Maurice Kanbar is back in the vodka business – this time it’s Blue Angel
By Bruce Bellingham
Photos by Jane Richey
It was a Thursday evening at Perry’s on Union Street where, in the back room, under the flat-screen televisions and the Mark Stock lithograph, Maurice Kanbar was holding court. Kanbar is the Pacific Heights inventor who created the enormously popular Skyy vodka, which he sold to the beverage conglomerate Campari International four years ago.
Maurice Kanbar is not the sort to rest on his laurels, and sit around sipping his
inventions all day. Yet he wants the world to get to know the next great martini. That’s one of Maurice’s aspirations. He calls it the BAM, the Blue Angel martini.
Maurice – as he’s generally known around town – is also an engineer, a chemist, an entrepreneur, an author, and a famed philanthropist. He’s written a memoir, Secrets from an Inventor’s Notebook, published by Council Oak Books, one of the companies he owns. As an inventor, he holds 36 patents. At the age of 21, he hit it big with his D-Fuzz-It sweater comb. That gave him the financial latitude to begin a career as an inventor. He likes to quote Mark Twain on the subject: “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.”
Maurice Kanbar is a successful man.
But on this night at Perry’s, he was playing yet another role that he clearly loves – the showman. Twenty sales reps from the beverage distributor Southern Wines & Spirits were the audience. Maurice, not a tall man, was larger than life. He’s a stand-up guy who could have been a stand-up comedian. (Indeed as a kid, he had a gig as a “tumler” – a Yiddish word for someone hired to break the ice at parties. It’s reassuring to know that such a job exists. It was when Maurice was working at a resort in the Catskills where many comics honed their craft.) In a comedic way, he explained to the sales chaps in the room (there was one woman among them) why this night was not like any other. Tonight he was introducing his new vodka, Blue Angel, and explaining why this vodka is not like any other – in particular, why it’s an improvement over his own invention Skyy, noted for its trademark cobalt blue bottles.
Maurice, a marketing master, knows that the color blue is most pleasing to most people. The blue is back in Blue Angel. The labels depict clouds on a celestial blue background. A halo is part of the logo.
Maurice was taking great pleasure in pouring the potable himself, with all the paternal pride of the creator.
The vodka’s purity has also been upgraded from his previous product. A big selling point for Skyy is the claim that it will not leave the drinker with a hangover. Why is that? Because the congeners, the impurities that are created through distillation, have been removed through a triple-filtration process, a process invented by Kanbar in his San Francisco laboratory. The congeners, says Maurice, is what leaves one with ill effects after imbibing a bit.
But Blue Angel’s filtration process, says Maurice, is even more advanced. It goes through four steps, not three. This makes for a smoother, purer drink. The formula, of course, is a secret.
The quality of the vodka, according to Jim Eason, Blue Angel’s smart, energetic CEO, is paramount. (Eason, a Texas native by way of North Carolina, is amused to hear people in San Francisco associate him with the radio great of the same name from KGO.)
“Even in this economic downturn,” Eason said in his office at a converted Victorian on Van Ness Avenue, “we’re banking on Blue Angel as a premium brand.” Its closest competitor is Belvedere or Grey Goose. These vodkas sell for around $30 a bottle. Skyy goes for about $15 a bottle.
“I’m not competing against Skyy,” says Kanbar.
A quick canvassing of the vodkas in the inventory at BevMo reveals there are more than 350 brands of vodkas available in the U.S. When Maurice started in 1992, the vodka market was much smaller. It was about to explode. The competition today is formidable.
After he sold Skyy to Campari – that sale took place in stages over several years – he made an agreement that he would not get into the vodka business again for three years. He didn’t wait very long. Maurice is reluctant to discuss the terms of that sale. In 2001, when he sold a 50 percent stake in Skyy, the deal reportedly went for $207.5 million. Earlier, Campari had purchased an 8.9 percent of the company.
Holding 30 percent of Skyy at the time allowed Maurice the freedom to pursue one of his lifelong ambitions – to be a philanthropist. San Francisco has benefited greatly from his largesse. The Kanbar Cardiac Center at the California Pacific Medical Center, the Kanbar Hall theatre at the Jewish Community Center, a new home for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, enormous support for the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Film Society, and financial backing for ImageMakers, the KQED television show for independent films – all these are recipients of support from the Kanbar Foundation. At New York University, there’s the Kanbar Institute of Film & Television. By the way, the Brooklyn-born Maurice founded the first multiplex movie house in New York.
His love of movies led him to establish Kanbar Entertainment. He produced an animated feature, Hoodwinked, a send-up of the Little Red Riding Hood fable, which grossed $110 million worldwide. A sequel is now in production. Kanbar Entertainment is involved in a number of other movie production deals, such as Lifelines, directed by Rod Margolies, set for an April release.
“Movies are the ultimate art form of the 21st century,” Maurice states.
It’s hard to keep up with the peripatetic Maurice Kanbar. His energy is relentless.
“Can you believe that Wikipedia listed me as being born in 1918?” he murmured incredulously the other day. He got a chuckle out of that. Yes, it’s not true.
Maurice is not the sort to rest on his laurels and sit around sipping his inventions all day. Yet he wants the world to get to know the next great martini. That’s one of Maurice’s aspirations. He calls it the BAM, the Blue Angel martini.
“I want people to go into a bar and order a BAM as readily as they order a Cosmopolitan,” Maurice declaims. “I want the BAM to be part of the culture, part of the language.”
Yes, there will be the obligatory wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am jokes – but Maurice is not afraid of jokes. “Jokes are an essential part to a real culture.”
At the Perry’s gathering, servers scurried from table to table with BAM-filled glasses. He told the group about the gift bags they’d be getting at the close of their time there, a valise filled with all sorts of tchochkes that happened to have been invented by Maurice. They included Zip Notes (sticky notes on a roll that feed through an electronic dispenser so you can make any length of note, which may sound familiar, but the adhesive is in the middle, so the edges of the note don’t curl); Blue Angel timers, reading glasses, and the Kanbar Super Blade knife.
He wished to give a demonstration of its sharpness.
“Go get me grape,” he ordered the nearest person. That was me.
“Oh, so you want me to peel you a grape, huh?” I smirked.
“I write the jokes around here!” he barked.
I hurried to the kitchen where I was told they had no grapes. I returned with a lemon. Maurice just shook his head.
But he finally got his grapes, and it was proven the Kanbar Super Blade can cut like a scalpel – and keep its sharpness. That really is a great gift. All in the room looked pleased. Perhaps a few of the top salesmen might get a scooter, too. Yes, Maurice can be seen zipping around town on a red scooter that he designed.
Meanwhile, Jim Eason talked about the vodka business.
“In the U.S., vodka takes up 30 percent of the market, he says. “That’s pretty big, but in Russia, they consume three billion bottles of vodka a year.”
I’ll bet it’s not all premium vodka.
“Blue is everyone’s favorite color, sure.” Eason adds, “We aim to place the BAM where the Cosmo is. We want to replace the pink with the blue. Personally, I’ll be happy when Blue Angel hits a million cases a year.”
When Maurice sold Skyy, it was selling a million-and-a-half cases. That’s impressive. Eason says 50 million cases of vodka are sold each year in the U.S. Americans buy one-half of the world’s market of premium vodkas.
In a private moment, Maurice revealed another one of his aspirations – one that is not widely known.
“I’m looking for a place in San Francisco that serves the perfect meatloaf sandwich,” he says earnestly. He’s been toying with his recipes in his kitchen in Pacific Heights.
You see, if Maurice does not find the perfect meatloaf sandwich, he will surely invent it.