KALKASKA — Chris Iott grew up on the family potato farm southeast of Kalkaska, married a local girl and moved away to build a 20-plus-year career in writing.
He and his wife, Amanda, live downstate. But a few months ago they embarked on a new venture that involves the Iott family farm. They launched North River Distillery LLC, which converts potatoes grown near Kalkaska into vodka.
“We don’t own a distillery. We work with distilleries to produce our vodka,” said Iott, 49. “For our first batch (1,000 fifths), we worked with a couple different distilleries and kind of melded it all together. The only place in Michigan it’s currently for sale is a place called Grand River Brewery in Jackson.”
Distribution soon will grow. North River is ramping up production in conjunction with Grand Traverse Distillery. Iott hopes to distribute North River vodka statewide by summers’ end.
“We have vodka sitting in tanks there right now,” said Iott. “We’re just trying to get through some paperwork issues to get it out into distribution.”
A Grand Traverse Distillery employee confirmed the company is working with Iott.
“We’re a startup, so we’re trying to find a permanent home here,” Iott said. “We love the people at Grand Traverse Distillery. It’s really close to the farm, so, logistically, it works great.”
He hopes to hammer out details this week so the locally distilled vodka — enough in this batch to fill about 3,000 bottles — can go on sale.
Future expansion received a big boost on July 30, when the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development announced an $18,600 grant to help it increase production efficiency.
The grant, which requires a 30-percent matching from North River Distillery, will buy an industrial food grinder to shred fresh potatoes in preparation for the distillation process, a pair of 350-gallon stainless steel storage tanks for finished vodka, and an on-demand hot water heater to aid in the distillation process.
Iott said the large-scale industrial food grinder will speed up the production process. Potatoes used to make North River Vodka had been fed — sometimes by hand — into a large Hobart meat grinder, he said.
North River’s grant is one of 20 awarded last week by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development as part of its competitive Value Added and Regional Food System Grant Program.
Iott said Iott Seed Farms now is owned by his brothers, Den Iott and Greg Iott, along with Bryan Fischer, a nephew of the three Iott brothers. They grow 500 acres of potatoes each year on the 1,500-acre farm. Production averages 18 million pounds of potatoes a year. The farm is about six miles south and east of the Village of Kalkaska.
The Iott family has Michigan farming roots that reach back into the 1880s. The Iott brothers’ father and uncle purchased the current property near Kalkaska in 1974. Iott’s family moved there in 1978.
“I grew up on that farm,” said Chris Iott.
Potatoes now growing near Kalkaska are destined to become the raw material for North River Gin, which the Iotts plan to have in production early next year.