With its red, white and blue packaging and USA-CERTIFIED label from Made in USA Industries, a third-party verification company, Salute American Vodka’s patriotic perspective runs deeper than a business mantra. Founded in 2012 by entrepreneur Pete Kelly as a means of “paying it forward” to U.S. veterans struggling with unemployment, homelessness and post-traumatic stress, the self-titled brand and company donates the first dollar of every bottle sold to nonprofit organizations that provide programs and services for veterans and other American heroes.

Bottled and distilled by Rochester, N.Y.-based Better Brands Beverage Co., Salute American Vodka officially launched in 2013 in Missouri and Florida. After just one month, the premium spirit was able to donate $25,000 to Work Vessels for Veterans, a national nonprofit based in Connecticut, to support a veteran who was starting a blueberry farm in Florida, Salute American Vodka President John Niekrash says.

“Salute American is more than a name — it’s our mission. Since our founding, Salute American Vodka has financially contributed more than $60,000 to nonprofits that provide programs and services for veterans and other American heroes looking to further their education, start their own businesses and work toward the American dream,” he says. “We have — and always will — give the first dollar of every bottle sold to organizations that work tirelessly with the nearly 20 million active or retired veterans who have bravely sacrificed for our country.

“This community is unique in that these organizations work together to fill the void in government support to help American heroes transition from military to civilian life and the workforce,” he continues. “At Salute American Vodka, we want to ensure there are enough resources to help veterans of all ages to transition to civilian life. … This is the heart of our company.”

Among the ways it accomplishes its charitable mission is by awarding scholarships, laptops, work-related equipment and vehicles, while also providing job opportunities and sponsoring local events and award celebrations, he adds.

Since its founding, Salute American Vodka has helped 17 veterans and remains committed to producing high-quality, authentically all-American spirits. The 80-proof vodka is made with corn and wheat grains grown in the heartland and is distilled four times for a thickened pour and a smooth, clean and odorless taste, the company says.

American authenticity

To become USA Certified, a company must undergo an audit and certification process by Made in USA Industries to prove that all product assembly and American labor complies with all United States safety standards and labor laws, Niekrash says.

“In an era of outsourcing to other countries, it is our goal to create products and partner with service providers who employ and support the American workforce. True to its name, Salute American Vodka is USA Certified, which means that the company is creating American jobs through agriculture, manufacturing and sales,” Niekrash explains. “The USA Certified seal appears on all Salute American Vodka products, communications and promotional materials.”

Designed to look like a World War II standard-issue GI canteen, every aspect of Salute American Vodka’s frosted bottle, along with the ingredients contained within, are made and manufactured in the United States. For example, the T-cork is from Richmond, Mich.; the capsule is from Ukiah, Calif.; the bottles are manufactured in Park Hills, Mo.; the bottles are frosted and decorated in Wayne, N.J.; and they’re shipper cased in St. Louis.

Niekrash says the package design of Salute American Vodka is a tribute to the “greatest generation,” those who fought for America’s freedom in World War II, as well as today’s military who serve and protect our country, he says.

“Since its origin, the military canteen has evolved and is now made from new materials. However, the actual shape of the vessels has not changed. It is a timeless icon that has become recognizable within the military community, and this is why we chose the canteen for our bottle design,” he says.

In June 2016, the company’s charitable mission and distribution were bolstered when it was acquired by Handcrafted Brands LLC, Branford, Conn. The acquisition enabled the American-made craft spirit to expand its reach in the Northeast, across the country to the Midwest and along the West Coast.

In addition to Florida and Missouri, the award-winning vodka can be purchased in Connecticut and Massachusetts and soon will be available in Virginia, New York and New Jersey, with national rollout anticipated by the end of the year, the company says. Available in 750-ml bottles, Salute American Vodka retails for $19.99.

Salute American Vodka is recognized for its taste, aroma and finish, Niekrash says. Most recently, it won the 2017 Ultimate Spirits Challenge Great Value award; a Silver Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017 for showing refinement, finesse and complexity; and a Platinum SIP Medal, the second-highest consumer-chosen honor, in the 2017 Spirits International Prestige for its taste, aroma and finish.

A spirit with a soul, Salute American Vodka is a leader for corporate social responsibility in the spirits industry as it seeks to positively impact the world, it says, citing a 2015 study from Nielsen that states that 87 percent of adults express greater brand loyalty to companies that support social or environmental issues.

“Our goal is to continue working with our distributors and retailers as partners to expand our charitable impact within the communities where our high-quality, American-made, craft vodka is sold,” Niekrash says.

Currently, the company has 15 partners, two of whom are paid staff, actively working to expand the brand and its charitable impact, including salesman Ryan Dunne, an Army veteran who served from 2004 to 2008 as an intelligence analyst and did an eight-month tour in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“On a daily basis, Ryan works one-on-one with retailers and distributors to help build Salute American Vodka’s charitable impact through sales. He is an integral part of Salute American Vodka’s grassroots efforts to grow the company, one bottle, one city, one state at a time,” Niekrash says.

He also points to the leadership, passion, drive and energy of Lieutenant General Ray Palumbo, a retired three-star Army general who leads Salute American Vodka’s board members through a selection process alongside charity partners to identify those veterans most in need.

“Palumbo provides counsel to the brand’s leadership and helps connect Salute American Vodka with veteran communities,” Niekrash says. “He is passionate about raising awareness of veteran issues in the minds of all Americans, tapping into their charitable spirit.”

Although not a veteran himself, Niekrash co-founded the aforementioned Work Vessels for Vets in 2008. To date, the organization has assisted more than 1,600 veterans in 48 states with more than $2 million dollars in “vessels,” including computers, cars, tractors and other equipment, with support from sales of Salute American Vodka.

Although giving back, making a difference in communities and thanking veterans is an important part of the ethos of Salute American Vodka, Niekrash also highlights the “incredible support” and partnerships with numerous nonprofits and retailers to help further the brand’s social mission.

“At Salute American Vodka, our strong conviction is that if someone is willing to put on a uniform and to give up his or her life in the defense of America, then that person deserves great support when returning to a civilian career,” he says. “Salute American heroes. Raise a glass and recruit others to join the Salute American Vodka mission. Together, we can make a lasting impact.” BI