Sixth generation farmer Elias Barber isn’t going to just stand around and let the potatoes grow under his feet; he’s going to put those potatoes to work in his recently established distillery in the Schoharie Valley, near Middleburgh, NY.
“In the beginning, I thought vodka came from potatoes,” Barber remarked. “But, then in researching potato vodka — when we decided to go for it — it was incredible to see how few potato vodkas there are, and how little information there is on it. Because there are so few potato vodkas, there’s no book on it, it made learning how to do this more difficult, but that made it much more exciting and interesting, because you’re kind of writing your own rules.”
Barber credits his education at Cornell for his grasp of knowledge in pursuing his venture with producing 1857 Potato Vodka, named for the year the Barbers first came to the property and began farming there.
“When I went to school at Cornell, I knew I wanted to get an education to bring back to the farm, in what capacity, I didn’t know.”
His focus was on agricultural sciences. But, what he was learning in the classroom seemed a lot like what he already knew, due to having hands-on experience growing up on the farm.
“So, that’s when I started focusing on botany, plant physiology and more intense research — thank God I did, because it was that research background and laboratory experience which is what translated into starting a distillery.”
It took three years of construction and planning and obtaining licensing, before the facility was up and running and they were able to sell their product.
“People think it’s all about just getting a still and just running stuff through, but actually, the still is the smallest factor in the whole process. The hardships of erecting a facility and all of the ins and outs, you need steam to do the cooking, and then you need cold to chill it and cool it down, there’s a lot of infrastructure! There’s so much to it that you don’t expect going into it, which is why it took twice as long to get started as we wanted it to.”
Barber said the distillation process alone presented an incredible amount of time to install and work out.
“I have a heat source in the kettle and for us, that’s steam. We have a great big steam boiler, which is a nightmare to put in. It took a lot of time, a lot of money to get started up.”
Production began in 30-gallon batches.
Assistant distillery manager Emily Driscoll described the process. “The potatoes are grown across the road and our distillery is right out back, so the potatoes come over to Elias and I and the distillery, and we’re washing, cooking, fermenting, distilling and bottling all right on the property. It’s pretty cool, from potato to bottle, it’s all happening right here. Even the water that goes into it comes from a spring behind the distillery, so the spring water goes right into it. It’s super!”
Driscoll reports that about 2400 lbs. of potatoes, which calculates to be roughly 42 bushels, are washed, chopped and cooked at the distillery.
An industrial sized chopper is used for chopping the potatoes after they are washed.
“That’s really the fun part, logistics,” says Barber. “You figure out what you want to do, but then you have to find some piece of equipment that can actually do what you want it to, and being on a farm, we have a lot of resources.”
For the most part all the equipment is new.
Once the potatoes are chopped and ground up, the mash is pumped into the cooking kettle.
From there it is pumped into a fermenter where a specific strain of yeast is added to the mixture and it ferments for a week. Temperatures in the fermenter vary.
“After a week I have like beer, basically, or wine. It’s like an 8 or 10 percent alcohol by volume.”
From the fermenters the mash is pumped into a pot still, Barber uses for stripping. “It’s just your first run,” commented Barber. “This is basically a whisky still.”
The pot still is heated to about 190 degrees and the alcohol is vaporized, traveling up a column, leaving the water and other residue behind.
“While we’re heating the bottom, we’re cooling the top. So once that vapor comes in contact with that cold surface, it condenses into liquid form, and then just drips and trickles down and is collected as crude alcohol. Once we’ve collected enough it’s loaded into our column still.”
Barber says vodka needs to be distilled at over 190 proof or higher. That can be achieved through the use of the 30-foot column still.
“That little pot still could never do that for me.”
Barber admits there is an allure to his occupation not found in many other occupations.
“It’s not just a job or a hobby. You get to be a chemist and an engineer, a janitor and a farmer, an artist and all of these different things.”
The resulting product currently creates three different styles of potato vodka.
“There are two that we do all of the time,” said Driscoll. “The Classic, our original, has been around the longest. It’s your smooth, sweet vodka; it’s got a long, sweet finish on it. The Signature is really the most unique. It’s darker in flavor, with a lot of caramel and butterscotch tones. A lot of people compare it to having character of an aged spirit because it’s got so much oomph and so much excitement going on with it. Then we have a limited edition.”
Elias explains, “The Signature is crafted like an old world style. We kind of mimic the way they used to do it. The goal is to retain all of the flavor that we can get out of it. So, instead of stripping out and making sterile alcohol, we want to keep it beautifully aromatic. We’ve been in production, and this is our first season, but, we have to be producing, and we have to be producing quality and it has to be the same every time.”
“We’ve done two special editions so far, the first was ‘Red’. For that we used red potatoes, the best. But, we’re still learning all of the while, so, we ran a test batch — a full batch — using red potatoes. It was beautiful, but it was different. People were really excited about it. But, it was limited. We ran out and then we had the Summer Special. We thought the Summer Special did exceptionally well in holding up in a cocktail, like a vodka and tonic.”
For the Signature and the Classic, Barber’s use ultra-high starch content – white potatoes. “That’s what we’re after.” This is mostly found in the variety of potato. “The variety we use produces a lot and stores very well, as well as having the starches and sugar that I want,” said Barber.
Currently, Barber’s have six acres of potatoes growing for next year’s processing.
Elias said, “You can get bottles of expensive alcohol that say, ‘distilled 23 times’, or whatever, but we like to think that if you do it right the first time, you only have to distill it once. You can’t change the game without changing the rules.”