Colorado Vodka Maker Says Forget Hype, Potatoes Matter

It takes 13 pounds of fresh potatoes to make one bottle of Woody Creek vodka, says Mark Kleckner, a former Washington, D.C.-based mergers and acquisitions expert in the defense industry.

He quit his job to help found Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt, Colorado. “Most of the other American distillers making potato-based vodka use the kind you find in the bin with wrinkles and sprouts. The ones you throw away,” he said.

Woody Creek, which began production in October, gets all its spuds from nearby 30-acre Scanlon Farm, owned by Kleckner’s partners, Pat Scanlon, a former missile and space network engineer for Lockheed and IBM who’s president. His wife Mary is Woody Creek’s chief executive officer.

Those high-quality potatoes, with lovely names like Colorado Rio Grande Russet, Chepita and Lady Claire, are washed and peeled, with some skins kept for fermentation in stainless steel tanks.

The mash is then passed just once through custom-made copper stills that include 34-foot rectification columns, using Rocky Mountain spring water filtered by reverse osmosis and softening to de-mineralize it.

The result, which I tasted at the distillery, is a remarkable depth of aroma and taste and a very round, warming effect on the palate -- without the eye-squinting bite lesser vodkas deliver. You taste a vanilla-like flavor, though nothing is added.

Polish Potatoes

In the vodka world dominated by global giants, Woody Creek is going against the grain. It uses artisanal methods and has kept production small -- making about 6,000 to 10,000 cases a year of its signature potato vodka. In July it’s releasing for the first time Stobrawa, a reserve vodka made from a rare strain of Polish potatoes with a production run of just a couple of thousand bottles.

“Our goal by the end of next year is to get up to 20,000 cases,” says Kleckner, who is Woody Creek’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer. “The farm still has a big capacity to produce more ingredients, but if we get to 100,000 cases, that’s the endgame for us to maintain quality.”

Woody Creek eschews the widespread marketing by distillers of vodkas as being so pure that they have no taste whatsoever. Indeed, the U.S. standard of identity for vodka dictates that vodka be a neutral spirit “distilled from any material at or above 190 proof, reduced to not more than 110 proof and not less than 80 proof and, after such reduction in proof, so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma or taste.”

Blind Tasting

In fact, vodka distillers try so hard to make their products “undistinctive,” that at a blind tasting I attended some years ago at the Wyborowa distillery outside of Posnan, Poland, the company’s own management couldn’t tell the difference between their rye-based vodka and their competitor’s potato-based vodka.

Many vodka makers now add flavorings like chili peppers, lemons, bacon, and buffalo grass. But whether they are Russian, Polish or American vodkas with names like Deep Eddy (Texas), Hangar One (California) and Willa (Nantucket), their marketing is usually founded on claims of using the purest water around.

Exclusiv Vodka uses water “naturally filtered through the limestone mountains of Central Europe.” Grey Goose’s is “drawn from 500 feet beneath the limestone hills of the Grande Champagne region of Cognac.” Oregon’s AnestasiA Vodka filters its water five times and claims to be gluten free.

Absolut Landscapes

Other producers try to distinguish themselves through distinctive advertising campaigns. Since the 1980s, Absolut has been putting its bottle’s shape into artwork, landscapes, swimming pools and even rodeo stalls.

Belvedere has tie-ups with New York Fashion Week and Bon Appetit Pub Crawl. Van Gogh vodka’s marketers insist that, “we are creators of Dutch vodkas with a broad palette of tastes and colors.”

“In lieu of hype like that, we believe that the quality of our product will sell itself,” says Kleckner, who with his goatee and baseball cap looks a bit like Billy Joel. “People now want to know what this stuff is made of, not what bottle it comes in.”

His approach seems to be paying off: “Our plan was to be in the black by our third year, but we’re way ahead of that right now.”

Would the former M&A guy consider a whopping takeover offer from a major spirits company? “We would certainly listen to an offer,” Kleckner replies, “but we didn’t leave other careers and do this just to make a short-term buck. And if we did sell, we would insist on maintaining all we’ve worked so hard to build here.”

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on dining and Zinta Lundborg’s interview with Dan Dennet.

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