Vodka makers in high spirits
Local distillers delve into art of booze business
This shell of a warehouse in the shadow of Douglas County Jail is filled with the sound of glass on glass – sort of like a symphony of champagne flutes toasting a New Year.
But champagne definitely is not the drink of choice for Josh Burnett, although the rhythmic clanging of the glass bottles in the background does represent a new beginning.
“Some days, that sound is the only thing that keeps you going,” Burnett said.
It’s the sound of money.
At least it is if you’re adventurous enough to be a vodka distiller in Lawrence. Burnett and his business partner Cory Brock certainly are that adventurous.
They have a warehouse of 1,400 cases of Honor Premium American Vodka to prove it. Approximately 400 additional cases already have been taken by the national liquor distributing giant Glazer’s, which is selling the spirit to liquor stores and bars statewide.
Burnett said that about 95 percent of the liquor stores in Lawrence and a majority of the bars in the city are stocking the vodka. The business – consisting of two full-time employees, a part-time helper and a “good-hearted friend” – already has its sights set to win regulatory approval to begin distributing in Missouri.
Not bad for an idea that was sparked by envy of a 13-year-old boy. Burnett was on a tour of the famed Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., when the idea struck him.
“They had just got done telling us that Jack himself had started distilling at 13 years old,” Burnett said. “I thought, we’re a couple of college-educated guys. If Jack can do this at 13, during the Civil War, we can surely do this.”
Brock, who had heard many “grand plans” as a former manager of The Hawk, remembers well the conversation with Burnett, who was his former doorman at the bar.
“Josh called me on his cell phone and said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can make whiskey,’ ” Brock said.
Brock’s response, of course, was the only logical one available.
“I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. But why don’t we see if we can make vodka first.’ “
A trio of stainless steel, explosion-proof, food-grade tanks occupy a corner of this former bakery warehouse in the 3700 block of Franklin Park Circle.
A visitor recognizes the containers for what they are – old dairy tanks that held gallons upon gallons of milk for what once was the main drink industry in these parts.
And yes, the tanks do bring the question to mind. The question that the dairy industry has ingrained into us: Got Milk? For once, the answer is no. Furthermore, why would you want any? There’s 1,000 gallons of vodka in the room.
Now, orange juice. That’s a different matter. We could make good use of orange juice right about now.
But this isn’t that type of room. This is where the most serious of work takes place for Honor Distilling. When it is time to make vodka, the door gets closed and only Burnett and Brock are in the room.
“It took us a long time to come up with this, and we closely guard our secret,” said Burnett.
The pair worked for three years to figure out how to distill vodka. Both have college degrees, but neither has a chemistry background.
But they did have a VCR. They taped an episode of Modern Marvels, a History Channel program that once did an episode on distilling. The Internet and books also helped out. And then they took to the kitchen, and eventually ended up irritating Burnett’s wife.
“She got real tired of us saying ‘Come in here and try this,’ ” Burnett remembers.
Might be hard to blame her. Burnett and Brock don’t have really fond memories of some of their earlier creations either.
“That first batch was pretty much gasoline,” Brock said. “Let’s say neither one of us wanted to try it.”
But just 62 variations later, they hit upon something.
“It was incredible,” Brock said. “And then the immediate question became: Can we do it again?”
Thanks to a binder full of notes that they keep in a safe, they feel like they’ve got the process down.
“We’ll compare it against any other vodka on the market today,” Brock said.
In general, the process works something like this: the company receives a delivery of about 3,000 gallons of 190 proof grain alcohol from MGP Ingredients, a major distillery in Atchison. Here’s secret No. 1: the grain alcohol is a special-ordered mix of primarily wheat with just a touch of corn to add sweetness. Yes, it is true that vodka can be made with potatoes, but Burnett questions why anyone would, given that we’re not in the Depression anymore.
The grain alcohol goes in one tank. Next, good old Lawrence tap water is run through a series of six filters to take out the fluoride and other chemicals in the water. The filtered water and the grain alcohol are mixed in another tank to make a very large and very strong cocktail. The exact mixture of water to alcohol is secret No. 2.
Then, the mixture goes through a filtration system that Brock and Burnett developed. The system – a series of smaller tanks – uses charcoal to filter out impurities. All this is secret No. 3, and arguably the most critical.
“There’s about a thousand different kinds of charcoal out there, and we’ve experimented with a bunch of them,” Burnett said.
But it is after this step that Brock’s idea of starting with vodka rather than whiskey begins to look genius. Once the mixture goes through the filter system, the process is almost done. No need to place the liquor in oak barrels to age for years, which is a required step for whiskey.
Instead, the vodka goes into another stainless steel tank, and the necessary amount of water needed to dilute the vodka to 80-proof alcohol is added. After that, it goes into the nylon tubes that lead to a bottling machine that can produce 240 cases of the colorless, odorless liquid every eight hours.
All that’s left is perhaps a twist of lime.
No one should be shocked that there are vodka connoisseurs in Lawrence. Let’s be honest, it could be argued that the existence of vodka in this town is the No. 1 reason grocery stores stock tomato juice. Nationally, vodka is the fastest-growing spirit.
But what is a surprise – even to those in the liquor industry – is that a couple of Lawrence 30-somethings have risked a ton of cash to actually mass produce the liquor.
“It is fairly unusual,” said Lea Nelson, a division manager for Glazer’s of Kansas, the company distributing the Honor vodka brand. “You have to have a couple of pretty entrepreneurial people to do this, because you need a great hook to make it work.”
Burnett and Brock are betting that they’ve found their hook: the good old USA.
“There are multiple vodkas that are made in the U.S., but they sure don’t market themselves that way,” Brock said of the industry, which is led by foreign brands such as France’s Grey Goose, Russia’s Stolichnaya and Sweden’s Absolut. “We want to be proud of being made in America.”
Even more so -for the time being – the company is touting its regional roots, because the product is available only in Kansas. All the grain for the vodka is grown within 100 miles of Lawrence, the bottles and labels are made in Arkansas, and the white plastic caps come from Ohio.
Nelson said pushing the company’s regional feel likely would be its biggest selling point.
“I think there are a lot of people willing to buy into that,” Nelson said. “It is kind of part of the whole Green Movement. It is part of a trend of people buying a brand that they feel they have a connection to.”
The pair also is banking on their experience in the liquor industry. Burnett previously was a Glazer’s salesman. And Brock continues to work for a bar supply company.
Still, they admit that there are days that they wonder what they’ve done.
“About three to four times a week, we actually look at each other and say, ‘Who does something like this?’ ” Burnett said.
Then they both hear that noise that excites them so – the soft kiss of glass bottles moving down a conveyor.