Jason Momoa and Blaine Halvorson chat Meili Vodka
Actor Jason Momoa and Blaine Halvorson have launched Meili, a sipping vodka brand that aims to take the category back to basics.
American actor Jason Momoa is a certified Hollywood legend: he’s Aquaman in the Justice League franchise, he was Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones – and now he is one half of the founding team behind award-winning vodka brand Meili.
Blaine Halvorson forms the second half of this partnership, and his success includes co-founding music-nostalgia T-shirt company Junk Food Clothing in the 1990s, creating luxury lifestyle brand MadeWorn in 2013, and for being one of Momoa’s trusted creative directors.
But their venture into the spirits industry is more than just another celebrity cash grab. Meili Vodka is a seven-year labour of love, and a serious business endeavour built from the ground up by the duo. Launched at the start of 2023, Meili has already achieved trio of Gold awards in The Vodka Masters – and the pair are only getting started.
This is a brand that was born out of an honest desire to create a high-quality sipping vodka, first and foremost. Momoa and Halvorson share a mutual admiration not just for each other thanks to their decade-long friendship, but for good-quality drinks.
“Jay and I, we started this seven years ago,” Halvorson recalls. “At the time, it just seemed like there was a void in what was going on in the market. Jason and I really wanted to also change the way people looked at vodka. I felt like vodka was always kind of built as an ingredient, and how it was marketed was as something you had to mix. Jason and I like to sip things neat, and, at least for us, there wasn’t a vodka out there that tasted how we wanted it to taste – it was like drinking rubbing alcohol. So a lot of those seven years was spent focusing on what we could do to make a true neutral spirit that had the ability to be sipped straight.”
Meili – which means ‘the lovely one’ – takes its inspiration from the elements, which are carefully woven into the fabric of the brand. Fire gives a nod to what powers the stills that make the liquid via a single distillation, and the heat that lends itself to shaping the sustainable bottles used to package Meili.
“We wanted to focus heavily on sustainability. That was a non-negotiable for us,” Halvorson says. “We were trying to not only rewrite how sustainability can be done, but we wanted to try to find partners that could actually take us to that level to have 100% sustainability. So that meant not only focusing on the quality of the product and the carbon footprint of where it was coming from, but also in the packaging and in the glass, and finding partners who could help us create arguably the most sustainable packaging you could in the liquor industry.”
Meili’s bottles are made entirely from post-consumer recycled glass – and as a result no two bottles are the same, adding all the more intrigue into the design, and fulfilling Momoa and Halvorson’s sustainable goals.
“We were fortunate to find a partner in Pittsburgh, and it’s the first 100% recycled glass bottle made in America,” Halvorson proudly says. “Again, a large part of those seven years was spent building the right partners so that once we launched, we could take what we had built so far, expand, and hopefully inspire other brands to follow suit with the sustainability piece.”
The co-founders were just as particular about the second element in Meili’s creation: water. Only the purest water would suffice – and it was found in an ancient aquifer in Montana, formed more than 300 million years ago. The water “comes up through a limestone shelf”, Halvorson says, and is untouched before it is blended with Meili to bring the vodka to its 40% ABV strength.
“There are a couple of mineral contents in this water that we’ve never seen in any other water, and we tested hundreds of waters around the world,” Halvorson explains. “That’s what that sweet note that you get at the end of our vodka is based on, that water source. We spent a lot of time trying to find a water source that was sustainable. Our distillery is in Montana, our grains are in Montana, so from a carbon footprint standpoint, actually having a water source there is incredibly small.”
This all ties into the ‘earth’ element of Meili’s being, and the decision to use local farmers to supply the grains for distillation, which is carried out by a partner distiller in the state. Once distillation is completed, the vodka is set to rest and ‘breathe’ – a nod to the element ‘air’ – to create the smooth flavour profile that makes Meili so sippable. Since its launch, the reception to the brand has been “incredible”, notes Momoa. “We launched in Southern California in January, after keeping this thing completely secret for seven years; it was our baby. And you always hope that what you build will be great, but neither of us came from a liquor background. But until you take it to market for a test drive, you never really know. The response has been overwhelming.”
When it comes to production, Meili has the capacity to produce and bottle up to 750,000 cases a year, Halvorson confirms.
Momoa adds: “We felt like the world was ready, or at least the US was ready for a new vodka, that they were ready for something different. We wanted to bring a uniqueness to this idea of sipping vodkas.”
