Community August 13, 2008

One Potato Two Potato

The potato isn't for kids

Next time you find yourself sipping locally-made Blue Ice vodka in a bar filled with strangers, consider the following as fodder for starting up an interesting conversation:

• There are 9.5 pounds of potatoes in every 750-mililiter bottle of 80-proof Blue Ice potato vodka.

• Water for their products comes from a 200-foot-deep well on the alluvial Snake River Plain of eastern Idaho.

• A potato goes through the fermentation, distillation, and bottling process and out the door in seven days.

• The Rigby, Idaho, distillery can produce 750,000 gallons of 190-proof beverage alcohol every year.

• Using a four-column, 110-plate, single distillation technology, the distillery puts to rest the question, “How many times is your vodka distilled?”

“Just once,” says Gray Ottley, “we get it right the first time.”

And, to show you are really know-ledgeable, you can add this: Let’s put the myth to bed—not all vodkas are made from potatoes.

In fact, according to the literature from Ketchum’s Distilled Resources, Inc., operators of the only potato distillery in Idaho, and America’s longest-running producer of potato vodka, less than one percent of vodka brands sold in the United States are produced from potatoes, because over the last century, grain has replaced the spud.

Just as Brenham can boast the “best little creamery in Texas,” with a homemade vanilla-flavored ice cream ex-Texans have been known to have airlifted to them, Distilled Resources has distinguished itself in its industry. In 2004, the Beverage Tasting Institute ranked their Blue Ice a 94, the highest rating given an American-made vodka, says Jim Myerson, company president.

“The potato produces a sweetness that you really don’t see in grain alcohols,” he says.

Life as a purveyor of potato vodka wasn’t always that sweet.

It all started in 1988 with what the founders call a “Vodka Vision.” Three Sun Valley-area entrepreneurs, Philip Ottley, Jack Kennedy, and Norman Clark saw their future in the sprawling potato fields near Wyoming’s Teton Mountains.

They purchased a dilapidated fuel-alcohol plant in Rigby, Idaho, that had been left idle since the energy crisis of the late 1970s, and four years later, after a complete overhaul of the system, they began producing their first vodka. Although critically acclaimed, it was not immediately embraced by drinkers.

Enter Gray Ottley, Philip’s son, who came aboard in 1996 to market the potato vodka. As Director of Strategic Planning and Customer Relations, he sums up his re-crafted business approach like this, “Let’s stay out of the branding business. Let’s throw open the doors and see what’s out there.”

Recognizing Distilled Resources’ strength in processing unique raw materials into high-end beverages, clients interested in creating their own brands of potato vodka, organic, soy, rice vodka, and other specialty spirits answered Gray Ottley’s call. They partnered with Distilled Resources to produce and distribute brands such as Liquid Ice, Square One, 44 North Huckleberry, Orange V, Zodiac (which puts its vodka in astrological sign-specific bottles), and Hideous Liqueur.

“It’s got a nice heat. To be honest with you, it’s one of the better vodkas I’ve ever had.”—Tyler Peterson,a beer man

Meanwhile, consumers finally began to find their way to Blue Ice vodka.

The company’s humorous public relations campaign states without apology that their work doesn’t constitute “Drinking on the job. It’s research.”

The campaign goes on to instruct potential customers that “Bad vodka burns. Good vodka doesn’t. It’s that simple. Top shelf vodka should not burn or sting. It should travel down the back of your throat on a velvety smooth magic carpet, not on a piece of sandpaper. A stellar vodka should possess, as we say in the business, ‘smooth gills.’”

In a blind taste test, the writers of this article got the following feedback from two locals, who admitted they like their potatoes baked or fried, but had never tried potatoes from a bottle:

Second home-owner Freddie Harris, of Bellevue and Palm Springs, whose beverage of choice is vodka, said after the first sip that she still preferred her Grey Goose; after a second, though, she conceded, “It definitely goes down better the second swig. It smells good. I would try it again.”

Tyler Peterson of Bellevue, a beer man who says he would normally choose whiskey before vodka—which he likes with tonic—admitted he would consider converting, based on what he tasted.

“Wow, it’s very smooth. It’s a real clean taste. This would be easy to drink straight,” he said. “It’s got a nice heat. To be honest with you, it’s one of the better vodkas I’ve ever had.”

Yet another reason for pride in the Idaho spud.

Distilled Resources, Inc., 333 South Main Street, Suite 206, P.O. Box 215 Ketchum, Idaho 83340. 208.727.1823

Jennifer Liebrum and Laurie Sammis teamed up to explore the “Vodka Vision,” and want to state for the record that the complimentary bottle of Blue Ice they received was used strictly for photographic purposes.

This article appears in the Summer 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.