The Paramount Pledge

Need a buzz for your buck? The king of budget liquor has 150 ways to get you there

By the time your fourth fruity pink concoction is suitably shaken or stirred, it's unlikely you'll know — or care — whether Ketel One or Korski is providing the kick.

Liquors with fancy names and hifalutin prices fall in and out of favor as fast as their buzz gives way to brain ache. But generic Gin & Tonics and tasty Tequila Sunrises — made with whatever bottle your friendly bartender reaches for — are classic requests that never fade.

And for these ageless pursuits, Northeast Ohio relies squarely on one of its own. Paramount Distillers, located on Cleveland's near west side, pumps the life blood through Ohio's neighborhood bars and liquor stores with unmatched abandon.

"Well drinks," "bottom shelf," "the cheap stuff" — Paramount makes Korski vodka and more than 150 other bargain-priced, full-powered liquors designed to start the party without emptying the wallet. Paramount potables seep through 24 other states but are ubiquitous here, accounting for 10 percent of Ohio's adult refreshment sales. For decades, it has been the only distillery in all of the Buckeye state.

No, the Paramount name isn't tossed around in international cocktail circles. The distiller's offerings lack the snob appeal and heritage of, say, a Macallan scotch. But local booze insiders revel in the brand's subdued yet stealthy grandeur.

"I like Paramount," Sheila Hotz proudly proclaims. The fourth-generation proprietor and barkeep of Tremont's classic Hotz Café stocks the Paramount trinity — vodka, gin, and rum — in the well. She favors the vodka and gin. "I can drink anything I want, and I'll drink that any time," she says. She had no idea it was a Cleveland company.

Count Simon Zkiab among the anointed too. Paramount products occupy more shelf space than any other brand at Simone's, his family-owned liquor store in Lakewood. He praises the company for providing not just cheap booze, but for balancing that economical appeal with a quality product. "The price is a big part of it, but if it wasn't good, someone else would take their place," he says.

Paramount fuels the jam sessions at Lakewood's Winchester, where proprietor Jim Mileti was won over by the Cleveland pedigree. "Why wouldn't I support the local product?" he asks, as if to do anything else would amount to a kind of boozy betrayal.

Indeed, why wouldn't anybody drink Paramount?

Every year, a million cases of spirituous liquid issues from the tired-looking Paramount factory on Berea Road, in plain sight from an I-90 westbound overpass but virtually indistinguishable from its boxy brown surroundings. The royal blue and white sign has been perched out front, unchanged, for decades. The company was founded in 1934 when J.F. Moessmer bet on the synergy between the end of Prohibition and the plight of broke citizens badly needing cheap and suddenly legal drink. He started with amaretto and other sweet cordials, to soothe souls wearied by the Great Depression.

Paramount eventually branched into vodka, but didn't develop its full arsenal until 1957, when partners from New York — Bob Gottesman and Lou Szaller — bought the place. Current co-owner Bob Manchik tells a story about the pair flipping a coin with Art Modell to determine who would buy Paramount and who would buy the Cleveland Browns. It's not clear who won the toss.

Gottesman became a big name in Ohio liquor, and later in local wine; Paramount bought Cincinnati-based Meier's Wine Cellars in 1976. He ramped up liquor variety and volume. A seasoned salesman, he employed a business plan that fit squarely with post-World War II baby-boom ideals: In a town minting a new middle class, where blue-collar men wanted to party like executives, more brands and flavors would net more sales.

Manchik says people drank differently back then. "After a night out with friends, you'd invite them back to the house for a drink. Maybe they ask for a Vodka & Tonic. Now I don't know what's in your kitchen, and it's none of my business. But you'll note they asked for a Vodka & Tonic — not for Grey Goose."

He sums up Paramount's entire reason for being with a tidy analogy: "There are more Chevrolet drivers than there are Cadillac drivers."

Now 78, Manchik has been with Paramount for 45 years. He alone stepped in to buy the company after Gottesman died in 2000. A few years later, he cut in two long-time employees, Rob Boas, a nephew of Gottesman's, and Bob Szabo. Now the three perpetually plot Paramount's future together.

The richly nuanced tapestry of Paramount varieties is best appreciated where you can see it all on display, like performers on an orchestra stage: namely, Ohio's liquor store shelves. Unlike highbrow specialty brands, Paramount has at least one entry in just about every category.

You like vodka? There is vanilla, cherry, grape, and "Ultra Bubble" bubblegum — Paramount's answer to the trendy and high-priced Three Olives brand.

They offer two brands of plain vodka: Paramount and Korski. Korski, it is worth noting, holds a couple of interesting distinctions, according to Wikipedia. Not only is it the official vodka of the University of Dayton, but it is also "the lowest low-priced brand of vodka sold in the United States." We could find no evidence to the contrary. The price: $8.95 per liter, or enough booze to buzz a fraternity.

Perhaps rum is more your thing? Paramount specializes in mango, pineapple, 151, white, golden, Virgin Islands, and cherry. Then there's Lady Bligh, a spiced rum whose label boasts a slinky pirate lass who looks so much like Captain Morgan that the likeness cannot be mistaken for coincidence.

"Packaging is becoming increasingly important," Boas says. Indeed, it's the package that the customer sees when browsing liquor store shelves. And since retail sales account for upwards of three-fourths of Paramount's business, it's a big deal.

Everything needed to produce Ohio's best-selling liquors, including the print shop for labelmaking, is housed on Berea Road. There is also a chemistry lab, endless rows of stainless-steel tanks, five bottling lines, and a warehouse stacked high with cases of finished elixir.

