New Missoula distillery uses sugarbeets to produce unique vodka

Published online: Jan 19, 2015
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There are many uses for sugarbeets, from cereal to soft drinks to baked goods to candy.

Last year, eastern Montana farmers harvested nearly 1.3 tons of the root vegetable, accounting for 3.6 percent of the total U.S. production. Now, thanks to the new Montana Distillery in downtown Missoula, one more value-added product made from Montana sugarbeets can be added to the list: vodka.

Owner Mark Hlebichuk said he doesn’t know of any other distillery in the state that uses sugar made from sugarbeets.

“One of the things about this business is everybody kind of finds their little niche,” he said. “And we are kind of a fraternal organization to a point, and we all want to help and support each other. And so if one tends to go in one direction, the other will go in another direction. So if somebody is already doing something, you let them have it.”

Hlebichuk and his wife Sharie McDonald bought Flathead Distillery near Eureka about three years ago. McDonald grew up in Missoula, and Hlebichuk has lived here for 20 years.

“We wanted to bring it down here and make it grow,” McDonald said. They spent the last year remodeling the space at 631 Woody St., and they finally opened the first week of December.

“We’ve been jammin’ ever since,” Hlebichuk said.

Their vodkas come in a variety of flavors resulting from the infusion of different raw ingredients: Ginger, huckleberry, cherry, vanilla, coffee, cucumber, bacon and pepper.

“The bacon vodka really tastes like bacon,” Hlebichuk said. “You want to chew it. We use real bacon. We don’t add sugar or extracts to anything, so when you taste the huckleberry or cherry or whatever, it’s the natural sweetness of the fruit. We use different combinations of dried pepper for the pepper vodka. So not only is the regular vodka super-smooth now, it’s got a nice taste, it helps the other products because it’s the base. We’ve had nothing but a positive response from it.”

Hlebichuk said he’s worked hard to improve the recipe and the distillation process, especially the way that they soften and purify the water.

“Good water is everything,” he said.

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The processed sugarbeets come in the form of large bags of raw sugar from Billings.

“We take processed sugarbeets and we fill two 450-gallon open-top fermenters – that’s why it smells like bread here – and we take three drums at a time and take it over to the stripper,” Hlebichuk explained, pointing around the distilling room down the hall from the tasting room. “The stripper takes it from 14 or so percent that you see coming off the fermenter and takes it up to 40 percent alcohol. That’s the same as a bottle of vodka.”

The liquid is then transferred to a two-column still, which purifies the product further. It takes about 16 to 18 hours for a run, and the 450 gallons of fermenting sugar ends up as 45 cases of vodka.

“We're very, very craft,” Hlebichuk noted. “Our process is very small, but it’s very manageable and allows us to do a lot of different things.”

As a former industrial hygienist and toxicologist, Hlebichuk said the chemistry of distilling came relatively easy to him. He has fun fine-tuning his recipes, and believes he has vastly improved the original Flathead Vodka.

At some point, he plans on making gin, and he will use grains to make whiskey and bourbon as well, but those will take a couple years to age. There is a shortage of charred oak barrels in the country right now, so he still has to figure out a different method for aging.

“In 2009 there were maybe 100 or 150 distilleries,” Hlebichuk explained. “Now, in 2015, there are close to 1,000. So, what do they all want to do? They all want to make whiskey, so they all want to buy barrels. So there are no barrels in the United States. So the Jim Beams and all (the big companies) that own distilleries in Scotland, there’s a 500,000-barrel shortage to Scotland. So who’s going to get barrels first, Jim Beam or me? So for our bourbons, we’re going to have to be very creative in how we age them.”

Hlebichuk said he might age the whiskey and bourbon in stainless steel totes with cubes or chunks of charred oak inside. He said there are advantages to that method, including less evaporation.

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There are a variety of different cocktails available in the tasting room, including a Bloody Mary made with pepper or bacon vodka and a cucumber vodka Moscow Mule. Montana law stipulates that distilleries can only serve two drinks to customers per day and must close by 8 p.m.

"We've been working 16 to 18 hours a day, but we're having a lot of fun doing it," Hlebichuk said.

For more information visit flatheadvodka.com.

Source: www.missoulian.com