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S. Charleston native, friends market vodka for women

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A poolside conversation with two girlfriends in 2010 prompted South Charleston native LeeAnn Maxwell and the two women to jump into the male-dominated world of vodka production.

At the time, a vodka company had signed a deal with a reality program star to lend his name to a vodka. The assignment rankled Maxwell and her friends Jenny Policky and Carrie King, all of Atlanta. They had each packed a bottle of vodka for their girls' weekend that included the poolside chat.

"We had a conversation about how there wasn't a pure vodka marketed to women. There were flavors, mixes and 'skinny' this and that, but no pure vodka," said Maxwell. "We asked ourselves why the three brands we brought were our favorite vodkas. None of them really spoke to women."

King suggested they start a vodka company and call it Vixen. The word "vixen" paired so well with "vodka," the women were sure the name already existed. Maxwell researched it when she returned home and found the brand "Vixen Vodka" was not taken. She registered the name and waded into the resulting legal paperwork.

When Maxwell's former husband, Charleston native and creative director Eddie Snyder, was told about Vixen Vodka, he offered to design the logo. He suggested they use a woman's legs as the X in "Vixen."

From workout sessions, the women knew a friend with long, shapely legs and asked her to be their model. She agreed. They shot her legs clad in black tights in front of a white sheet; Thompson used them in his logo design.

After registering the name and logo, they looked at each other and said, "I wonder how you make vodka."

None of them had a background in liquor production. They chose a Colorado private label distillery, Mile High Spirits, to make their vodka after a day sipping samples in Denver. Between sips, to clear their heads and palates, they'd breathe in deeply from a bowl of coffee beans.

Because they're all health-conscious, they wanted to make a relatively healthful product. It wouldn't work to simply reduce the calories, because the calories in distilled spirits are determined by alcohol content -- "and what fun is it to reduce that?" Maxwell asked. Instead, they decided to make a gluten-free product that people with celiac disease or who were leading a gluten-free lifestyle could enjoy.

Vixen Vodka is made from corn. The three women own the formula through their company, Vixen Enterprises.

"Vixen Vodka has a very clean, very pure taste. It is distilled five times through a glass still and made with Rocky Mountain spring water. It has almost a silky taste at the end with no burn," said Maxwell.

They launched the vodka in Georgia and sold 100 cases in three days, surprising liquor store owners whose lukewarm response to their sales pitch was usually "Great, another vodka."

Maxwell is working to introduce Vixen Vodka to other states, after gaining the approval each state requires for placement in establishments that sell bottled liquor.

Vixen Enterprises has made good progress in the less than two years since they formed the company. "In this industry, we've actually moved at lightning speed. We're three women who like to get stuff done. It's been a complete labor of love," said Maxwell, who plans to place her product on West Virginia shelves at some point.

The women are at three diverse stages in their lives and represent a demographic of women in their 30s to 50s. Their backgrounds include finance, sales and marketing -- and lots of strong opinions on what it means to be a woman, as reflected in a mission statement of sorts that reads in part, "I am a vixen. I am more than a reflection in the mirror."

Women of all ages and backgrounds are visibly moved when Maxwell hands out cards printed with the full reading. A 20-year-old administrative employee said she was going to place the card on her mirror, where she'd see it every day. She thought it would be a good mantra. A 40-year-old mother cried.

"It means different things to different people, but the message is for you to go for it," Maxwell said. "A dream without action is merely a fantasy. We took our dream and put action behind it."

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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