By JOHN O'CONNELL
DRIGGS, Idaho -- A small local distillery that produces spirits from dehydrated spud flakes made in Ririe, Idaho, can lay claim to having the world's best potato vodka.
Grand Teton Vodka, which opened in August, recently scored 94 in the prestigious Beverage Testing Institute's 2012 International Review of Spirits Competition in Chicago. It was the contest's best rating for any potato vodka in at least five years.
Grand Teton also shared first place for general vodkas ranked in the country. Judges described the vodka as having nougat, custard, dried fruit and pound cake flavors with a mineral finish.
Owners Bill and Lea Beckett employed their son, John Boczar, to help build and design the facility and serve as head distiller. Boczar, who had been an Indianapolis bar manager, believes water originating from the Teton range and Idaho potatoes give his product an edge in quality and marketing.
"Idaho has done such a remarkable job with marketing of the potato. You can't say potato without thinking Idaho," Boczar said.
The family initially tried using fresh potatoes, finding they cooked less evenly than flakes, added to transportation costs and worried local seed growers about the potential for disease transmission.
The production process entails making a large pot of mashed potatoes from flakes, adding enzymes to aid sugar conversion, pitching yeast and a four-day fermentation in a pair of 800-liter tanks.
Vodka drips from the still as 95 percent alcohol. Local well water dilutes the concentration to 40 percent, called proofing. It's then circulated for a day through a freezer, and charcoal and sand filters, called polishing.
They heat their distillery with unusable ethanol they produce, reuse their cooling water and give local ranchers their waste for feed. Tetonia, Idaho, Rancher C.L. Simper takes about 1,000 gallons of the spud waste per week, estimating the free feed saves about $60 per day.
"We mix it with a lot of other feeds that are missing some of the energy and proteins and this adds to it," Simper said.
Grand Teton Vodka, distributed in Idaho and Wyoming, sells for $18.30 per 750 ml bottle.
The family aimed to match the attributes of some of the world's top vodkas, such as the Polish potato vodka Chopin, which sells for $29.99. Their contest score topped Chopin by a point and beat the Canadian potato vodka Prince Edward, which sells for $60.50, by two points.
Forced by its good fortune, the business has scrapped its five-year growth plan and is already working to quadruple capacity. Their new 2,400-square-foot building will likely be expanded within a year. Lea Beckett has been negotiating with a few national distributors and eventually plans to add a single-malt barley whiskey.
Grand Teton is carried in every Idaho liquor store and will be included in holiday displays featuring state products, said Idaho State Liquor Division Director Jeff Anderson. During October and November, Anderson said 1,383 bottles of Grand Teton Vodka were sold, which he describes as "a pretty strong start."