Driggs couple wants to use ‘famous’ product for vodka

Ken Levy//October 20, 2011

Driggs couple wants to use ‘famous’ product for vodka

Ken Levy//October 20, 2011

Bill and Lea Beckett formed Grand Teton Vodka Inc. and have plans to distill around 120 bottles a day from a craft distillery near Driggs. (Courtesy photo)

When the economy collapsed, Bill and Lea Beckett’s dream of building a luxury hotel in Driggs collapsed with it.

So they turned to vodka.

The retired professional couple, who own a second home in nearby Tetonia, want to put their efforts full time into making potato vodka in Driggs. They’ll build a craft distillery on Highway 33 just north of town, on 3.3 acres.

The Becketts formed the Idaho corporation Grand Teton Vodka Inc. and plan to distill about 120 bottles a day from the facility. It will be housed in a 2,400-square-foot building, with an 800-liter cooker, three digesters or fermenters, and a distiller.

The latter will be about 32 feet high, which will require a 10-foot-high tower to accommodate its height in the two-story building. The Becketts plan to design it along the lines of a grain elevator, in keeping with the valley’s agriculture heritage.

The Driggs Planning and Zoning Commission “enthusiastically” recommended a conditional use permit for the distillery Oct. 12, Lea said. The west side of the Grand Tetons forms the backdrop for the property, and the project has to go before the Teton County Commissioners’ scenic corridor design group for approval.

While no time line has been set for that, the Becketts plan to order equipment in early December for February delivery, and to have a good start on building the steel structure by then.

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.

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

“This seems like an interesting challenge, because it’s a relatively low risk in terms of a capital investment venture,” Bill said.

Bill and Lea are investing $100,000 of their own money toward the $250,000 they need to start up, including the building, equipment and supplies, said Bill. The rest will be raised from other investors.

Although still in the beginning stages of the project, the Becketts have already sold six of the 15 shares offered at $10,000.

“We would really welcome local people because we want to make this a community endeavor to the fullest extent. We’re very encouraged by the economic feasibility of it (and) the marketability of the product,” he said.

No money will be borrowed, and everything will be paid for with that investment, he said. Future expansion would 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,” he said.

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

Beckett said there’s an increasing number of artisan-type distilleries going up around the country at an “almost explosive” growth rate since 2003-2004, with that trend expected to continue.

“It’s a good idea, it’s in demand, and it’s running with the tide,” he said.

“Since craft distilleries are often featured nationally, we think it may bring some recognition to the valley, highlighting the local products, grown and produced in Idaho,” said Lea.

The initial market for the potato 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,” Bill said.

Initially, Grand Teton Vodka will hire 2-3 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, and a significant name recognition for Driggs.”

The company will bottle its product onsite, and produce about 10 cases a day to start.

Interested investors may contact Beckett at (208) 456-4569 or his cell at (727) 504-9326.

How to distill vodka– from head to tail

Bill Beckett described the potato vodka distilling process:

Potatoes are shredded and cooked, and made into a thin paste. Add yeast and malted barley to the paste and ferment for three days.

The resulting product goes into a distiller, and the rectifying tower boils off unwanted chemicals which 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 cow feed, and water used to clean equipment will be kept onsite in a septic system.

“It’s very environmentally-friendly,” said Beckett. “It’s all self-contained and there is just no adverse environmental impact.”

The stainless steel containers are sealed and enclosed, which precludes any fire hazard, he said.

“It’s not a particularly complicated process,” said Beckett. “Essentially, it’s chemistry and physics. (Lea) is very well versed in both of those fields as a physician. We know what to do and how to do it, and what to do if we make a mistake.”

“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 said.

A Sugar City firm will supply the Idaho potatoes. Since they don’t have to be a particular size, Beckett said they can get a good price for them.