By Dwain Hebda
The manager of the Little Rock liquor store looked me over with something between bemusement and bewilderment. A new Arkansas-made flavored vodka, Trump Tonic, was burning up social media, I said, fashioned after the Commander-In-Chief. Did they carry it?
I barely had the sentence out of my mouth before he led me to the tasting area and slid me a sample snort of the shocking orange elixir. Bearing the unmistakable likeness of Donald Trump, stylized as a yin and yang symbol – flowing mane and all – the front label bore the tagline “Embrace the Orangeness”; the back read, “Making America Drink Again.”
What madness is this, I thought? Turns out, it was the most American kind of madness, one that blended unfiltered entrepreneurial chutzpah with the time-honored, if highly endangered art of satire.
“We’re in such a highly charged political environment every day,” says J. Ross Jones, owner of Postmaster Distillery in Newport and creator of the day-glo beverage. “We’re hoping people will take a step back and realize that life is too short not to laugh at oneself and to make light of and have fun with where we are, who we are. That we have the freedom to say and to express ourselves in these ways.”
Trump Tonic – technically, Tryump Tonic thanks to a backwards “R” which is the Russian “Z” pronounced “ry” – is the first offering from Postmaster Spirits. Ross bought the operation about three years ago after a career in journalism that sharpened the political wit that rolls nonstop in conversation.
“Our inaugural product is the biggest inaugural orange-flavored vodka ever produced in Newport, Arkansas, in the history of mankind,” he says. “I say that in my most Trumpian voice.
“Humor is all that we’re selling. The product is good, and we went to great lengths to develop the flavor, but what we’re selling is political satire with ‘proof.’ Bazinga!”
The packaging is just the tip of the skewer. Jones has developed an entire roster that in one way or another connects back to the Trump administration. Signature drinks include the Mueller Mule, the CNN Shooter and a jello shot aimed at the president’s detractors.
“It’s lemon-lime jello with TT in it and it encapsulates a cherry on a stem,” Jones deadpans. “We call it No Collusion, but there’s a warning on it. It may be impossible for Democrats to swallow.”
Not surprisingly, the reaction to the product has been passionate on both sides, as wide media coverage has brought Trump supporters racing to buy a bottle and Trump haters racing for their pitchforks. To say the joke was lost on some would be an understatement which only inspires Jones to tweak harder those who can’t see the humor.
“It seems to spark a political debate anywhere it’s posted or mentioned, on things that are completely unrelated,” he says. “Before it made it to market, people were guesstimating what it tasted like and one of my favorite responses was that the flavor was sourced from liberal tears. I love that one.”
Besides, says Jones, he’s an equal opportunity employer when it comes to political barbs, as the company’s next few products bear out.
“We have more flavors that are in development right now,” he says. “One of them is a salted caramel called the Salted Caramel Caravan. We’ve got the Stormy Liqueur, it’s passionfruit-flavored. And my favorite is Mmmm-Peach.”
“I want everybody to have a stance in it. I want to give [Trump] his rebuttal space; if it’s negative on the front, I want it to be positive on the back so that the Democrats can stand over there in the corner and have a good time and the Republicans can stand on the other side of the room and have a good time.”
The hooch itself tastes like an orange creamcicle and at just 30 proof, it’s low voltage enough to appeal to a wide variety of palates. But Jones readily admits it’s not the flavor profile that’s spiked demand and he’s fine with that.
“Yes, it’s a novelty. Yes, it has a life span, but yes, we hit a nerve with a lot of people and the response from across the country has been overwhelming,” he says. “We have a national broker that got us into 37 states and it’s striking a nerve in every state it goes to. Yesterday, we got requests from 10 other states for samples. Today we got another five requests from people in different states to introduce it into those states.”
“We’ve had people stop by while driving through Arkansas, heard about it, bought a case. It’s kind of like Smokey and the Bandit; they’re going to run some up to Missouri. I’ve had people want me to sign the bottle. I just had a couple leave; they’re specialty alcohol collectors that will go out of their way to get what you’re making so they can put it in their collection. Now they’ve got one and no one else has.”
Behind Jones’ smartass schtick beats the heart of a true entrepreneur. He bought the business – the second oldest distillery in the state behind Rock Town in Little Rock by mere days – after getting pretty good at brewing beer.
“I needed something to do and I thought ‘Well, hell, I can make pretty good beer. I bet I can make pretty good whiskey,’” he says. “As most distillers out of the gate, you make a vodka because basically it’s watered down moonshine. It’s right off the still and if you flavor it, it doesn’t even have to be that good.”
Something else Smith is dead serious about is breathing life and attention into Newport. He points to his very building as evidence of the rebirth that is possible with the right investment and a little creativity.
“We’re about a 7,000-square-foot former post office. It’s a fantastic building with marble and terrazzo and big arches,” he says. “It was over-built by the government; built in 1914. Got a surveillance tunnel all the way through it.”
Smith swears a spirit lives in that tunnel, citing disembodied sounds no one can explain. Whether that’s true or hype, the fact remains there’s plenty of spirits upstairs – bottled and labeled by hand – with more produced every day to meet demand.
“It’s all about the satire. The only thing we’re selling is a label,” Jones says. “I’m not trying to piss either side off, but I am trying to piss off both sides.”