The story is too irresistible to ignore: In 1907, Pete Viezbicke Sr. emigrated to the U.S., carrying all his possessions in a steamer trunk. Grandpa Pete, as he was known to his descendants, settled in Michigan and raised a family. After his death in the 1970s, the steamer trunk passed from his daughter to his grandson, Steve “Viz” Viezbecke, an audio engineer and student of physics living in Colorado.
Rummaging through the trunk one day, Steve discovered sheets of yellowed paper concealed in the lining. He couldn’t read Polish, and no one in his family was able to translate for him, so he began looking up words on Google. Eventually he realized the sheets of paper contained Grandpa Pete’s recipe for potato vodka. He experimented with several batches until he created the smell he remembered as a child, and launched 303 Vodka in Boulder in 2008.
Factoring in size differences, every distillery in the world looks more or less the same---except for Viezbecke’s. His place is a Rube Goldberg maze of complex, improvised machinery, some of it hysterical and most of it bizarrely functional. The stills are of his own design, based on the valve reflux model historically used to make moonshine. Beer kegs sit underneath each still, filled with heating elements that create steam. Layers and layers of plastic tubing crisscross the air above, powered by an old A/C unit and used to cool water. The stills themselves all have female names. “They’re a little temperamental,” says Viezbecke, “and they’re hard to get going in the morning.”
The result is vodka with a plump texture and delicious flavor. 303 Vodka ($27, 80 proof/40% alcohol) is sweet, earthy and pleasant on the nose. The sweetness continues in the mouth, turning a bit spicy in the mid palate but nicely balanced by the richness of the potatoes. The finish is long, spicy and resonant. Viezbecke also makes a barrel-aged whiskey from his vodka, which is less successful.
For the moment, distribution is restricted to Colorado but consumers can purchase the product through the Internet. It takes a bit of effort, but it’s nothing compared to the journey that Grandpa Pete’s vodka endured.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, which will be published November 6 by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to www.iconicspirits.net.