Trump the Ro

The Story of the Can­di­date’s Failed Vodka

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus / Small Business - By Max Abel­son Pho­to­graph by Eric Hel­gas

“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

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