June 28, 2012
“A happy accident has led Calistoga’s Michael Nicholson to the edge of fame and enough fortune to realize his long-held dream of establishing a craft distillery in his hometown.
A year ago, Nicholson, 31, debuted Cougar Juice Vodka and has had some success distributing it regionally. Earlier this year, he got a routine order for six bottles for a birthday party in Southern California.
Turns out, however, that the anonymous birthday girl wasn’t just anyone. It was Vicki Gunvalson, the star of “Real Housewives of Orange County,” the flagship of the “Real Housewives” series of reality shows on the Bravo TV network, partying with her friends and co-stars to celebrate her 50th birthday.
And she liked what she tasted.
“I liked the flavor of it,” she told The Weekly Calistogan this week, after wrapping up the seventh season of the successful show. “I liked the cleanliness of it. It felt really natural.” NOTE: “It felt natural”… Did Vicki TASTE the vodka or use it as a body wash??
As it happened, Gunvalson was looking for an established vodka formula that she could buy into and add to her expanding roster of branded products. Cougar Juice tasted pretty good, she said, in her favorite drink: the blue cheese dirty martini, made with vodka and a blue cheese–stuffed olive.
“I’m always looking for the opportunity to brand myself,” said Gunvalson, who runs several businesses in addition to her television career and endorsing and putting her name on various products. “But I like to do things that I actually use and actually like.”
Now, just three months after she encountered the vodka, she owns it. Nicholson and Gunvalson finalized a deal earlier this month that gives her the vodka formula and the distinctive frosted-bottle packaging that Nicholson had been using. For his part, Nicholson will retain a partial interest in the product, which the pair hope to take national after a test run in Costco stores and other outlets in Southern California.
The vodka will be rebranded “Vicki’s Vodka.” It has already appeared on Bravo and will be featured on the “Real Housewives” season finale on July 3.
Nicholson won’t say how much the deal was worth, but he admits with a laugh that it is “more than I have made in 10 years.”
The windfall will allow him to pursue his real passion: bourbon. He is scouting several possible locations for a distillery in Calistoga.
He still owns the name “Cougar Juice” and may eventually apply it to a new vodka formula at his new distillery, though his main focus will be his bourbon and other whiskies.
Gunvalson she considered buying the name, but “it was a little too raw for me.”
“Cougar” is common slang for an older woman on the prowl for younger men. The name “excluded a lot of demographics or genders,” she said.
Both Gunvalson and Nicholson said their partnership turned from an unlikely-seeming match — a small-town Northern California boy and a Southern California celebrity — into a meeting of like minds.
“We have the same business sense,” she said. “He’s very focused and very passionate about what he does, and so am I.”
Gunvalson visited Calistoga several times during the negotiations and said she likes it. Should Bravo renew the show for another season, which has yet to be decided, she hopes to document her business partnership with Nicholson and film in Calistoga for at least several episodes.
“We’ll be there with the camera crew,” she said.
Vicki after drinking vodka…