Michigan man honors family farming history with potato vodka
Chris Iott is not among the Iott brothers who have made a career out of running the family’s northern Michigan seed farm. He has found a way to create a new niche for his family’s potato legacy, however.
“I have a lot of business ideas I come up from time to time. I’m always buying domain names and usually they fall by the wayside,” said Iott, a former journalist who now runs a social media management company. “This one was special to me. … My family has farmed for 150 years or so, and this just kind of felt right.”
Along with wife Amanda and the couple’s three children, Chris Iott settled in Jackson, about 200 miles south of the family farm, which is run by brothers Dennis and Greg and nephew Bryan Fischer. With Dennis and Greg on board to supply the potatoes, Chris’ first order of business was to find someone who could turn them into vodka.
Finding a distiller
After seeking the advice of John Burtka, a nearby brewery owner, Iott connected with Ari Sussman, a Master Distiller and co-founder of Ann Arbor Distilling Co.
“That was the crux,” Iott said. “I don’t know how to distill alcohol; I don’t have a distiller’s license. … Ari is a very skilled guy who we think made a really, really good vodka out of our family’s potatoes.”
Sussman, who formerly worked with Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling Program, has a passion for working with growers of all varieties — apples, grapes, grains, plums, etc. — to create innovative new products and help the farmers create additional revenue sources.
“When I heard that Chris’s family are (at least) fifth-generation potato farmers and he had a passion for it,” Sussman said, “I thought it would be a really interesting project to at least be involved in.”
While the general public often associates vodka with potatoes, Sussman said a minute amount of what’s available in the U.S. is made from potatoes. Most is made from corn.
“Most people haven’t actually tried (potato vodka),” he said.
Iott wanted create a vodka made in Michigan with Michigan-grown potatoes by people who have lived in Michigan their entire lives. What that spirit was going to taste like took some time to figure out.
“People will tell you that vodka is all the same, and those people are crazy, Iott said, with a laugh. “Once this idea got rolling, I went out and bought 16 or 18 bottles of vodka and we just taste-tested them. We didn’t drink it all, but just put a little in our mouths, and they were all very different.”
Some potato vodkas can be “oily,” Iott said, and he wanted to avoid that.
“When Ari and I first started discussing what we wanted to make, we decided on a clean, burn-free, non-oily potato vodka,” he said.
Since the Iotts don’t sell potatoes to market, they do not have an on-site cleaning facility.
“That was the one hang-up for my family,” Chris said. “The potatoes had to be taken to other farmer nearby and washed before we could use them.”
Sussman had made potato vodka before, although the endeavor did require a little outside-the-box thinking.
“We started the process by basically hand-placing tens of thousands of pounds of potatoes into a Hobart meat grinder. It isn’t the most efficient process, but that’s kind of how startups go,” Iott said.
From there, the potatoes were pasteurized in a steam-jacketed mash tun before what Sussman called “a very sensitive” fermentation process.
“Anyone who has worked with potatoes knows they can be difficult at times,” Sussman said. “They don’t have the same natural buffers against contamination that other substrates do in the fermentation and distilling process, so sanitation is incredibly important.
“We let the potatoes ferment for four days with great full-bodied vodka yeast that was really going to develop some nice oils and textures and aroma in the vodka. Then after the fermentation was completed, then we began the distillation process, which essentially means we just heated up the fermented potato mash and evaporated out the alcohol,” Sussman said. “We actually ran it through three different distillations to get to the product that Chris was happy with.”
North River Vodka was released to the public at an October launch party at Jackson’s Grand River Brewery — Burtka’s restaurant and brewery. Iott chose the name as homage to his family and specifically his father, Ralph Iott, who died in 2013.
“I live in Jackson now, but I’m from up north in Kalkaska, and the two most special places to me in my life — outside of my own home — are my family’s farm where I grew up and the family land we have on the Manistee River,” he said. “We kind of combine all of that in the name. We didn’t really want to call it the Manistee River vodka because that’s a little limiting and specific, so we combined the up-north aspect of the farm and the river property, which is a gathering place for my family and friends.”
North River currently is only available at Grand River Brewery, but Iott is in the process of getting it cleared for statewide distribution.
Although Sussman is an accomplished distiller and no stranger to potato vodka, he said there were no guarantees of fulfilling Iott’s vision. He is very excited with the final product.
“It was a process of exploration and discovery,” he said. “It turns out, if you handle the potato correctly and if you ferment them correctly, my gosh, you have an absolutely world-class vodka.”