An aspect of entrepreneurship commonly overlooked is the courage to create change where needed. When Terrence Wheeler noticed there was a void of creativity in the vodka industry, he took matters into his own hands. Through grit and determination, he launched luxury vodka brand LumiereVodka. While it took the Hampton University alum four years to develop and perfect its trade recipe, it hasn’t taken him long to disrupt the space.
We spoke with Wheeler to learn more about the brand and his experiences as a Black business owner.
EBONY: What inspired you to start your own vodka brand, LumiereVodka?
Terrence Wheeler: During my undergraduate tenure at Hampton University, I used to sell a premade cocktail I named “Litty Juice.” After much success, I decided to go to the dollar store and find glass bottles in which I would package the beverage. After seeing my side hustle thrive and branching out to numerous universities—I wanted to step things up more profoundly and seriously. This inspired me to create a spirit with an enticing aroma and unique taste that resembled its raw ingredients while packaged in a bottle design that would draw consumer attention at the point of sale. Many products in the Vodka segment look or taste the same, giving the perception that Vodka is a commodified category. The idea of LumiereVodka allowed me to innovate in a space that had little distinction.
In a crowded market of well-known vodka brands, how does this one stand out and differentiate itself?
LumiereVodka stands out on the shelf with its innovative packaging. The green champagne-style bottle resembles celebratory moments; it is tough to forget for consumers. The distillate inside the bottle is unique for a Vodka. It possesses a wonderful fragrance of vanilla with tasting notes of vanilla bean, butterscotch, and fresh pastry. These fresh-tasting expressions shine through when mixed. It is also only 67 calories per shot, making it a health-conscious option compared to other Vodka brands.
What challenges have you faced as a Black business owner in the spirits industry, and how have you overcome them?
I have encountered numerous problems as a Black founder in the spirits industry. I am not only black, but also abnormally young for a brand owner; I am 26 years old. These two characteristics often affect how people treat or speak to me during business conversations. A unique way I have overcome bias is the way I dress. I always make sure I am sharp as possible before walking in a business meeting. People often ask me, “Why do you always wear a green tie?”. The green tie is not only a suitable attire for staying on brand, but it originally started from me trying to overcome stereotypes by looking professional as possible. Whenever I wore my freshly pressed white shirt with my green tie, it set an immediate impression every time I walked into my meetings, and it eventually stuck as something I always wore. When I was self-distributing my product, retail stores respected my image, and they began calling me “The guy in the green tie.”
What advice would you give to other aspiring Black entrepreneurs looking to break into the spirits industry?
Do not to take shortcuts in the brand-building process. Don’t get into the spirits industry because a particular segment is on trend or looks “cool.” Make sure you are authentic with every aspect of your business. The brands that become truly special in the spirits industry always have a passionate founder behind them that didn’t cut any corners during the brand-building process.
What are your goals for LumiereVodka in the next few years, both in terms of expanding to new markets and increasing brand recognition?
My overall goal is to develop it into a national brand. It has immense potential to grow into a nationally recognized brand. The strategic markets we are examining for expansion are Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, and New York. My short-term goal in increasing brand recognition is to make my target market fall in love with LumiereVodka. Once your identified segment loves you, the concept develops brand equity, and the growth potential becomes unlimited.