January 2019 - 18

SPIRITED
ENDEAVOR
Michigan man honors family farming
history by creating potato-based vodka
Equipment at the Ann Arbor Distilling Co. was used for part of the process of turning Iott Seed Farm potatoes into vodka. Photo: Alexis Fischer Photography
By Zeke Jennings
VGN Correspondent
Chris Iott is not among the Iott
brothers who have made a career out of
running the family's northern Michigan
seed farm, but he has found a way
to create a new niche for his family's
potato legacy.
That would be North River Vodka, a
new spirit made using only potatoes from
Iott Seed Farm. The Iott farming history
dates back to the 19th century.
" I have a lot of business ideas I come
up with 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
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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.
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' family are
(at least) fifth-generation potato farmers
9VGNTOM
18 | VegetableGrowersNews.com
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.
The vision
Iott wanted to 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.
The process
Since the Iotts don't sell potatoes at
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 farmers 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,
which 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
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January 2019

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