WILMINGTON — Former journeyman NFL kicker Connor Barth remembers his first taste of Blue Shark Vodka. His buddy, a bartender at King Neptune’s in Wrightsville Beach, told him he had to try Wilmington’s locally produced vodka.
“I thought, ‘Geez, there’s nothing else in this?’ It was so smooth, with such a nice finish . . . I told myself from then on, ‘This is all I’m drinking.’ I was a Ketel One guy – no more,” Barth recalled.
The Hoggard High product and vodka connoisseur was introduced to the company’s founder, former Navy man Mark Bloomquist who loved deep-sea diving with his daughter, Brooke. In 2015, Mark and Brooke hatched their plan.
“We started with an idea: putting a shark in a bottle, like putting a ship in a bottle,” Bloomquist said. “Then, when my daughter became a master distiller, we were able to produce the smoothest vodka you’ve ever tasted. That’s how we came up with our original tag line – ‘the shark that won’t bite.’ Now we call it the ‘world’s smoothest vodka.’ And I really believe that. We can go up against anybody.”
After his first sip, Barth met Bloomquist for an early morning coffee. He was convinced of the founder’s vision of helping showcase the small-town culture of Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach nationwide. He had become an avid surfer while kicking for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – he holds the record for the highest field goal percentage in franchise history – and he loved the brand and the original bottle, each hand-blown with a small three-dimensional shark perched at the bottom.
He also liked Bloomquist’s desire to help with blue shark conservation efforts. The company partners with research organizations that geotag blue sharks swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, according to its website.
After first joining the company’s advisory board, Barth was tapped as its spokesperson in a push to expand nationally. One of his first ideas helped Blue Shark scale up for broader distribution (they now sell in ABC stores throughout the state).
The original bottle was a big hit, helping the company win an Innovation Award and a Double Gold Medal for package design at the 2020 SIP Awards, an international spirits competition that uses more than 200 consumers as judges. But at nearly $40 a bottle, it would be difficult to expand and target the young professional market.
Broomquist and and his young pitchman knew they had to hit a lower price point. Blue Shark also won a SIP Platinum Award for the vodka itself, putting the Wilmington distillery on the international map as one of the best vodkas in its class during its first year of full operations. So they re-designed the packaging and began selling a 750-ml bottle at $19.95, and later a 1.75-ml bottle at $38.95.
“We thought, let’s broaden the spectrum of our audience,” Barth said of the move. “A price point of $19.95 for a platinum award-winning vodka is fantastic.”
The new bottles were far cheaper to produce while preserving the uniqueness of the brand. When looking through a full bottle, one can see light glimmering through the glass on an underwater scene of two blue sharks swimming around a sunken ship.
Plus, the distillery was set up as an easily replicable, high-tech operation, using a still imported from the Netherlands that allows Brooke to maintain consistent production by entering her recipe formulas into a computer. The vodka is then refined through several organic and charcoal filters.
Last year Bloomquist began making moves to open a new still – about 10 times the size as the still in Wilmington – in Las Vegas.
“California is a huge market,” Bloomquist said. “And we just felt good about Nevada; the casinos allows us to get our feet on the ground with the food and beverage directors and the catering directors in the city.”
Amid a drought in the summer of 2019 that cut off Blue Shark’s local supply of corn, then months later a global pandemic that slowed the production of its original glass bottles, the distillery experienced “exponential growth” in 2020, according to Bloomquist. (New Hanover ABC stores also reported a 50% jump in sales in the first months of the pandemic.)
Rather than looking to sign with a national distributor that carries large portfolios of other products, Bloomquist said Blue Shark is expanding “through a measured cadence, step by step.”
“We could sign with a national distributor tomorrow,” Barth added. “But then we’d be stuck in this realm of: ‘Just another vodka on the shelf.’ Wherever we go, we want to grow organically. And I think as we grow organically, hit five to six states, then these distributors will start to notice,” giving the company more leverage in negotiations.
“And it’s from the soul; it just feels better,” Barth said, noting that an organic growth model allows the company to ensure it can match a growing demand in Wilmington and across North Carolina.
Barth and the Bloomquists also have their eyes on the Florida market, where they hope to tap into Barth’s connections in Tampa Bay – specifically, the higher-ups in the Buccaneers franchise. Barth said the brand would fit well for a team whose mascot is an 18th century Caribbean pirate. At Raymond James Stadium, a 100-foot replica of a pirate ship sits above the north end zone, where eight cannons fire every time a home player scores a touchdown.
“Someday, I could see a bottle in every suite,” Barth said.
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