The taste of Estonia, into your home
Southtowner Man is sole U.S. importer of Vana Tallinn
"It's Estonian!" is not exactly the likeliest advertising slogan.
But then Oak Lawn resident Bob Mauge is not your typical liquor salesman.
Mauge, 45, had no experience in the booze business when a colleague of his wife returned from a visit to her native Estonia bearing a gift: a liqueur called Vana Tallinn. The couple liked what they tasted, and eventually, once the bottle was empty, Mauge went looking for more. When he couldn't find any, he contacted the producer, a company by the name of Liviko, and asked for the name of the distributor.
"They said, 'We have no distributor,'" and no importer either, recalled Mauge, who is the father of 10-year-old twin boys.
That's when a light bulb went on.
Ever since the Internet bubble burst, Mauge's home-based info-tech recruiting business had been struggling. It occurred to him that the empty bottle he had sitting at home might prove to have been a far greater gift than he had thought - might be, in fact, that fabled "once in a lifetime opportunity," he said.
Two years later, Mauge is the sole U.S. importer of Vana Tallinn. Priced at about $27, it's available in close to a dozen stores in the Chicago area, including industry giant Sam's Wines & Spirits.
The bottle has a decidedly Old World air about it, and advertisements created by Liviko are reminiscent of the cover of a romance novel: Beneath a setting sun, a castle looms over a shirtless man, a nubile maiden and a white stallion. Liviko also is responsible for the tag line trumpeting Vana Tallinn's origins in a country with a population of 1.3 million.
"It's not screaming, 'I'm the hot new product,' " Mauge said.
But four months after the first shipment hit shelves, Mauge says sales are growing at a steady pace. He hopes to sell 1,400 cases this year.
As for "the liquid," as folks in the liquor business say, it's a neutral grain spirit flavored with dozens of spices and extracts, plus a dash of white rum.
"When different people taste it, they detect different flavors," Mauge said. "One will say, 'I taste orange;' one will say 'I taste vanilla;' one will say it tastes like Frangelico."
In Estonia and the surrounding region, where Vana Tallinn is well-known, it's usually drunk neat or on the rocks, and Mauge calls it "a nice sipping liqueur" that shows little heat despite being 40 percent alcohol.
But in-store tastings in the Chicago area have revealed people here are far more likely to buy it if they taste it in a cocktail. So Mauge has devised a host of mixed drinks, blending Vana Tallinn with, among other things, tropical fruit juices, coffee liqueur, vanilla ice cream and bourbon.
As he tries to expand beyond Illinois, however, Mauge is learning just how difficult it is to break into a marketplace dominated by multinational corporations with massive marketing budgets. He said he's found most distributors aren't willing to take a chance on an unknown product. That leaves him with the daunting task of "building buzz" largely by himself.
Nevertheless, he's convinced that with enough hard work, he can make Vana Tallinn into a household name.
"This product truly can be a national product," he said. "I really, truly believe it has what it takes to be as popular as Grand Marnier."
For information on where to buy Vana Tallinn, go to www.matrics-importing.com.
Nathaniel Zimmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-5994 .