In the years following their 2010 graduation from La Cañada High School, Kate Cullen and Josh Hanson tried their hand at several jobs in Los Angeles’ business sector — bookkeeping and finance, management and IT— but nothing seemed to stick.
In 2016 the couple, who began dating as high school seniors and had stayed together through college, started to talk about leaving L.A. for someplace more secluded and outdoorsy.
“Our drives really kicked up to leave Southern California and the rat race,” Hanson recalled. “We were looking for something slower.”
They considered locales in Wyoming and Northern California. But a visit to a friend who lived in Idaho’s Sun Valley ski country sealed the deal, so that October they took the leap.
Though Hanson and Cullen, both 26, had chosen Idaho for its wide open spaces, outdoor recreational opportunities and a change of scenery, it wasn’t until they took a tour of a brewery and distillery in the small city of Ketchum they would become inspired to embark on a business venture of a lifetime.
In February, the pair officially launched Party Animal Vodka, a gluten-free distillation made from Idaho Russet potatoes that is now on the shelves of liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Idaho and California, including local spots like Vendome Wine & Spirits, Ocean View Liquor, Dona Maria Mexican Restaurant and Ocean View Bar & Grill in Montrose.
The label is moderately priced and intended to connect with the lifestyles and priorities of a younger consumer market.
“There are a ton of brands out here, but what I saw was there wasn’t really a brand that told the story of the consumer,” said Cullen. “We wanted to have a fun name that played on what consumers want—something kind of unique and cheeky.”
Contributing to Party Animal’s charm is the fact that 10% of the company’s profits will be continually donated to animal-related charities and conservation efforts. But charm aside, the vodka itself is getting a warm reception from those willing to try a new label.
In April, Cullen and Hanson took home a double gold medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. A month later, Party Animal won a platinum medal at the SIP Awards, an international spirits competition judged by consumers in a blind tasting.
The pair estimates fewer than 3% of the vodkas produced worldwide is derived from potatoes, as most brands use variations of wheat and rye or corn. Potato, by contrast, lends a subtler taste, but it’s also a no-brainer when living in Idaho.
“When life gives you potatoes, you make vodka,” Hanson joked.
Now, with fellow LCHS alum Mike Magnuson acting as regional sales manager for California, Cullen and Hanson are putting long hours into promoting the Party Animal brand and seeing it catches the attention of millennial consumers and beyond.
Magnuson said the strategy in California is targeting bars, restaurants and tastings where potential customers are willing to try something new.
“With a new brand, it’s just getting past a name these guys don’t know,” he said. “The more and more exposure we get, the better the response has been — we’re kind of just taking it step by step.”
Cullen and Hanson say they’re happy to go along for the ride.
“It’s not easy at all,” Cullen said of the process. “It’s definitely been very exciting and very scary but very fulfilling.”