How why did you decide to go for vodka, what led you to this spirit?
Well, actually the idea for the project came not really from wanting to do spirits but was more about wanting to create a body that would function as a money-making machine that we could use to fund projects in the arts that have a hard time getting made within the commercial arts markets. I’m talking about more intangible forms of art, like performance, or politically informed works. Difficult works. Things that we feel are important for our culture but are often not getting the economic support they need.
So, we were sitting together on a Sunday afternoon and brainstormed. We thought “hey everybody drinks vodka, we like vodka” and we knew that it wouldn’t be very difficult to make or at least not like it is to make a 50-year-old barrel whisky. We knew it was an easy process. So, we said, “why not”?
While we did all this research about how to make vodka, my business partner, Thymaya Payne, was working on a movie about pirates in Somalia (…) because one of the protagonists in the documentary, was arrested by the FBI, by the government, after an investigation, so he had to go to Washington to be a witness against him. He was really stressed out, (…), he did all this work but not to get involved in a federal investigation, and as he was talking about it with a friend, his friend said: “let’s stop talking about this for a minute, and tell me what else you’re doing these days!” and Thymaya said, “oh, you know, we are trying to create a vodka company“ and the friend answered, “you should contact our college friend Abe, he just started a distillery up in Humboldt county, he should be able to help you!“
By that time we had already been talking to distilleries in Estonia, in Lithuania, and we had already developed an understanding in terms of taste…
How did you do that?
By trying! Understanding where everything came from, it really is about the water, the water does everything. Of course it’s a little bit about the base too but…
It’s indeed a neutral drink!
Yes, and this is also the legal definition: “a neutral spirit so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color”. So we did a lot of tastings, and we contacted Abe Stevens and went to meet him in Eureka, where he lives, and he did tests for us, he was already making vodka out of sugar cane, but we decided to go for a wheat base, we wanted to do something traditional, first we wanted to do a potato vodka, but there is no organic potato-based ethanol easily sourceable in America, so we went for wheat, and the taste, again, really comes from the water, more than the base, Humboldt county has one of the softest graded waters in the U.S., that’s why our vodka is pretty smooth and soft, so yeah, we did a batch, the set up was really easy because Abe already had the distillery.
Did you distill with him?
We get the ethanol from a pharmaceutical distillery. In the beginning we were hesitant about that idea, but then we decided that it is actually the best and most progressive way to deliver the highest quality alcohol with a purity guarantee other spirits distillers can’t achieve. Abe then rectifies the ethanol with the waters from Humboldt County in his own still and filters it more than 20 times through virgin coconut carbon.
Did you observe the process?
Yes, Abe walked us through it in detail, it only takes a day to make a whole batch! So it is rather quick.
Before finalizing our method we made a bunch of test runs, because legally you can add a certain amounts of citric acid and sugars. We had about 7 recipes in the end, with different percentages. And we went for the one where we added nothing at all. It felt like the smoothest and cleanest result.
(…. about the project and how much it helps and will help artists, “according to our plan if we grow to take only 0.06% of the U.S. vodka market we could become on of the biggest corporate art funders with up to 2 million dollars a year!” (…) “We will give 10% of our profits to the arts, right now we’re actually giving far more than that, as we are not in the black numbers with the company yet, so right now we give more than we make actually”.)
Are you only in the US or can we find Material Vodka in Europe?
We want to launch in Europe eventually, starting with Berlin, we already got some interesting offers from restaurants that would like to carry Material but it is just too expensive for now. We would need to produce more. We would like to expand but we’re not there yet.
As per Europe we are hoping to join forces with some other people, some friends here in NYC, to set up something, and to export together.
And on the US market?
For now we are in New York, California, and Florida, there you have are something called “direct-to-retail” distribution. This means that we do not need to have a traditional distributor, but we can distribute ourselves through a company that has a distribution license and we ”rest” on their license to sell our product, we pay them a monthly fee, they also store the vodka for us and they deliver, but we have to collect the orders and manage the accounts.
I was just talking to one of the owners of Yola Mezcal, about an hour ago, they are also in the art world also a little bit, and she was talking about how for them access to liquor stores is quite easy, whereas it is sometimes a little harder to get into bars and restaurants, for us it is exactly the other way around, restaurants respond to our mission better than stores. And bars love vodka as a cocktail base. Liquor stores don’t really care about vodka, bars and restaurants really do.
Can I ask a side question: why this connection with the art world and the world of liquors and spirits? I’m surprised to see many artists and creative people are quite connected with the spirits making world ?
(…) Maybe ut is because the art world is very social and the small spirits are more into branding, esthetics and somehow it all connect to the arts
Do you think about developing the brand, and if yes, how? Do you think about making new product or you would like to keep just a vodka?
We are working on a very small edition now with chefs from New York, who are doing infusions, and we will package them in a certain way. They’ll be the story of the chef and linked to their culinary practices and we are thinking about three other infusions we want to sell because in the US, the flavored vodka market is very successful.
Does that mean that from this idea of creating a project that helps and funds artist, you became interested more and more in the business of spirits, and the trends?
Yes, one needs to have a bit of fun with it. And I think there is still room for interesting infusions. A lot of infusions are classic citrus and fruit, sweet stuff, we’re interested in going more into herbal and unusual directions.
What did you learn about distillation from the process of creating Material Vodka? Did you enjoy it? And where?
Sure. It’s interesting. However, for me it is also really about creating a community around it and supporting art projects with it.
But yes, the process of making vodka is interesting, and you also realize how many myths about vodka are told to us just in order to make a better sales pitch. When you read that this or that vodka is like distilled 100times, or aged in copper barrels or what have you, all that doesn’t really matter at all and has no influence on the taste. The more you filter, the less you fuss about the better the vodka is, the purer the process and the water, the better the vodka is. It is really about the water, and the purity of the water. So it’s kind of funny to see that. It works. I don’t think that most people, if you give them vodka made out of potatoes, or rye, or corn will be able to tell the difference. They are some vodkas made from of quinoa or apple and they do taste a little different but (…) in the end it is a neutral spirit so if it has a side taste, it is not distilled properly.
Do you keep learning more out of that process? For example working with infusion must be a different challenge right?
Yes some infusions they keep reacting so you need to figure out how to stop the reaction at some point. Maybe we will need to synthetize parts of it. Our distiller is a chemist so we are working on this with him now. We want to keep a maximum of natural ingredients. We’re working on it.
Addition in 2021: the vodka has been discontinued hence I erased their website… 🙁