Scott Russ inspects an active mash tun.

by Karl H. Kazaks

DURHAM, NC – Everyone has moments in their life they weren’t expecting but they will never forget.

For Scott Russ, co-founder of Graybeard Distillery, one such moment occurred in April 2017 at the 74th Annual WSWA Convention and Exposition.

Together with another of Graybeard’s co-founders, Brandon Evans, Russ had just accepted first place in the convention’s Brand Battle for Graybeard’s Bedlam Vodka, made from American-grown, long-grain white rice.

Brand Battle is a contest judged by industry experts to determine the best new wine or spirits brand of the year, based on the brand’s story and its marketing and business plans.

“The awards ceremony was over,” Russ recalled, “and we were alone, walking down this hallway – it felt like it was a mile long – carrying this huge award statue. It was quiet, and then it dawned on us – ‘What do we do now?’”

What they did was head home to Durham and turn what was an operation which had just 30 cases of vodka in inventory as of April 2017 into one which is on its way to producing 40,000 cases of vodka annually, a goal they expect to hit by the end of 2019.

“We knew what we wanted to do,” Russ said. “Create and bring to market a drinkable spirit, a vodka which would be good in a mixed drink but also be enjoyable on its own.”

Bedlam is made using a recipe derived from the one used by Russ’s Irish ancestors, who lived in the northwest part of Ireland near Bedlam in County Donegal. During Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s, Russ’s ancestors made a poitín from rice imported from Southern Europe rather than from the usual potatoes, which were unavailable.

Generation by generation, Russ’s ancestors passed down the secrets of making a distilled rice spirit. Russ’s grandfather, who may or may not have made a batch or two of the rice spirit for his neighbors in eastern North Carolina during Prohibition, told Russ about the family tradition.

Being made from rice (grown in Louisiana and Arkansas), Bedlam has a unique character. Its aromas are sweet and generous, coming across as broad, soft and appealing, as opposed to the bright, sometimes harsh and antiseptic quality found in other vodkas. The sweet and mellow qualities are also found in the vodka’s taste profile, which is full-bodied and flavorful, with a silky texture and a full, warm weightiness without having an overly alcoholic impression.

Graybeard (which is also the name of a type of stoneware jug used in old Ireland for storing whiskey) was founded in 2016 and began commercial production of Bedlam in January 2017. As the distillery opened, Russ said, “we were scaling up from 10-gallon test batches to 500 gallon runs.”

To help with the larger production volumes, Graybeard hired Shane McCurdy, who is today their head distiller.

The production method was finalized in April 2017, just in time for that year’s WSWA convention.

“We’re constantly adapting and learning,” McCurdy said. He has an eagle eye for where variation can creep into the production process, such as how the smallest swings in temperature, humidity or atmospheric pressure can affect fermentation.

The distillery started with eight 500-gallon fermenters from Spokane Industries. In late 2018 it added another four 1,200-gallon fermenters. By the end of next year, the goal is to have 12 more 1,200-gallon fermenters.

Scott Russ pours a sample of Bedlam Vodka for a guest at the distillery’s tasting room.
Photos by Karl H. Kazacks

The operation at present utilizes two mash tuns and two stills, both stainless steel, square-shaped stills made by iStill. The cutting still was the fifth 2K (2,000-liter capacity) Next Gen still made by iStill. The stripping still was the very first 5K (5,000-liter capacity) Next Gen still made by iStill.

By the end of this year, Graybeard is looking to add another 5K still and two more 2K stills and be in 24-hour-per-day production.

As opposed to round stills, which create a bigger vortex and thus need more space, the square stills are considered more efficient. Their shape also contributes to better mixing, because the turbidity in the corners of the stills leads to counter-vortexes which mix with the primary vortex: the result is better blending.

After two distillations, Bedlam is filtered once, then watered back to 40 percent. That’s it.

The final product is measured to be 99.96 percent pure, but it’s also, thanks to the unique base ingredient, a vodka with its own distinctive character.

The quality of the gluten-free “juice,” as Russ calls it, in the bottle is paramount to the success of Bedlam. But there has also been the impact of the Graybeard’s marketing efforts.

“We use unique packaging,” Russ said. The bottle is squatter than your usual vodka bottle and sports an eye-catching label with a dark, mysterious and somewhat rustic design. At the center of it all is Bedlam’s primary symbol, a double-headed raven.

After the Bedlam’s success at the 2017 WSWA convention – where it not only won the Brand Battle but also the Hot New Now Award and several tasting awards – Graybeard’s team was approached to participate in some high-profile events. Thanks to those invitations, Bedlam was the only vodka served at the 2017 ESPY Awards, and the only spirit served in the greenroom at the 2017 CMA Awards show.

In that greenroom, Bedlam was featured in six specialty cocktails, all created by Graybeard’s head mixologist, Jesse Cortez.

Today Bedlam is distributed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma (where the annual college football rivalry between OU and OSU is known as Bedlam). In early 2019, it will also be distributed in California.

The goal is to keep being disruptive, keep getting in more markets and to keep bringing Bedlam to the public.