’t long before the family’s original patriarch was the sole distributor for Coors beer in the state of New Mexico. With the family’s roots taking shape, it was Joseph’s son George Maloof, Sr. that began reaching for the sky, and elevated the family to the next level of success.
With the next generation of siblings, Joe, Gavin, George, Adrienne and Phil, the family’s legacy is stronger than ever. From owning the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise from 1998-2013, to creating the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, the latest venture from this business savvy family is the innovative new Zing Vodka.
Like the Maloof family, Zing is American-made. It originates in Rochester, New York and is crafted from a blend of corn and wheat. Zing Vodka is quadruple distilled in a state of the art column still, and then put through a rigorous filtration process. The end product is a purified 80 proof, 40% abv. vodka. With a retail price of $25 a bottle, this flashy vodka is certainly poised to turn heads. Especially the 70 proof Red Velvet flavor, created from the recipe for red velvet cake that the Maloof siblings’ mother is now famous for.
Every bottle comes equipped with an LED light in its base, which you can turn on and off, and illuminates the entire bottle and liquid inside. The Red Velvet illuminates red, while the original flavor illuminates blue. This is a great attention-grabbing accent, perfect for VIP bottle service when you’re out enjoying the nightlife. It is enough to make heads turn and let everyone know where the fun is.
To learn more about this innovative new spirit, from one of the great business families of the American West, we sat down with Phil Maloof at his Beverly Hills home. We took time out just prior to an event being held for the brand to discuss the vodka, Phil’s love for cigars, and his family’s plans to enter yet another industry.
When I asked about some of the parties they throw to promote Zing, Phil’s response was, “Well today is a good example; Oscar winner DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia is cooking on the grill and showcasing his ‘DJ Paul’s Barbecue’ rubs and sauces. Members of the New York Yankees and L.A. Dodgers will be here soon.”
Sure enough, as DJ Paul was preparing some incredible barbecue, professional athletes were arriving, and the event was just about to get rolling. Phil was kind enough to sit down with Lincoln Salazar and me as this was going on in his house, and provide us with some details on the brand. Also joining in the conversation was Vice President of Marketing for Zing, and Maloof Ventures Partner Steve Ferraro, as well as Associate Chase Gilomen.
Behind Zing Vodka
Jon Shakill: What was the inspiration for staring up Zing Vodka? Was this originally a Maloof family idea, or was it something that you guys came into after the product was launched?
Phil Maloof: My mom was a great cook, she would make the best red velvet cake and lemon pie and also some of the best Lebanese food and Italian food — anything, you name it and she could make it. She was probably the best cook ever. So that’s where we got the idea to start a red velvet flavored vodka and why the vodka tastes so great. We took my mother’s recipe for red velvet cake and used it to create the flavor.
Steve Ferraro: The Maloof family has a long legacy in spirits, going back to Phil’s grandfather who was one of the original distributors for MillerCoors in New Mexico. So it is very natural for them to be involved in spirits once again. We wanted to get back in and the timing had it that a gentleman was just starting a flavored vodka, not the Zing bottle or liquid, but wanted to get into the vodka business and we were like-minded, so we teamed up to create the new brand.
The inspiration came from a place of authenticity for the Maloofs because of the family history that I mentioned. We knew we wanted to do something unique, but also authentic to the Maloofs, and using their mother’s recipe was perfect.
Jon Shakill: How exactly were you able to use the recipe for an actual red velvet cake for a flavored vodka?
Ferraro: We met with a chemist who was able to turn the recipe into red velvet flavored vodka. After going back and forth several times, we feel like we really nailed it.
Jon Shakill: Is Red Velvet the only flavor?
Ferraro: Right now it’s the only flavor in addition to the original vodka, which is 80 proof. The Red Velvet is 70 proof. We plan to launch more flavors in the near future, with the next flavor coming soon.
Jon Shakill: How did you get started with the family spirits business originally?
Maloof: We started off as kids in the re-pack room. A lot of places don’t take a whole case, so our job was to pack a couple bottles and send them off to Joe’s Bar and Grill in Nebraska or wherever. Then we would also sweep the floors in the warehouse which was about 40,000 square feet. My brother George and I would sanitize the floors — I mean we saw everything in that warehouse. We started from the ground up, so there’s nothing in this business we don’t know. We even drove an 18 wheel truck once! Man that’s tough, I have so much respect for those guys.
