A former semi-professional footballer who launched his own premium vodka to shake up the luxury top shelf market is looking to kick on in 2024 after joining UK independent drinks collective Virtus Brands.

London-based entrepreneur Femi Cole, who launched his brand, HL Vodka, a 40% ABV vodka available in three flavours, three years ago, has signed up to the company, adding its name to a growing portfolio of products and labels. Femi (left in pic.), who once made his living playing in midfield for League Two side Forest Green Rovers as a youth player, decided to launch his own spirit in 2019 after spotting a gap in the market in the premium vodka sector.

The 33-year-old has long dreamt of setting up his own business and has explored a number of different entrepreneurial routes, including his own clothing range, in order to give up his job in financial services and go it alone. Vodka has always been Femi’s drink of choice, but his friends and family have never shared his passion, believing the drink to be too harsh.

He realised this was a result of them having drunk cheaper brands and so he set about creating his own premium brands to change their opinions. It took him three years to get his vodka into production, settling on a flavoured vodka that is made from sugar beet and one-time filtered in a Portuguese copper alembic pot. 

HL stands for Hashtagliving/High Life, a concept that is mirrored by the clean design of the bottles and the hashtag motif, tapping into an aspirational lifestyle his premium brand represents. HL Vodka costs £32 a bottle and is available online, in original, strawberry and mango and passion fruit flavours.

Femi is currently sharing his work time between his job and HL Vodka, but hopes that joining Virtus Brands, which will help distribute and market the brand and help him reduce his costs, will enable him to increase sales and allow him to work on the brand full-time. He said: “My originally aim was to create a vodka for both vodka drinkers and people who don’t normally drink it and to build it up to the same level as Grey goose and Belvedere.

“From the beginning I wanted it to be different, so I decided to source a vodka made from sugar beet. It reflects my Jamaican heritage – my family love sugar cane so it fits well with that – and it would mean I’d avoid having to add in extra sugar. Plus, it would work with flavours too.

“I love vodka and I’ve wanted to become an entrepreneur for years, so HL Vodka feels like it’s the right opportunity for me. I’m really happy to have joined Virtus Brands and I’m looking forward to growing the business this year.”

Virtus Brands – Virtus is Latin for excellence – was launched at the start of the year as a collective of brands fronted by entrepreneurs who each undergo a selection process and make a financial commitment to ensure they have what it takes to make their time with the company a success. It was founded by West Midlands entrepreneur Baz Kooner, who launched his own premium vodka, Jatt Life, in 2020 and now exports it to 15 countries worldwide. 

Jatt Life, which is available in four different flavours, is Virtus Brands’ best-known and most successful brand. Among the other products in its range, which includes whisky, rum, Champagne and prosecco, are Rico69, a vegan cream tequila, and Sweet Shop spirits, a range of flavoured vodka based on popular sweets.

Baz said: “We kept meeting Femi at trade shows throughout the last year and we were impressed with his drive and determination to make HL Vodka a success, so we’re delighted that he has agreed to join us.

“I launched Jatt Life because I realised that there was nothing else like it on the market. Femi has a similar ambition, and he has created a quality product that has huge potential.”