Guests are met in a blonde-paneled conference room that feels like a hotel lounge circa 1983; with its neutral-to-off-white decor and fluorescent lighting, it's a highball of vodka that could use a cranberry spritzer. A plain wooden, accordion-fold curtain veils sample bottles of Paramount's countless products. But there is nothing muted about the room's details: Framed aerial photos of the Lake Erie islands and the historic Lonz Winery dominate one wall, images that cast a sort of pall on Paramount's past.

The company owned Lonz when a terrace collapsed in July 2000. One person was killed and 75 more injured in a calamity that made headlines everywhere. Paramount sold the property to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources the following year, and went on to settle 83 liability claims related to the accident.

But if the photos are a stark reminder, the factory's aromas are an able distraction. All around, the essences of peppermint, coffee, and something like butterscotch permeate the air. It's a candy-store cacophony, a confluence of so many smells that the mind boggles at the task of creating it all. And in fact, Paramount does no such thing.

A small handful of their liquors are imported: La Prima tequila arrives from Mexico via 6,200-gallon tank trucks, and McAllister scotch comes in big oak barrels from Scotland.

Boas offers his take on the economically priced results. "Could you tell the difference between our tequila and one that's 100 percent agave?" he asks, referring to the spiky, succulent plant that is the liquor's foundation. "Maybe on the rocks. But by the time you've mixed your Margarita and rimmed the glass with salt? Probably not."

The remaining bulk of Paramount's array of spirits is "rectified." That's industry parlance for mixing 190-proof grain neutral spirit — almost pure alcohol — with various flavors, perhaps some sugar, and water to make it into just about any alcoholic product you can imagine. It's the key to churning out some 150 concoctions — and the way to keep prices low.

Grain neutral spirit is illegal in some states, but Ohio college kids can buy it off the shelf, where it's known by names such as Everclear and Gem Clear. Resourceful students quickly discovered the rectifying process, making highly efficient products with names like "Purple Jesus" — a blend of grain neutral spirit and grape Kool-Aid, often served in communal gallon jugs.

Of course, there is a difference in scale between college imbibers and Paramount, where the clear liquid arrives out back by rail in 30,000-gallon tank cars. And the professional rectifier's craft is considerably more refined. In a cinderblock outbuilding, these alchemists take the blank liquid canvas and meticulously create the priced-to-move masterpieces that spin Paramount's gold.

"This is the mad scientist's lab," Boas says. There are rows of blue barrels full of flavor: essences of ginger, cinnamon, green apple, raspberry, grenadine, orange, coconut, and natural apple. All but one is brought in from suppliers: Paramount brews its own coffee essence, starting with Cleveland's own Van Roy beans.

The tables are covered with beakers and graduated cylinders, a digital scale, and lots of bottles. The ambiance is a mixture of kitchen, garage, and empty church; you can tell that something important goes on here, though it's not clear exactly what.

To develop new product ideas, Manchik, Boas, and Szabo monitor what's selling according to reports from the state Board of Liquor Control. They talk to salesmen, brokers, and bar owners. "A lot of times we're not first with these flavors," Boas says. When they think they've spotted a trend worth jumping on, a chemist works with flavor essence suppliers and starts mixing a viable, low-cost alternative. "We taste until we get something we're happy with."

The bubblegum flavor didn't take long. And the trio has high hopes for a new hazelnut cordial called Davinia. Getting the flavor just right took about a year of chemists' mixings and repeated tastings by the company brass. With that much time invested in development, they were attentive to the ever-important packaging too. Davinia flows from a high-quality glass bottle adorned with a simple, caramel-colored swoosh. It looks like nothing else on the Paramount shelf.

"We think we hit a home run with that one," Boas says. "Now it just has to sell."

Even as they craft new flavors to mimic today's trendier, pricier brands, the men of Paramount don't plan to tamper with the business model that has served the company well for 75 years.

Fact is, one Paramount product or another makes it into just about every bar in the area. The tony Cleveland Heights jazz joint Nighttown, for instance, uses Paramount Triple Sec, the orange liqueur crucial to a proper Margarita.

Just a few blocks away, B-Side Liquor Lounge stocks a candy counter of Paramount vodkas. Bartender Brad Petty says they lubricate the club's regular poetry jams and provide the evening crowds with bomb shots.

Paramount's bargain booze even creeps into the fashion-conscious Warehouse District. Asked if he stocks the local products, Blind Pig manager Justin Costanzo says that Paramount vodka and gin are the key well drinks in his suburban bars, Jocko's in Broadview Heights and Scoundrels in Berea. But no, he says, you won't find Paramount at the Pig. It's a status thing.

"When people come down to the Warehouse District, they dress up; they are looking for something special," Costanzo says. Then he realizes the Pig stocks La Prima tequila, a Paramount brand. "I didn't even know," he says.

There are no such status concerns at Bobby O's in Lakewood, a neighborhood bar where beer signs and dartboards are the key notes of ambiance. On a recent weeknight, a man is seated at the bar, hunched over his well-brand Gin & Tonic. He's alternating between sips from his drink and a long rant that covers everything from outsourced jobs to Ralph Nader's views on corporate personhood.

During one pause in the avalanche, he is asked about the Paramount product he's unwittingly imbibing. He looks at his glass thoughtfully, having never before considered what's in it.

"It's better than getting it from China," he says.

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