A few tasters went down a storm in New Zealand this summer, when Momoa was there filming his TV show, Chief of War. He then went to Tahiti on holiday, and once again received rave reviews. Word is quickly spreading through Polynesia.
Simultaneously, back in the US Meili is making its way across the country. Momoa says: “My mum’s in Iowa and now so is Meili. We’re in the Midwest – we’re killing it. It’s exciting to see it in places I grew up in. Everyone we talk to is so pumped – and it’s so exciting to see it finally out there. I mean, I can’t keep my mouth shut; I’m horrible at surprises, and after keeping my mouth shut for seven years, I deserve some fucking awards for that,” he laughs. “It’s pretty amazing to go, wow, all this hard work and what we did and what we believed in is finally paying off. It’s probably one of the biggest honours of my life.”
Consumer demand is high. So much so, the duo plan to extend the bottling line in 2024. However, Halvorson says a Meili distillery is not something he or Momoa plan to pursue. They will continue to work with the distillery located outside of Bozeman Montana, “a family I’ve grown up with”, says Halvorson.
At present, fans will be able to find Meili in a number of US markets: California, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New England, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas and Florida, says Halvorson.
And, outside of the US, consumers in New Zealand and Jamaica can now also order the brand. US-based drinkers situated outside of the aforementioned markets won’t have long to wait, however, as Meili is scheduled to be available nationwide by early 2024.
Furthermore, the 700ml formats are being finalised, meaning Meili will be heading to the UK, France and Germany in due course. Consumers Down Under should also keep their ears to the ground for a release date.
“It feels nice to have that global footprint, especially right out of year one,” says Halvorson. “Our focus has always been building amazing relationships with bars and restaurants, and it’s a really wonderful place to build a brand. A lot of our focus is on building and partnering, and doing everything we can to build up that trade. Plus, it’s also just fun to get into these different venues and see what the artists there are doing with it, from the mixologists and how they’re interpreting our brand, and so forth.”
In California, Meili is already in “every major chain at this point”, Halvorson enthuses. “The restaurants, bars and hotels are also really crucial to help with consumer education and brand awareness.”
Momoa continues: “It’s almost like an equation, where you’re making a movie, and if you have a great script, you’re going to attract great actors. And if you have great actors, you’re going to get the money to make that movie. And when you have the money, and you have a great product, and it’s going to get out there and get seen, then you can make it for a cost and keep it down, with less cooks in the kitchen and less assholes telling you what to do, it’s going to be a concentrated product, and that’s where it’s a success.
“I feel like with any brand I work with, whether it be Carhartt or Harley, where I like to direct for them, I like to make their customers feel it’s not just about pedalling new shit, it’s about making them feel proud of what they already love and enjoy, or showing them something about the company that they just didn’t have the perspective on before.”
With Meili Vodka, Momoa says his approach is no different. “Coming into this, it was like, vodka’s broken,” he says. “It’s been sealed as this ingredient that can taste like pineapple or cranberry – but we love drinking stuff straight. So at the same time, we want to make a beautiful vodka that can be enjoyed neat, but also added to a Martini or in a Bloody Meili, and it’s going to taste even better.”
Momoa and Halvorson are evidently passionate storytellers and creative people, and sustainability is the backbone to the Meili plot. “I did an event in Palm Springs,” recalls Halvorson, “talking about sustainability to an amazing group of people. And they brought Bouchon [restaurant] in from Napa to do this event, and Bouchon brought their mixologist. And they did every single iconic drink from Margaritas to you name it, but with Meili. That’s a big part of what Jason and I are trying to build because we really feel like Meili has a flavour profile that means it can be a substitute for so many other spirits, which is not only fun but also, people don’t look at vodka that way – we want them to.”
If you’re already eager to see what the follow-up launch will be to Meili Vodka, then you’ll be somewhat disappointed. Momoa and Halvorson are dedicated to growing Meili Vodka in its purest form, and additional products are not in the pipeline, Halvorson says. It’s a bold move in a category that, for the most part, has built itself on line extensions and flavour ranges.
“It would be great to get to that point where people are like, ‘this is what vodka should have been to begin with’,” says Halvorson, when asked what the ultimate goal for Meili Vodka would be. “As far as I’m concerned, vodka was built wrong to begin with. A lot of what vodka has become is just marketing. For a long time, it’s been pulling the rug over people’s eyes.
“Being able to help the consumer reimagine what vodka actually can be, and how versatile it can be, that would be the goal,” he concludes, before swiftly adding: “And to take over the fucking world.”
If anyone has the tenacity to do so, it’s these two.