Ted Robinson can still recall the moment he and his younger brother, Joe Moton, decided that they would go into business for themselves. They came up with the concept right here on the West Side.
“We were at my mom’s house in Austin on the Fourth of July, at the height of the pandemic in 2020,” Robinson recalled. “My brother was working in the restaurant industry and I worked in insurance and healthcare. We were kind of just talking and my brother said, ‘I really want to, you know, start my own liquor line.”
What followed were a litany of basic questions: Who, what, why and how among others. That inquiry in 2020 has since evolved into the brothers launching PlayPen Vodka — what Robinson says is likely the only fully Black-owned spirit company in the state. The vodka is distilled by Karl Loepke’s Skeptic Distillery Co., 2525 W. Le Moyne St. in Melrose Park.
“We finished our first completed pallet in November of 2020 and by April 2021, we were able to get a distributor and now we’re in about 50 locations in the Chicago area,” Robinson said.
“Our cook at the distillery had a really great base product that was modified based on how we wanted it,” Robinson said. “I’ve always been a vodka connoisseur. So, I was a Tito’s and Grey Goose drinker, but not anymore. I feel like we have a product that’s just as good, if not better, than those other ones.
“We don’t have great name recognition yet, but we have great quality. We cook ours at lower than freezing temperatures, which removes a lot of the impurities and we carbon vacuum distillery. We treat it so that it retains its purities. We cook it from corn and use that process to retain the purity of the vodka. It’s an exceptionally smooth finish that doesn’t cause hangovers. We’re happy with what we’ve got.”
Robinson calls PlayPen “affordable premium,” since despite its exceptional quality, it only retails for $19.99 a bottle. He said the company is able to charge such a low price, because the production is so close to the ground.
“We do so much of this stuff by hand,” he said. “We make it in small batches. We buy our supplies in Chicago. Our bottles come from Carol Stream. We buy everything here and have eliminated a lot of the cost. Even our labeling is out of University Park. So, we try to do everything here in Chicago.”
PlayPen’s name, Robinson said, is inspired by a mood that he wants his product to invoke.
“The spirit behind it is good times and family fun,” he said. “It’s about enjoying the moment. What’s in your PlayPen? Where is the place you like to have fun and relax? That’s the inspiration behind it.”
Robinson said he was told by area distilleries that the company he and his brother founded last year is the only Black-owned spirit in Illinois — a claim that’s hard to independently verify, since the state doesn’t track the race and ethnicity of spirit producers.
Chima Enyia, the former acting executive director of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, said that while he was head of the commission he tried to get the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation that would have required the state to do so.
“We need to continue to encourage diversity and support for craft brands and Black and Brown brands in the industry, especially in this new era where there is more social responsibility and awareness to support Black brands,” Enyia said.
Meanwhile, Robinson said, while he acknowledges his brand’s Black-owned status, he wants PlayPen to stand out for its exceptional quality more than anything.
“We actually have a quality product out here,” he said. “We market our product as a Chicago brand that happens to be Black-owned. So, buy it because we’re doing something good here. We have a great product and I guarantee you it’s just as good, if not better than most of our competitors.”