Jon Shakill: So you’ve done every job from the ground up?
Maloof: Absolutely. Sales, sweeping the floor, working in the repack room, everything.
Jon Shakill: Has that given you an appreciation for those jobs?
Maloof: Definitely, a lot of those jobs are backbreaking.
Jon Shakill: Is this the first re-entry back into the spirits business since your father?
Maloof: In the spirits business, yes.
Ferraro: Since selling the distributor business several years ago in New Mexico, this is the first time back in spirits for the Maloofs from an ownership standpoint. Rather than marketing somebody else’s product.
Jon Shakill: Who exactly owns Zing Vodka? Is it a partnership or is it fully owned by the Maloofs?
Ferraro: We have a partnership called Maloof Ventures, which is an entrepreneurial firm that we own together and run. There are various assets within the company, and Zing is the spirits asset. So it is absolutely a Maloof family brand. Our company, Maloof Ventures, serves as the quarterback for this brand.
We architected the whole company from the beginning, including designing the bottle with a designer, taking the idea of the red velvet recipe to a chemist to get the liquid right, building the sales staff and the infrastructure, bringing in celebrities, putting together the marketing plans. Like Phil said, we’ve handled the full scope from A to Z. And it’s all hands on deck, it’s the whole Maloof family and it’s very real with everyone’s involvement. We’re building a brand for the long-term.
Jon Shakill: What’s the vision for the next couple years, for both the shortterm and the long-term?
Ferraro: Short-term is building a brand the right way and moving people. Provoking people to be engaged with the brand and try the vodka. It’s really about building a foundation and over the short-term, it’s about quality, rather than quantity. It’s about building key accounts — there’s a reason we started at the Palms and Steve Wynn’s properties. They have the best clubs and they’re high-end. For the long-term, we want to be one of the biggest vodka brands in the world.
Lincoln Salazar: What demographic are you guys going after with Zing?
Ferraro: What we’ve seen so far is that it’s everybody. It doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going after everyone with our resources and our marketing campaigns. But whether it’s older or younger, male or female, white, black, Asian, Latin, straight, gay — whatever it is, everyone is turned on to the brand. Though our primary demographics are females and the urban crowd. Really it’s just more of a pop-culture brand. The best way to describe it is through an example, it’s like Grey Goose meets Ciroc. For people that enjoy the nightlife, table service, pop culture, Zing is it.
Jon Shakill: Speaking of nightlife, would you relate it to the Las Vegas scene and the nightlife there? Especially with the Palms and all the clubs in Vegas?
Maloof: Yeah, absolutely. We’re in every bar and restaurant in Wynn/Encore, Cosmopolitan, the Palms obviously, the Hard Rock, all the PT Pubs and Lee’s Discount Liquor stores. It’s doing really great in Vegas and here in California. We also just sold out in Texas within in two weeks.
Jon Shakill: Let’s touch on the regular flavor as well. How is that doing?
Chase Gilomen: I put on blind taste tests and I’ve done over 50 of them. I switch it up, but normally I’ll pour Ciroc, Zing, Grey Goose and Belvedere. Consistently what I’ve found is that people will confuse Belvedere — which to them has the connotation of being the smoothest vodka — with Zing. Zing is about $7 or $8 less for a bottle, but is winning these blind taste tests a large majority of the time.
Ferraro: As far as value goes, Zing is priced at about $25 a bottle, whereas the competitors are usually $30 and up. So we’re a higher value with a premium product, which I’d say is also more innovative.
Jon Shakill: Why have a light in the bottle?
Ferraro: Everything from the Maloof family is loud, big, fun and over-the-top. It’s Vegas, it’s sports, it’s clubs, it’s hospitality. So Phil’s brother Gavin is always saying in marketing meetings, if everyone is going in one direction, we need to go in the other direction. From the second we unveiled the brand at his sister Adrienne’s house, it was a massive over-the-top party with 26 human statues. Instead of a normal media wall, it was 5,000 red roses spelling out “Zing.” Everything that we did was so over-the-top.
First we launched exclusively in Vegas in October of 2012, because that’s the Maloofs’ backyard, but also because it’s perfect for our brand, with all the lights and the clubs. We stayed in Vegas for the first four months before we moved the product to any other state. So we are just wrapping up our first year, and we’re now in close to 20 states
Jon Shakill: Let’s talk about cigars now. Phil — what is your involvement in the cigar industry? I’ve seen your private Maloof family label cigar.
