Most 25-year-olds are just trying to figure out their path in life. But D.C. resident Chanel Turner already knew by then what her path was: building her own vodka brand.
Turner, now 34, wasn’t out to compete with the Grey Gooses and Belvederes of the world. Instead, she wanted to fill a void in the spirits market by creating a vodka that someone could drink straight, without the unpleasant afterburn.
“I can’t remember anyone I knew that wanted to consume a vodka by itself,” Turner says. “I wanted to bring that experience back, where you can actually consume it without having to mix it with sugary juices.”
In 2009, Turner launched Fou-Dre Vodka (the name is based on the French word for lightning, “foudre”). The process of getting Fou-Dre to store shelves took nearly four years, but Turner was insistent on getting all the details right. She tested over 80 different vodka formulas at a Charleston, S.C., plant — where Fou-Dre is now distilled and bottled — before choosing the brand’s signature pomegranate-infused flavor. Behind the scenes, Turner continued working her 9-to-5 job as a government contractor.
“You can say that I have two full-time jobs,” she jokes, noting that she still balances her government job with Fou-Dre.
Fou-Dre — and its lightning bolt-shaped bottles — became available for purchase in 2013. The vodka is currently sold in over 40 stores in the D.C. area and Georgia, in addition to countries including Japan, Singapore and Jamaica. Fou-Dre’s business operations are headquartered in an Upper Marlboro, Md., warehouse, where Turner travels regularly after work. Despite her success, Turner says her biggest challenge is finding acceptance within the spirits industry, both as an independent owner and as a woman of color.
“I would set up meetings with different distributors, and they weren’t expecting to see someone like myself,” she says. “It’s hard as a woman of color, especially in an industry that’s dominated by white men.”
According to Turner, the racial discrimination she experienced during these meetings was a big reason she was unable to obtain a distribution deal for Fou-Dre.
“We had a lot of challenges with finding a distributor in the beginning,” she says. “Eventually, we ended up having to obtain our own distribution license for the state of Maryland and D.C.”
Turner soon realized she wasn’t alone. In 2015, online business directory Official Black Wall Street featured Fou-Dre and several other black-owned wine and spirits brands, many of which Turner had no idea existed. The article inspired her to launch the Black Owned Wine and Spirits Festival in 2016.
“There are a lot of mainstream products out there, but there are also small craft products that we could be supporting,” Turner says.
In 2017, attendance at the festival doubled from the inaugural event’s turnout. Turner anticipates over 2,000 attendees at this year’s celebration, which features 30 to 40 wine, beer and spirits brands from across the country.
“We are one of the only spirits festivals in the country where you can taste the product and actually buy it on-site,” Turner says. “Last year, all of our vendors sold out.”
Turner plans to introduce Fou-Dre’s new “straight” line of vodka (with no flavor infusions) at the festival ahead of its official launch in 2019. She hopes the event, and her success with Fou-Dre, will inspire others — particularly women of color — to start their own spirits businesses.
“I encourage them to establish relationships with black decision-makers like themselves,” she says. “Do your homework and ensure that you’re fully prepared to step into this industry.”
Dock 5 at Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE; Sat., 2-8 p.m., $55.
A sampler of the vendors at this year’s festival
Noticing a lack of representation in the spirits industry, Fou-Dre Vodka founder Chanel Turner launched a festival to highlight black-owned wine, vodka and beer brands. Here are a few of the vendors you’ll find at the third annual Black Owned Wine and Spirits Festival on Saturday.
Harlem Brewing: Harlem Brewing founder Celeste Beatty is one of the few African-American brewers in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, Turner says. The 18-year-old company’s trademark beer is the Sugar Hill Ale, which is brewed with locally grown hops.
Den of Thieves: Den of Thieves is one of several brands returning to the festival this year, selling its trademark chocolate- and ginger-vanilla-infused whiskeys. “They were our most popular vendor from last year, so I’m excited that they’re coming back,” Turner says.
Hidden Spirits Cocktails: Headquartered outside Cleveland, Hidden Spirits sells ready-made cocktails that you can boost with the spirit of your choice. “They tell you what their preferred spirit would go with a cocktail,” Turner says. “But, of course, you can use whatever you like.”