Elias Barber poured his vodka, over ice, into three tall shot glasses. He handed out two and brought his own to his nose.
“I always tell people to treat it more like a bourbon,” he said as he inhaled. “It’s a sipping vodka. Smell that sweetness?”
This is not the drink of screwdrivers and hangovers. It’s a smooth, complex and clean spirit that Barber has spent years crafting.
He was standing at a table covered with a few dozen bottles of the finished product at the 1857 Spirits distillery in Middleburgh, Schoharie County on a Monday morning in early February. He and his assistant distillery manager, Emily Driscoll, were heating a vat full of potato mash to prepare it for the fermentation process.
“Today we’re cookin’,” Barber said.
The 24-year-old is a sixth-generation farmer. His family set down in Middleburgh in 1857 — hence, 1857 Spirits — and set up a simple homestead in the fertile Schoharie Valley. Eventually, they built up a dairy operation, and then vegetables. The dairy business was shut down about a decade ago, Barber said, but the farm is now producing more than 100 varieties of fruit and vegetables for retail sale.
“It’s always been evolving,” he said.
The next evolution is happening in the new yellow barn up behind the roadside farm stand on Route 30 in Middleburgh, where Barber has set up his vats, kettles, condensers and boilers just a few hundred yards from the fields where the potatoes grow.
The idea of turning ugly potatoes — the ones that don’t make the cut for retail — into vodka has been kicking around in the Barber family for the past 10 years or so, Barber said.
It started to get serious about four years ago when his aunt Dorcas Roehrs, now a co-owner of 1857 Spirits along with Barber and his older brother Ford, signed up for a vodka-making workshop at the Grand Teton Distillery in Driggs, Idaho.
At the end of that workshop, he said, they knew this was something they wanted to do. He had recently graduated from Cornell University with a degree in plant biology, was back home at the farm, and ready to figure out his next step. Distilling seemed like it.
“It lets me be a farmer, an engineer, an artist, a scientist, a chemist ” a janitor,” he said. “It’s creating things and problem-solving and learning. I’m learning things every day.”
After the workshop, he went back to Idaho for a month-long apprenticeship. He was “too green” to really know what questions to ask, he said, but it got his feet wet and gave him a starting point.
After that, he spent about a year reading and researching before trying to make even one batch.
“This is just a huge research project,” he said. “There are so few potato vodkas being made, especially craft, that there’s really no book on how to make potato vodka. So it’s just been a lot of independent research.”
He opened a tasting room at the farm stand and started selling the vodka to local retailers in October, and now the company is starting to penetrate into the Manhattan and Hudson Valley markets, he said.
Goes down smooth
He wasn’t worried about selling the first bottles — curiosity and goodwill from friends and neighbors would carry that sale, he knew. It was when people started coming back for more, and buying whole cases, that he felt certain he was on to something good.
“You have to enjoy drinking it,” he said. “And a lot of vodka, most vodkas that people are familiar with, aren’t enjoyable for very many people. Our vodka is extremely smooth and it has more character than the traditional, huge brands out there.”
At this point, he’s producing about 400 bottles a week, he said. The water comes from a spring behind the distillery, the hand-harvested potatoes from five of the families 500 acres of farmland.
It would take about two weeks for the fresh potatoes he and Driscoll started with on Monday morning to become a finished bottle of 1857 Potato Vodka. The simple bottle, like those covering the table in the distillery, would be stamped with the name in black letters, then underneath, “Grown, Distilled, Bottled by Barber’s Farm Distillery.”
Barber pointed out those words proudly. It said the same thing on the T-shirt he was wearing.
“It tastes good, which is the bottom line,” he said. “We have a beautiful bottle, we have a nice story. What we’re doing is more authentic than 99 percent of the industry. So we have everything else going for it, but it comes down to what’s inside.”