Maloof: Yes, we have a Maloof family label cigar that we made with Alec Bradley.
Jon Shakill: Why did you choose to go with Alec Bradley to make your cigar?
Maloof: When I met Alan Rubin [founder of Alec Bradley] I told him the story of when I was going to Dallas from L.A. about three or four years ago. Before I left I was packing my cigars for the trip, and I forgot to pack my Prensados – actually, my assistant forgot to pack them because I got busy. I told him to make sure to pack them. So when I landed in Dallas, I was really looking forward to having a Prensado, but when I went to grab one, they weren’t there!
That’s when we started searching Google for the nearest lounge, to find where I could buy some. We ended up finding a place nearby and I finally got my Prensado. I’ve always been a fan of Alec Bradley, so when I met Alan Rubin at a cigar event and told him that story, he got a kick out of it.
Jon Shakill: So that’s how the whole relationship started with Alec Bradley, after you telling Rubin that story?
Maloof: Yes, after that we became really good friends. I invited him over for a private dinner at my condo, and I told him that I wanted to make a cigar that is similar to the Prensado. But with flavors that are more chocolaty and creamy with a brandy finish, with no bite at all. So we went back and forth for about a year and a half, and we came up with the Maloof label cigar — it’s unbelievable. We had a couple thousand made.
Jon Shakill: Are you planning on mass marketing the cigar, or did you make it just for your family and friends?
Maloof: It started off as something that I just made for my family, friends and me, but I would like to sell them one day. It’s a great Honduran and Nicaraguan Churchill.
Gilomen: The exact cigar that we have now will only be available from one of the Maloofs or our partners. In the future we want to make something a little different that we can sell to the market.
Maloof: Right. All the guys at Alec Bradley are just first class people, I think Alan is a genius and they are all great guys. They also make a great product — it all comes down to the product. You can sell anything once, but you can’t sell it twice unless it’s a good product. And that’s why I’m so proud of Zing Vodka.
Jon Shakill: Tell me about your personal experience with cigars. How did you become a cigar lover?
Maloof: Well I started with Swisher Sweets when I was about 22. When I was in college, a buddy of mine and I couldn’t wait for the weekend to buy a 12-pack of Coors Light, get a couple friends together, and smoke Swisher Sweets [laughs]. Then my palate started to develop and I wanted to try something else, so I tried Macanudo. Then from there I jumped to Fuente and the rest was history.
Lincoln Salazar: Does the experience of sitting down and having a cigar and a spirit with friends or family mean to something special you?
Maloof: I think every cigar is a journey, in my opinion. It takes the edge off and puts me in a euphoric mood and relaxes me.
Jon Shakill: What does it mean to you being part of the Maloof family?
Maloof: What it really means to me is being positive towards others. We always look at the good in other people. Monday mornings I always get a call from some negative Nancy and you don’t want to answer that person. People need to be positive, and that’s what we always bring is just a positive outlook. We make people feel good about themselves, because there is always something positive in everybody. There are already too many negatives in this world. I want to make a t-shirt that says “Think Positive America!”
I’m not a Pollyanna, I realize that there is going to be bad news, but you always have to look at the positives. I think that is the New Mexico way. I also get it from my dad; he never said a negative thing about anyone. My dad was the master of getting on somebody’s case, but then building them up three times higher after.
Gilomen: If you go into the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, and ask any employee, the Maloofs know everyone’s name — whether it’s the valet, whether it’s the room service workers — they know almost every single one of them by first name. They know about their families and will ask about it.
Jon Shakill: You were a State Senator for a while, what inspired you to go into politics?
Maloof: When I was a kid, my dad would take me around door to door to campaign for the person who was running for office, so I think I just had it in my blood. I think it’s a great way of giving back and being able to make a difference. It is very tough work because you are working seven days a week and are always on call. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. It was a lot of pressure, but fun at the same time. I’m glad it’s behind me though.
Jon Shakill: So what is your day to day role with all of the businesses that the Maloofs are involved in? What do you focus on?
Maloof: Right now my day to day role is mainly opening new accounts for Zing, although I work on everything. I’ve been to Georgia, New York, Arizona — all over. I’m working on getting the vodka carried in different states. We are all focusing on Zing right now and building the brand.
Jon Shakill: Phil thanks for your time and having us in your home today.
Phil Maloof: It’s my pleasure guys, thank you.