Ken Wyatt spent years working in the beverage industry, first for a soft drink company and later as a marketing manager for three alcohol companies. Then he struck out on his own.
He and co-owner Ron Zier founded 44° North Vodka. It is named for the latitude that runs east and west through Southern Idaho, just north of Emmett and Idaho City. They produced their first batch of potato-based vodka, 1,000 cases of a dozen 75-milliliter bottles, in 2004.
Fourteen years later, the Boise company now produces 40 times that, about 480,000 bottles, each year.
Wyatt and Zier, a liquor-industry veteran, looked to a French-produced vodka, Grey Goose, for inspiration. Grey Goose was the brainchild of Sidney Frank, a New York State businessman who took Jägermeister, an obscure “digestif” (a liqueur to aid digestion), and turned it into a mainstream drink in the United States.
Frank wanted to develop a luxury vodka for the U.S. market. Through brilliant marketing, Grey Goose was selling “millions of bottles per year” within a few years of its debut in the mid-1990s, MarketWatch reported.
“It was popular, and we wanted to demonstrate that America could produce vodka on a par with imports,” Wyatt wrote in an email to the Idaho Statesman while traveling for business in the Eastern United States. “The inspiration also came from a longtime desire to escape corporate America and be an entrepreneur.”
Typically, most vodkas are produced using wheat and corn. Grey Goose is made from wheat, Smirnoff from corn.
“A potato is an unusual ingredient, but so is the mountain huckleberry,” Wyatt wrote. “We were inspired by the land, water and sun of Idaho and wanted to reflect the state in our products.”
Wyatt, 56, grew up in White Plains, New York, and lived in New England before moving to Boise in 2010. He had come to the state several times to ski in Sun Valley.
“I’m a big fan of the Idaho outdoors,” he said.
Potato vodka constitutes only about 5 percent of the world market, he estimates. The vodka industry is dominated by a few large companies, nearly all of them overseas.
44° North Vodka is available throughout the country. Bottles are available from liquor stores, and drinks are served in restaurants and bars.
“Our customers appreciate quality products,” Wyatt said by phone. “And there are people who want to support relatively small, family-owned businesses like ours.”
44° North Vodka is most popular in Idaho and throughout the Rocky Mountain region, Wyatt said, though it has yet to crack the list of Idaho’s top-selling liquors. The average buyer, he said, is between 25 and 34. Buyers are split nearly evenly between men and women.
The vodkas sell in Idaho between $23 and $25 for a 750-milliliter bottle. The nectarine and huckleberry also come in a 375-milliliter bottle, and the huckleberry in a 1.75-liter bottle.
There is a distinct difference in the taste between potato vodkas and other types, he said.
“We make two plain vodkas, Idaho Potato and Magic Valley Wheat,” he wrote. “The wheat is extremely smooth and neutral, while the potato has a creamier feel with a slight ‘potato peel’ flavor.”
The 44° North Mountain Huckleberry was the company’s first product, combining the “famous Idaho potato and the state fruit of huckleberries,” Wyatt wrote. The Magic Valley Wheat came out a couple of years later.
Today, the company offers five vodkas, including Rainier Cherry Vodka and Sunnyslope Nectarine Vodka. They’re produced under contract by Distilled Resources Inc. (DRinc, or “drink”) in Rigby.
“All mix well in various drinks and are great with soda garnished with fruit,” Wyatt wrote. “However, a classic martini with vermouth is not something one is going to use the flavors for.”
Mountain Huckleberry is the company’s best-seller.
Wyatt said he had to learn how to distill liquor and produce a good product. He said it takes the company about two years to develop a new flavor.
“We are perfectionists,” he wrote. “Most of the mistakes were either trying to use ingredients and processes the government had yet to approve or using items that were tough to stabilize for proper shelf life.”
It takes a lot of potatoes to make a three-quarter-liter bottle.
“The amount of potatoes in a bottle will vary depending on the efficiency of the fermentation and distillation processes, but I would estimate it takes a bushel,” Wyatt wrote. That’s 50 to 60 pounds.
Wyatt said he’s pleased that his company has survived. It has five employees and supports another 18 at the distilling plant, he said. He declined to disclose sales.
“The fact we’ve been embraced by Idaho and other parts of the country gives me a feeling of gratitude and humility,” Wyatt said.
This article appears in the Nov. 21-Dec. 18, 2018, edition of the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of the edition’s special coverage of the business of alcohol.