By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 12, 2010 at 4:34 PM
JOHNSON CREEK -- Three years ago, Christian Berkey had a good job and a pack-a-day or more smoking habit.

He took a chance on an e-Cigarette ... and it changed his life.

Berkey purchased his electronic cigarette - which produces a water vapor - from a Chinese company. He quickly became an avid e-smoker, but was still disappointed when it came to taste. Much of that stemmed from the fact that most e-cigarette producers focused on the hardware, rather than the software.

"It was almost an afterthought," Berkey says. "But you need the software to make the hardware work."

After an internet search for American smoke juice producers came up empty, Berkey decided to do it himself. He cashed out his 401k and set to work creating a better smoke juice.

"I knew we could make an e-liquid that was better than the Chinese liquid in several different ways," Berkey says. "I knew it could taste better. I knew it could perform better. We could also do it in a more transparent way. We could tell our customers exactly what's in it. We'll shrink-band our bottles, we'll put the ingredients on the bottle and we'll make them child-resistant. We'll do this the right way."

After eight months of research, trial and error, Berkey - with the help of friends with chemistry backgrounds - finally came up with a viable formula.

"One that I would smoke," Berkey says.

With the recipe set, Berkey went online and offered smokers free samples. The response was overwhelming and three years later, Johnson Creek Original Smoke Juice has emerged as an industry leader, producing more than dozen different types of smoke juice.

The company offers two lines of smoke juice in 17 different flavors. The Johnson Creek Original Line comes in 10 varieties, while the Red Oak line - a "PG-free" offering which substitutes Vegetable Glycerine for Propylene Glycol.

The company is quick to point out that despite the absence of carcinogens and other chemicals added to regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes should not be labeled a "healthy" alternative. The products still contain nicotine, and studies are underway to test the full impact of the product.

But, Berkey says, FDA regulation will come in the near future and he's confident that the standards already in place at Johnson Creek will more than satisfy, if not exceed, those eventually set by the FDA.

"To us, that's completely coincidental," Berkey says. "There will be a point in the near future where we become regulated and our response should be 'that's fine, that's the way we've been doing it all along.'"

The stringent standards are a reflection on Berkey's original idea to start the company. With the existing Chinese products, there was little transparency in the production process. Customers had no way of knowing just what was used in making the product they were inhaling.

Only seven ingredients go into each bottle, compared with nearly 4,000 for a regular cigarette. Johnson Creek lists its ingredients right on the bottle and on its Web site:

  • Propylene Glycol (in PG Recipe)
  • Food-grade Vegetable Glycerin 
  • Food-grade Glycerol 
  • Distilled water 
  • Nicotine (except in Zero Nicotine recipe)
  • Natural Flavors 
  • Artificial flavors 
  • Citric Acid

The products are created in a sterile, climate-controlled lab with purified air. The water used for the product isn't exposed to "normal" air from the time it enters the facility, through the creation process and until the product arrives in the consumers mailbox.

"We are absolutely fanatical about the conditions under which our smoke juice is made," Berkey says.

Recently, the company hit the jackpot by reaching a partnership with e-Cigarette maker Blu to be the provider for all of its branded smoke juice cartridges. The actual hardware is produced in China but the company is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In announcing the partnership, Blu president Jason Healey stressed the importance of Johnson Creek's commitment to quality.

"We care about what our customers put in their bodies so it is imperative for us to work with the leading company whose product is 100 percent made in America and not in an unregulated Chinese factory like most, if not all, of the products in the market," Healy says. "It's also very important as we move down the regulatory path to have the liquid manufactured here in the U.S. under tight controls and supervision."

Johnson Creek will produce Blu's proprietary recipes but the custom Johnson Creek smoke juices can also be used to refill the cartridges.

The products will be launched later this month.

Johnson Creek is hoping the upcoming statewide smoking ban will hopefully attract new customers, many of whom are unaware the eCigs are not banned under the legislation.

The company is currently developing programs for bar owners to sell the product in their establishments. A disposable prototype is in development, which would come pre-loaded with a night's supply of smoke juice and could be sold over the bar.

The continued growth and new opportunities mean expansion is on the horizon. What started with two employees two years ago is now up to 14 employees and Berkey anticipates added as many as a dozen more by year's end.

"We're in a blessed position," he says. "We're having a lot of success."