LEWISTON – A few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find Pinnacle Vodka at your local bar.

But belly up tonight, and there’s a good change you’ll see blue-tinted Pinnacle bottles, emblazed with the French flag, on the front shelf.

It’s the latest brand top hit the big time for Lewiston-based White Rock Distilleries, a 74-year-old company that has successfully launched other spirits.

Since being launched in 2003, Pinnacle has gone from little-known spirit to a nationwide brand. White Rock executives attribute their success to word-of-mouth marketing and the popularity of Pinnacle’s new whipped cream-flavored vodka.

“In the second half of last year the brand exploded,” White Rock Chief Executive Officer Paul Coulombe said. “Orders kept flying in.”

White Rock generates $185 million in revenue and owns and distributes roughly 100 brands of liquor. Pinnacle, a lower-priced value brand, is sold in 24 flavors, including apple, cotton candy, blueberry, banana, cherry and root beer. There’s also traditional, unflavored Pinnacle vodka.

But one flavor, Pinnacle Whipped, trumps all the rest, said Coulombe.

Released last year, the whipped cream-flavored vodka can be used for such concoctions as a Vodka Cream Soda (add ginger ale) or even a Creamsicle (mix with orange juice)

Coulombe said Pinnacle grew in popularity thanks to online hype and Facebook postings.

“Everybody was talking about it. Everyone who tasted it would tell 100 of their (Facebook) friends,” Coulombe said.

John Suczynski, White Rock’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer, said homemade YouTube videos also spread the word.

“There are people doing commercials for us,” he said.

Pinnacle’s relatively inexpensive price — roughly $22 for a 1.75-liter bottle — has helped the brand gain market share during the recession.

White Rock now bottles and ships some 16,000 cases weekly of four Pinnacle Whipped varieties — original, chocolate, orange and cherry.

That growth has benefited the entire brand, Suczynski said.

According to Impact Newsletter, a New York City-based publication covering the beer, wine and spirits industries, Pinnacle vodka was the fastest-growing premium spirit in the world in 2010, with annual growth of 38 percent based on cases shipped.

In the first two months of 2011, White Rock produced 304,000 cases of 9-liter Pinnacle bottles, including 125,000 cases of Pinnacle Whipped.

At that rate, White Rock will sell roughly 1.8 million Pinnacle cases by the end of 2011.

By comparison, Diageo, a White Rock competitor, sold 24.3 million cases of the Smirnoff brand in 2010, according to Diageo’s annual report.

Other competitors include Bacardi, which sells Grey Goose vodka, Brown-Foreman, which owns Finlandia Vodka, and Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

White Rock was founded in 1937 in Lewiston and was purchased by Coulombe’s father, Ray, in 1971.

Paul Coulombe, who was born in Maine, joined the company in 1975 as a salesman based in Columbus, Ohio. He moved to Connecticut, covering Northeast sales, in 1978, before heading back to Maine in 1983. He became CEO in 1995.

White Rock is not a liquor distiller. The company buys liquor in bulk from distillers in Europe, Scotland, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and the United States.

The spirits are blended and bottled at White Rock’s Lewiston plant.

The company sells liquor under roughly 100 brands, including Barbarossa and Calico Jack rums, Jenkins Gin, Antigua Cruz tequila and Grand Macnish blended Scotch whisky.

Just five years ago, Coulombe bought all shares of the company from 24 of his relatives, a move he called well-timed.

Back then, White Rock owned Three Olives Vodka, a brand made from English vodka and marketed as a premium spirit.

Shortly after Coulombe bought White Rock, Three Olives sales skyrocketed with the introduction of grape and cherry vodka, said Coulombe.

College kids across the country snatched up bottles of Three Olives, mixing the liquor with energy drink Red Bull to create cocktails like Grape Bombs and Cherry Bombs.

Coulombe sold the brand to New Jersey-based Proximo Spirits in 2007. And though he declined to discuss the purchase price, he said it far exceeded the price he paid a few years earlier.

With Three Olives gone, Coulombe began growing Pinnacle, a relatively unnoticed brand the company launched in 2003.

Coulombe said White Rock invested heavily in marketing the brand, offering a host of rebates and discounts to encourage sales.

“It was hard work, but we were aggressive,” Coulombe said.

White Rock’s liquor arrives at the Lewiston production plant in 6,000-gallon tanker trucks and is stored outdoors in steel tanks

The liquor is pumped into the bustling plant, where it is diluted with water to roughly 80 proof, then flavored and filtered.

The bottling process happens on six production lines that stretch the length the plant. Conveyor belts carry bottles from labeling machines to filling machines, past the watchful eyes of human inspectors and up, along the ceiling, into the warehouse, where they are boxed and loaded onto pallets for shipping.

In the center of the plant is a monitoring room and testing lab, where technicians measure alcohol content, and at the back at the plant is the flavor house, full of enough concentrate to flavor 25,000 cases of liquor.

Many of the flavors are from companies such as Swiss flavor and fragrance manufacturer Givaudan.

Other ingredients are sourced locally, such as cream from Portland’s Oakhurst Dairy, an ingredient in White Rock’s Aunt Bea’s Butterscotch Cream.

Another back room houses three 6,000-gallon tanks of liquid sucrose and corn syrup, which sweeten some White Rock liquors.

The room is heated to between 105 degrees and 110 degree so that the sugary mixtures flow easily, said White Rock Director of Operations Joe Werda.

“If it gets below 90 degrees, you are in trouble,” he said.

White Rock employs some 230 staff, including 200 at the Lewiston plant and a five-person marketing team in Portland. Salespeople are stationed around the country, and White Rock’s president, Bill Dabbelt, works from an office in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Coulombe said White Rock’s revenue in 2010 was roughly $185 million, and he predicts this year’s sales to be $215 million to $220 million.

Coulombe owns one-third of White Rock; he gifted the rest to his daughter, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla.

Despite Pinnacle’s rapid growth, Suczynski said the brand still lacks presence in some markets, such as California.

Though Pinnacle is on the upswing, Coulombe has his eye on the next brand, EPIC Vodka, which White Rock will release this year.

Made from vodka distilled in Iowa, EPIC will be less expensive than Pinnacle and will come in new flavors, such as cookie dough, cake bread and Swedish Fish.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com