Drink Like a Sailor

A new kind of vodka make Newport home


It’s hard to be surprised by vodka these days. Flavors range from cotton candy to pumpkin pie, and it’s only a matter of time before you’ll find bacon and egg vodka in your Sunday brunch Bloody Mary. But when two local entrepreneurs decided to shake up the vodka market, they weren’t going to do it with crazy, new flavors. Instead, they were going to do it in a brilliant emerging category defined by vodka at its lightest, purest and dare I say – healthiest.

Keel Vodka co-founders Tom McGowan and Bill Dessel became friends at Boston College in the 1980s and went on to different career paths – McGowan as a Wall Street trader and Dessel as an attorney-turned-restaurateur who owns Billy’s in Barrington. The old friends shared a love of sailing, a love of vodka and an entrepreneurial itch that all came together with Keel. Dessel recalls identifying the niche, “we asked ourselves ‘why isn’t there a Ketel One Light’? We like to think of ourselves as the light beer of vodka – everyone says ‘I’ll never drink that stuff,’ but it sells huge for a reason.”

Keel is a premium light spirit – zero carbs, zero fat, zero protein and only 58 calories per 1.5-ounce pour. It also has a reduced ABV of 23.8%, almost half that of most vodkas. Keel is not light on taste, however, and its secret blend of natural flavors produce a smooth, refreshing drink that rivals other popular brands.

Dessel describes further, “Keel is a drink for people with an active lifestyle. It has less calories and less alcohol so you can have a few drinks and not be ‘that guy’ at the wedding. That’s why we trademarked the slogan ‘Stay Balanced.’” Originally conceived as targeting sailors, the slogan is also a nod to the brand’s nautical theme.

The company is headquartered in Newport but the vodka is produced at a boutique distillery in Idaho – a serendipitous connection when Dessel and McGowan learned that the distillery’s owner attended St. George’s School. The April launch was the culmination of a two-year process from concept to bottle, which Dessel notes was not easy: “Working through the approvals was tough – background checks, federal agencies dissecting everything on the label. You’re in a rush to get to market first and start to sell, but the emergence of other brands is proving out the light spirit category.”

Keel is now available in Rhode Island (will be in Massachusetts by fall), and the owners are preparing for an active grassroots marketing campaign this summer: “Our philosophy is to build a tribal ‘active lifestyle’ following in Rhode Island, one person at a time, with what we call ‘liquid to lips.’ Rhode Island really is the perfect test market – with the diversity of college kids and higher-end businesses in Providence, to the sailing capital of Newport about to boom for summer. We also know that the best promoters are bartenders and servers, so we’ve been educating our vendors’ waitstaff on how to talk about the product.”

You may see a familiar face at Keel’s tastings, cigar nights and sponsored events this summer – retired New England Patriot and three-time Super Bowl champion Matt Light. A friend of Dessel’s, Light is also a partner in the venture and plans are in the works to bring some fellow NFL’ers in for some marketing “heft.” Until then, follow on Facebook and Twitter for updates, including where to find restaurants and liquor stores that carry Keel in stock; also check out their website for some great cocktail recipes.