Eastern Idaho spuds key to custom vodkas from Silver Creek Distillers Inc.

RIGBY, Idaho – Unlikely as it seems, Rigby could become to vodka what Bordeaux is to red wine, namely the region that produces the drink favored by connoisseurs.

Idaho Falls Post Register

Operating out of what once was an ethanol plant, Silver Creek Distillers Inc. is making custom brands of liquor for customers all over the United States.

The flagship product has become Blue Ice Vodka. Silver Creek makes it for 21st Century Spirits, a California company with the marketing muscle to put its bottles on the shelves next to Stolichnaya and Grey Goose.

"We are not shy about putting this up against any product on the market," said Bill Scott, Silver Creek’s plant manager and master distiller.

Scott, who came to Silver Creek from a local health care products producer, is the man who takes Idaho potatoes from the field to the bottling line. He tastes everything – in moderation, of course – until he is satisfied he has the best product possible.

Silver Creek devotes itself strictly to research and manufacturing and has no brand of its own. Teton Glacier, its original potato vodka, is made for a company in New Jersey. Other products include "3," an organic soybean vodka; Zigo, a drink aimed at the "energy drink" customers, who would otherwise mix Red Bull with vodka; Rokia, a concoction that blends neutral spirits with walnut extract, honey and other flavors, and organic neutral grain- and potato-based spirits.

Silver Creek serves a specialized niche, said Gray Ottley, director of strategic planning and customer relations. Because the company leaves marketing to its customers, it is able to keep its operation small and flexible. It will never deal in large volumes.

People come to the company with what they think are good ideas, such as the Boeing engineer who offered up Rokia, which he claimed was based on an old Macedonian recipe.

Ottley said Silver Creek will reject three out of four customers because "we can’t produce 10 different 80-proof Idaho potato vodkas." But those who are accepted, he said, are guided through all the regulatory hoops and hurdles.

Silver Creek dates back to 1988 when a group of investors in Sun Valley bought the defunct ethanol plant from the federal government. The plant required serious modifications and special-use permits from the county.

Once those were in hand, in 1991, the company began making Silver Creek Vodka with limited success. Ottley and Scott came on board in 1997 with the idea of making high-end custom products.

"We said, ‘Let’s work with a select group of companies that are a good fit for us,’ " Ottley said.

Teton Glacier, Silver Creek’s first product under the new business model, hit at a time when baby boomers were looking for premium vodka to use in their martinis and cosmopolitans. The Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago gave it a gold medal and a score of 93 out of 100. Such exclusive places as the Russian Tea Room and the Bellagio began touting it.

What it and Blue Ice have going for them is that they are vodkas actually made from potatoes. Silver Creek is, in fact, the only potato-alcohol producer in North America.

People assume vodka is made from potatoes, but most vodka today, even the premium brands, is made from grains such as wheat and rye. Potatoes are much harder and more expensive to process into alcohol. It takes 9 pounds of potatoes to produce a 750-milliliter bottle of vodka. But what they yield is a much smoother product.

Because Silver Creek is so small, it can take the care necessary in processing potatoes, which it buys from all over eastern Idaho. The water comes from the Snake River Aquifer, 200 feet below the plant.

The value of a label that says "made from Idaho potatoes" is not to be underestimated, said Chris Jones, Blue Ice brand manager for 21st Century Spirits, a company based in Commerce, Calif.

"It’s a large selling point," he said.

Blue Ice, which came out in August 2001, sold 11,000 cases in its first year but is looking at growing distribution and sales.

"This will be a national brand that will be taking on the imports head to head," Jones predicted.

The plant has the capacity to manufacture 700,000 gallons of alcohol a year.

"They were a perfect match for our startup operation," Jones said. "We searched all around the country for the best distillery to do the job. They’re extremely versatile in their ability to meet our needs."

In addition to beverage alcohol, Silver Creek makes grain spirits that are used in products such as vanilla and vinegar as well as preservatives and agents for extracting herbal medicines.

The company’s business grew nearly 25 percent in 2002 and is expected to continue at that pace. It has 22 acres for expansion although that is likely to be for warehousing and office space.

"We’re just doing it a little bit better and smarter," Scott said.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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