In former Fire Station No. 5 in Fort Worth, a handful of volunteers is carefully pouring, labeling, and boxing bottles of a clear liquid. They’re evangelists, experimenters, and...vodka lovers. Each will receive a bottle of vodka as a reward for a few hours work. But this isn’t everyday potato juice.
It’s vodka made from black-eyed peas.
“I’m from Poland, and I know my vodka,” says Dominica Thompson, one of the volunteers. “This is the real thing. Most of the vodka I taste from the United States doesn’t taste authentic.”
Dominica and her husband, Marcus, are both frequent “vodka volunteers.”
Most domestic vodka sold in the United States – and there’s lakes of it – is made from corn. Distillers prefer corn because that grain produces the most amount of starch, which can be converted into sugar, which, in turn, is converted into “neutral spirit” alcohol, which, once distilled, can become vodka.
U.S. distillers produce millions of gallons of vodka every year. From the air, some of them look like refineries. The New Amsterdam distillery in Modesto, California, which sells more than five million cases of vodka a year, could be mistaken for a tank farm.
Signature Spirits – a division of Connecticut-based Ultra Pure, a global supplier of commodity alcohol products – offers “6 x Distilled Extra Neutral Missouri Corn Alcohol” by the 6,500-gallon tank truck on its website.
Blk Eye (not a misspelling), the firehouse vodka from Fort Worth, is a thimble compared to those ocean tankers. An eighteen-month-old startup, Blk Eye produced a thousand cases in its first year. By contrast, cult brand Tito’s Vodka of Austin, which proclaims “handmade” on it’s label, sold more than five hundred thousand cases last year.
“We’re grain-to-glass” says co-Chief Operating Officer Todd Gregory. Grain-to-glass is to vodka what farm-to-table is to restaurant fare. Blk Eye is made from one-third black-eyed peas and two-thirds corn, both custom-milled, distilled 22 times, instead of the usual six.
“The peas give it a special nose and smoothness,” Gregory says.
The company is basically a two-person operation: Gregory, a former banker masquerading as a good old boy from west Texas, and his business partner, Scott Billings, who doubles as co-COO and vodka maker.
Billings went to “Moonshine University,” a school run by a former whiskey maker in Louisville to hone his skills. He combines the two milled grains, cooks them in what he describes as a huge crock pot, actually a large copper still, adds enzymes to produce sugars and then yeast.
After up to a week of fermentation. the liquid is heated to a vapor. The vapor then travels up a twenty-three foot high distilling tower where Fire Station Number 5’s fire pole used to be. One hundred ninety proof alcohol is the result. That will ultimately be diluted and filtered into an 80-proof spirit which will be bottled as Blk Eye.
Blk Eye is not cheap. At Bar and Garden, a boutique wine and spirits merchant on Ross Avenue in Dallas, it sells for close to $30 a bottle, ten dollars more than Tito’s, which isn’t even on the shelves here.
Spirits expert Victoria Garcia stocks a score of vodkas at the shop.
“It is unique,” Garcia says of Blk Eye. “It has a kind of umami (savoriness) that other vodkas don’t have.”
Garcia is a self-described supertaster, a person whose taste buds deliver unusually intense flavors to the brain.
Vodka wars are fought on the aisles of places like booze supermart Total Wine, however, where 100 brands, each declaring itself unique, fight for the customer's wallet. Blk Eye is not on those shelves yet.
For Blk Eye to punch through its competition, it will have to convince vodka drinkers, many of whom are not supertasters, that it’s worth the money.