‘Spirit’ of Entrepreneurism
A former Russian studies major launches a new brand of vodka. By Jayne Denker
When David Katz ’95 was in high school in East Brunswick, New Jersey, his entrepreneurial spirit was already in evidence: He convinced a local pizzeria to offer a pizza with fat-free cheese. It didn’t go over very well.
“The place sold 500 fat-free-cheese pizzas,” Katz says. “My parents bought 498 of them.”
But Katz’s fortune has turned around since then. Combining his love of all things Russian and his enthusiasm for what he calls “creative challenges,” he has developed a new brand of vodka: Zyr, short for “zyrkalo mira,” which means “reflection of the world.”
In a way, Zyr is a reflection of Katz’s world. One-eighth Russian, he had always had a passion for the country’s culture, language, and even ice hockey. Katz, who closely followed the 1980 Olympics “Miracle on Ice” hockey rivalry between the United States and the then Soviet Union, wanted to study under legendary Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak (his parents said no).
At Rochester, when he first tried to learn Russian, he found out, he says, that he was “terrible.” But he did become goalie for the men’s hockey team.
His fascination persisted, however, and in 1993, he went to Russia for the summer on scholarship. There, he finally learned the language. When Katz returned to Rochester, he double majored in Russian studies and political science.
Katz graduated in 1995 and decided that it was make-or-break time: He would go to Russia and either “get it out of my system or stick to it.” He stayed for five years.
What he learned in Russia, working for an American-owned company, stood him in good stead when he returned to the United States. Not only was he financially successful, he fostered a talent for brand creation, which he learned by developing new brands of cigarettes for the company.
When Katz set his sights on creating a “fashionable, luxury vodka” to compete with high-end brands such as Belvedere and Ketel One, he started with market research, but he didn’t passively study marketing reports.
Instead, just as he took on his fascination with Russia by moving there, he talked with people in bars and found that “75 to 80 percent of people 27 to 37 years old believe the best vodka is from Russia.” So he returned to Russia to learn the art of vodka making.
“You can’t go by myth, like ‘We discovered a secret recipe from czarist Russia.’ People don’t believe that. And you can’t go by science, telling people about a charcoal filter. They don’t care about that,” Katz says.
What they do care about, he learned, is how a product tastes, of course, but that also has an element of high style. With that in mind, he says, he designed a vodka based on the feel of “New Age Russia,” which he describes as, “after the Berlin Wall came down . . . a young Russia, a modern renaissance.”
His vodka, he decided, would be cool, minimalist, smooth, and elegant. “Like Sean Connery,” he says. That outlook is followed right down to the distinctive bottle—a translucent blue obelisk—and logo, a stylized version of a Russian “onion dome” cupola.
In keeping with the element of “cool,” the launch of Zyr was not heralded with full-page magazine ads or billboards. Instead, once again Katz walked into bars, this time to have bartenders taste test Zyr before deciding to carry his product.
Zyr now is available at a number of New York City’s top night spots, including Le Cirque, Balthazar, and Nobu. Celebrities such as Shakira, Eve, P. Diddy, and Donald Trump have been photographed partaking of Zyr.
And while celebrity enthusiasts are always welcome, a five-star review in The Spirit Journal doesn’t hurt, either.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Katz says enthusiastically. While news of Zyr gets around by word of mouth alone, Katz does plan on advertising in the future.
“I want Zyr to do for Russia what Corona did for Mexico,” he says. “I’m excited to change the American view of vodka—I want Sunday football to be vodka, wings, pizza, and subs.”
1995: The Drive to Succeed
“Very competitive” is how hockey coach V. J. Stanley describes David Katz, the goalie for the ’95 men’s club sports team.
Stanley says Katz “worked extremely hard to get better, to become the No. 1 goalie,” noting Katz’s drive and dedication to reach whatever goal he chose.
“The fact that he has his own vodka surprises me,” Stanley says. “The fact that he has achieved what he has doesn’t surprise me. I believed he would be an entrepreneur.”
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