Trump the Ro
The Story of the Candidate’s Failed Vodka
“Trump steaks,” said Donald Trump. “Where are the steaks? Do we have steaks? We have Trump steaks.” The billionaire Republican presidential candidate was giving a victory speech in Florida in early March, after the Michigan primary. Behind him were American flags; beside him, a display table piled high with Trumpbranded merchandise for sale. “We make the finest wine, as good a wine as you can get,” Trump said of the dozens of bottles of Trump wine. “I supply the water for all my places, and it’s good—but it’s very good,” he said about the shrink-wrapped cases of Trump water. Trump mentioned Trump Vodka, too. But there’s no Trump Vodka on the table for the TV cameras to zoom in on.
One week later, on St. Patrick’s Day, J. Patrick Kenny, the creator of Trump Vodka, is sitting in his New York office, sipping a Diet Coke and explaining what had gone wrong. Not even he has a bottle of the stuff left. “There used to be one here, but it’s gone,” Kenny says. “The company cratered.” Trump Vodka had problems, from distillery to bottling to finance. Even so, it would be just another celebrity’s doomed foray into liquor if it weren’t the project of a potential president. With no political résumé to speak of, the only way to evaluate the capabilities of Trump is by once again poking around in his exploits in commerce. Like his bankrupt casinos, closed college, and other dead- end brand journeys, Trump Vodka was a flamboyant exercise in failure. Trump, naturally, insists it was a triumph, though good luck finding a bottle today. Its slogan was “Success Distilled.”
Kenny, a hefty man who walks with a cane, was working for the global liquor giant Seagram in the 1980s when he had an epiphany. He watched TV commercials starring Bruce Willis, then at the zenith of his Moonlighting- era charms, twirling in one of them around a hot Southern porch, singing about wine coolers into a bottle he held like a microphone. Somehow, Willis made the beverage seem tempting. “I saw the star power,” Kenny says. “I saw the role it could play.” He left Seagram in 2000 and helped create a website for adolescent girls called Sweet16, which counted Britney Spears as an investor, but the Internet bubble burst a few months later. In 2002 he started another company, Drinks Americas, with the idea of shaping specific beverages around celebrities. A mutual friend, former Bloomingdale’s head Marvin Traub, took Kenny to pitch Trump.
The mogul’s real estate and casino business had surged in the 1980s and almost toppled in the early ’90s. After Trump rebounded, he often licensed his name to other people’s buildings and merchandise, giving his fans Donald Trump the Fragrance and Trump pinstripe suits. Then there was golf, resorts, books, a couple of towers. Trump was a perfect candidate for Kenny’s line of branded beverages. The pair’s first meeting took place in Trump’s office, then in its Apprentice heyday.
“As he was saying, ‘I’m going to negotiate the s--- out of you,’ klieg lights went on and television cameras started filming,” Kenny says. “I was like, ‘Wow, our moment of greatness.’ ” Trump lent his name in exchange for about half the profits, with minimum royalties of $2 million by November 2008 and more to come later.
Trump didn’t seem to mind that shares of Drinks Americas had been selling for less than a dollar each. (Kenny had executed a reverse merger with