Vodka-makers to distill famous potatoes

Ken Levy/For the Capital Press Bill and Lea Beckett share a vodka toast. The retired couple plans to build a craft potato vodka distillery near Driggs, Idaho.

Couple seeks place in state's liquor stores, national presence

By KEN LEVY

For the Capital Press

DRIGGS, Idaho -- Bill and Lea Beckett are building a distillery in this tiny town near the Idaho-Wyoming border with its stunning views of the Teton mountain range.

With thousands of acres of potatoes grown in the region, and a potato distributor about 40 miles away, the retired couple wants to put their efforts into making potato vodka. They'll build a craft distillery on 3.3 acres next to Highway 33 just north of town.

The location is ideal, because of ready access to potato vodka's main ingredients: potatoes and good water. The water in Teton Valley is "absolutely outstanding," Bill Beckett said.

They'll borrow no money to build it. They are investing $100,000 of their own money toward the $250,000 they need to start up, including the building, equipment and supplies, Bill Beckett said.

The rest of the funding will come from investors eager to put down $10,000 each toward the project.

"We are now fully subscribed and have already banked almost $200,000 of our investment money, with more coming in all the time," Lea Beckett said.

Future expansion will come from earnings.

"We're just going to produce a small, good-quality product which we hope and believe will be very acceptable to the community," Bill Beckett said.

The Becketts incorporated as Grand Teton Vodka Inc. and plan to distill about 120 bottles a day -- 10 cases -- at the facility. It will be housed in a 2,400-square-foot building with an 800-liter cooker, three digesters and a distiller.

The latter will be about 32 feet tall. The Becketts plan to design that portion of the building along the lines of a grain elevator, in keeping with the valley's agricultural heritage.

The Driggs Planning and Zoning Commission "enthusiastically" recommended a conditional use permit for the distillery in October, Lea Beckett said.

They plan to order equipment in early December for February delivery, and to have a good start on building the steel structure by then. The couple is in the process of obtaining its federal distilling spirits plant license.

Bill Beckett said an increasing number of artisan-type distilleries are going up around the country.

"It's a good idea, it's in demand, and it's running with the tide," he said.

"Some think the potato vodkas are the best, even though they are more costly and difficult to produce," Lea Beckett said.

One of the only major potato distillers in the country, Distilled Resources Inc., in nearby Rigby, produces Blue Ice potato vodka, and Glacier potato vodka is also produced in that community. Koenig Distillery in Caldwell also produces a potato vodka.

Bill Beckett is a retired attorney with considerable experience in business and land use issues, and Lea Beckett is a physician.

"This seems like an interesting challenge, because it's a relatively low risk in terms of a capital investment venture," Bill Beckett said. "We're very encouraged by the economic feasibility of it (and) the marketability of the product."

The initial market for Grand Teton Vodka will be Idaho and the Jackson, Wyo., area.

"We've done some exploration in Florida, where our other home is, and in Colorado, where we have some contacts, and we think there's pretty good prospects outside the state," he said.

Idaho's liquor stores are run by the state, so the couple, with help, plan to approach as many stores statewide as possible to get the state Liquor Dispensary to stock and distribute their product.

Initially, Grand Teton Vodka will hire two to three employees with plans to grow from there. Eventually, the Becketts hope to distribute the product nationwide.

"That's part of the fun of the chase," he said. If that succeeds, "we'll have a significant employment opportunity here."

How potato vodka is made

By KEN LEVY

For the Capital Press

Bill Beckett, who plans to produce potato vodka in Driggs, Idaho, with wife Lea, described the distilling process:

Potatoes are shredded, cooked and made into a thin paste.

Yeast and malted barley are added to the paste and ferment for three days. The resulting product goes into a distiller, and the rectifying tower boils off unwanted chemicals that naturally exist and are set aside. This is known as the heads.

"The heart is the alcohol that you want to achieve," he said, "and about 15 percent of the mash becomes alcohol."

The remainder, called the tails, is a bitter type of alcohol that is recycled into the next batch, where the alcohol is extracted.

"The heads and tails contain significant amounts of alcohol and are recycled for the alcohol only in the next batch," he said.

The waste becomes cattle feed, and water used to clean equipment will be kept onsite in a septic system.

"It's not a particularly complicated process," said Bill Beckett. "Essentially, it's chemistry and physics. (Lea) is very well versed in both of those fields as a physician."

"Since we will be doing hand bottling initially, we may have 'bottling gatherings' where we have to hire some extra people to get the bottles filled, packed and ready for delivery to the Idaho State dispensary," Lea Beckett said.

A Sugar City firm will supply the Idaho potatoes.

Recommended for you