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Vodka Chaser

How an air-traffic controller's liquor dreams took flight

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Westlake resident Rich Hellner was watching television one day when he spotted an ad for bubblegum vodka. As chance would have it, the air-traffic controller was eating some peanut butter at the time. Something clicked in his head. Vodka . . . peanut butter . . . vodka . . . peanut butter . . . Peanut butter vodka?

Why not, Hellner figured.

The one problem with his brainstorm? Hellner had zero experience in distillery or food service, and he didn't even have a background in chemistry to lean on. But whereas others would have let the idea die on the vine, Hellner decided to give it a shot. He contacted a flavor house in California that agreed to work up some samples.

"I went to them and said I wanted a 70-proof vodka that tastes like the inside of a Reese's peanut butter cup," Hellner says. After about 10 tries, the company sent a sample that nailed it. He decided to cash in his 401K and settle in to promote Pandora Spirits LLC and his new concoction, which he dubbed NutLiquor.

Hellner — along with partner Karen Neff — has been pushing the product since October 2010, while still putting in 40 hours a week at the Oberlin airport.

One key to NutLiquor's appeal: It leaves no drinker on the sidelines. It's natural, vegan, and doesn't trigger peanut allergies.

"I don't know whether they chant around a fire someplace and do magic, but there is a way to remove the allergens from our flavoring," he says. "It's a little more expensive, but that's the route we decided to go. We worked really hard for that, because peanut allergies are so much in the forefront these days."

Not surprisingly, NutLiquor combines well with other flavors to yield a candy store of tasty sipping; among the suggestions offered up at the NutLiquor website are pairings with chocolate vodka, Irish cream, butterscotch schnapps, and banana liqueur.

Also not surprisingly, drinkers are lapping it up. In NutLiquor's first year, Hellner hoped to get the beverage in 20 states. It's currently in 39, thanks to buzz created at industry trade shows. Locally, the vodka has been available for the last five months, mainly at stores and bars on the West Side. Further expansion is the next move, but Hellner says the demand has been almost overwhelming.

"Our main problem right now is keeping the product in the pipeline," he says. "Honestly, it's selling faster than we can make it. I didn't expect it to go this well."

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