Potato vodka hitting the shelves in Pa.

| Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pennsylvania's first and only vodka distillery sits unassumingly inside one of the former Glenshaw Glass buildings along Route 8 in Shaler.

Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, the brainchild of Prentiss Orr and Barry Young, is just about ready to release Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka into liquor stores and restaurants statewide.

Orr, 53, and Young, 39, became friends 10 years ago through Orr's wife, who worked with Young at a hospice. Both men used to be in the corporate world: Young was an executive with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Orr was in advertising.

Because the two are big fans of vodka, they started kicking around the idea of opening their own business. After doing some research, Orr and Young realized they even could get some money to help them start the venture.

Orr and Young received a $165,000 state grant, which helped them with potato-and-vodka research through Penn State University.

Once the two found a building, they set up the distillery equipment and started making vodka. The company was formed in 2004, but the product is just about to hit the shelves this year.

Orr said the Boyd & Blair name signifies that the product is made by two men, while paying homage to deceased relatives: Boyd refers to Young's father-in-law, and Blair refers to Orr's great-grandfather.

Orr said he remembers the early 1990s, when small, independent brew pubs were making their own craft beers. At that point, he couldn't understand why such businesses were focusing on beer rather than vodka or gin.

He believed that a small distillery could produce more vodka at a better quality than could the major companies.

Young and Orr said that if they could just focus on their one vodka, they can deliver the best.

Besides the promise of high quality, vodka is much easier to make than bourbon or whiskey because it requires no aging. The two don't need to wait 10 years for their product to be ready.

Orr and Young said that despite a competitive market, they hope their vodka will stand out because it is a local product.

The potatoes come from a facility near Harrisburg that collects the vegetable from co-ops across the state.

The two said they are unsure of exactly how much vodka they will produce this year, but Orr and Young are aiming to reach 200,000 cases per year in five years. They also want to expand soon into Ohio and New York.

One factor giving them a start strong is a listing by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. As a result, the potato vodka can be sold in 150 of the bigger state liquor and wine stores, along with what Orr and Young hope will be nearly 75 restaurants and bars.

Young said the two have been fortunate so far with their success, with much of it attributable to their meticulous planning.

The vodka movement has been noticeable over the past 10 years, Orr said. He remembers when ordering vodka in the bar meant the bartender would pour you whatever was there.

These days, however, the bartender is likely to ask what brand of vodka a customer wants.

Orr said he hopes that soon the answer will be Boyd & Blair.

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