Halsted Vodka founders stress connection to Chicago's LGBT community

Thu. March 14, 2013 2:02 PM by Anthony Morgano

halsted vodka

Chicago, IL - It's common knowledge that a relationship exists between vodka and the LGBT community -- just ask Absolut, who has been advertising to gays for over three decades, or any bartender pouring drinks in the watering holes of the Castro, Chelsea or Boystown -- but a new vodka brand birthed here in Chicago is taking that relationship to the next level. Launched last October, Halsted Vodka is a new concept in spirits, dedicated to championing the LGBT community directly by donating 15% of its profits and company equity to local LGBT organizations.

"When you buy a martini made out of Halsted, your money goes right back to the community," Todd Woolman, one of the founding members of Halsted Vodka and something of a brand ambassador for the spirit, told ChicagoPride.com. "You don't have to think about it -- it's the easiest, most fun way to donate."

There is a small group behind Halsted Vokda -- most from Chicago, some gay, some straight, but all committed to LGBT community building and creating a luxury level product that they can be proud of. The concept has been in the works for three years, arising over lunch one afternoon while Woolman and some friends brainstormed business opportunities to replace his recently lost job in TV news.

The idea started as a suggestion of selling rum to benefit gay marriage and grew into the idea of giving back directly -- something no other spirit brand does -- to nonprofits and other groups that support the local LGBT community. Changing rum to vodka was no-brainer for Woolman, but he knew that to break into an already saturated market they'd need a quality of product equal to their business model.

"When I had parties plenty of beer and other liquor would be left over, but all the vodka would be gone, so I thought, if we're gonna do anything it has to be vodka," Woolman said, adding: "We wanted to do something that gave back to the community, but we knew that it had to be good too."

The team utilized focus groups made up of the community's bar patrons to help determine everything from the bottle and label designs to the recipe and even the brand's final name. They wanted a clear connection to the LGBT community, considering names like "Castro," but finally decided on Halsted, which gave a general nod to their hometown of Chicago, where Halsted Street is the second longest in the city (spanning 141 blocks), and also referenced the popular Main Drag of one of America's most recognizable gayborhoods.

Halsted Vodka markets itself as an American luxury, made using water from the Rocky Mountains and distilled in small batches by Mile High Distillery in Denver, CO., one of only three distilleries in the world to utilize glass stills. Woolman was turned onto the idea by another Halsted Vodka partner who previously worked for Jim Beam and brought industry experience to the table. The glass stills require fewer rounds of distillation than traditional metal-based stills, allowing for a smoother tasting vodka that doesn't sacrifice the liquor's character. Woolman swears by his product, challenging even vodka skeptics to try sipping it straight in order fully comprehend Halsted Vodka's superiority.

"Halsted is an excellent vodka... 'the juice' -- an industry term for the liquid -- was very impressive from the start," said Chuck Hyde, the manager of popular Boystown videobar Sidetrack, who the group approached for advice during the initial stages of development. "It is clean and crisp, with no residual aftertastes. It ranks high on the taste scale -- one of the better vodkas out there."

Hyde helped start a relationship between Halsted Vodka and the folks at the Legacy Project, who developed Halsted Street's open-air LGBT history museum and became the first beneficiaries of Halsted Vodka's community donation. The brand was launched at the reception party for the first group of rainbow pylons dedicated to the Legacy Walk in October and again at a private launch party held at Minibar the following month.

Recently, Halsted Vodka partnered with the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, the recipients of their second donation, at an event for the LGBT professional network dot429. They were also proudly poured last month at "Deep Love," the CGMC's Valentine's Day show at the Drake, where Halsted Vodka featured three of their Icon Cocktails -- a series of drinks inspired by historic gay icons like Judy Garland and Cole Porter. They've supported several events at Sidetrack, including the bar's Oscar Party, and worked with both the Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters to support performances and readings of important works dealing with issues facing the LGBT community.

"Through events with our partner organizations groups, we want people to discover and experience Halsted Vodka for themselves," Halsted Vodka team member Jennifer Schulze told ChicagoPride.com. "People love it when they realize that every time they buy a cocktail made with Halsted Vodka, they are giving back to the gay community."

Only five short months after their launch, Halsted Vodka is now available at 18 bars and restaurants throughout Chicago -- including Sidetrack, Halsted's Bar and Grill, Hydrate, Minibar and Wood in Boystown, as well as Lady Gregory's and The Call in Andersonville. It can be found anywhere from downtown to Roger's Park, Roscoe Village to the Near West Side, with bottles available for purchase at Andersonville Wine and Spirits (where a 750 mL bottle sells for $25.99 before tax), Cardinal Liquors in Lincoln Square and most recently at Binny's in Lakeview.

Ideally, Halsted Vodka wants to start by making their 15% donation quarterly, increasing in frequency as they grow in popularity and sell more vodka. Currently, they're talking with other community groups about the practical impact a donation could have on their organization, but as they develop, the beneficiaries will likely be chosen by an independent board that they hope will be made up of local community leaders.

"We have been so pleased with the response we've received from Chicago's gay community and from the bartenders around the city -- everyone is so supportive and encouraging," Schulze said. "Plus, they love the fact that we are a Chicago company trying to make a difference."

Halsted Vodka has big plans -- aspiring to grow their brand and bring the good-neighbor business policy of Halsted Vodka to cities outside of Chicago. Woolman pictures a future where Halsted Vodka is sold in New York, San Francisco, Miami and other cities across the country, with profits from those sales staying within the local LGBT community.

"We want it local everywhere -- the ball is rolling faster and faster, so it might be sooner than I ever would've thought," Woolman said, joking "I want to sell vodka to the Russians!"

For more information about Halsted Vodka, visit halstedvodka.tumblr.com or follow them on Twitter/HalstedVodka and Facebook/HalstedVodka.

Halsted Vodka Locations:

North Halsted Street
Halsted's Bar & Grill
Wood Restaurant


Lincoln Park
Steppenwolf Theater (coming soon))

Downtown Chicago
Bar Umbriago
The Drake Hotel
Fairmont Chicago Hotel: Aria Bar
The Goodman Theatre
The Public Hotel : Library Bar (May 2013)
Polk Street Inn

Andersonville Wine & Spirits
Lady Gregory's
The Call

Roscoe Village
John's Place
Liberty Lounge

Lincoln Square
Cardinal Liquors
Lincoln Square Lanes

Ravenswood/ North Center
Tiny Lounge

Crew: The World's Greatest Sports Bar
Uptown Lounge

Buena Park

Burke's Public House

Rogers Park
The Glenwood

Near West Side
Jefferson Tap

Buffalo Wild Wings