Park River, N.D., family distills its own vodka using homegrown potatoes
PARK RIVER, N.D. -- Three brothers and a cousin are distilling potato vodka in a still at their Park River family potato farm.
But the vodka being produced and sold at their Moon River Distillery is no moonshine.
Thompson Brothers Vodka is a licensed vodka produced from homegrown products and a vatful of family connections.
The idea -- even the distillery name -- grew out of a tradition of family outings for the partners, brothers John, Mark and Jack Thompson and their cousin, Scott.
"We used to spend Father's Day weekend fishing, the fathers and sons. We talked about it then," said Scott Thompson, company president and master brewer. "The trigger for me was at my dad's funeral, when Mark and John came to me and said they wanted to turn their surplus potatoes into vodka."
Scott Thompson's father, Robert Oliver "Moon" Thompson, died in 2004.
"When my cousins said, 'Let's do this,' I said, 'We've got to work 'Moon' in there somewhere,' " Scott said. "So, I'd say the dream came from them, our dads, and the ability, the technology, came from us."
The distillery, which produced its first commercial vodka this fall, operates between the fall potato harvest and spring planting. It currently produces 100 750-ml bottles per month, although it has the capacity to bottle 200 a month.
Decade of design
The business was incorporated in 2006.
The group spent the next few years designing and building distilling equipment, much of it refashioned from old farm machinery.
"It's our own design for everything," Scott said.
"We started with a five-gallon can," John said.
It took some trial and error before getting it right.
"We ended up rebuilding a lot of it," said Scott, who grew up in the Twin Cities, rather than on the farm. He earned a chemistry degree from the University of Minnesota. He also has a master's degree in business.
He and his wife, Mary Troste, live in Dickinson, where she is plant manager of Dakota Prairie Refining, a diesel fuel refinery.
Scott has 30 years of experience, mostly working in the compressed gas industry.
He and his wife have lived in several parts of the country, including the Gulf Coast, Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley, where he learned the home brewery trade.
"Home brewing was in fashion at the time in the Bay Area," he said. "Being a chemist, it was an easy fit for me. I learned the basics of making beer."
From there, it was a natural step to making vodka, given the family's farm tradition.
While they started the process in 2006, the Park River distillery didn't receive its federal license until 2011.
"In the liquor world, you can't do anything until you get your federal permit. And you can't get the permit until you've got everything built," Scott said. "It takes a long time, unless you have a lot of money, resources that you can throw at it. We decided not to go that route."
Once they had the permit, they worked to perfect the recipe.
While the potatoes are grown on the Thompson farm, the pure glacial spring water used in the process is hauled in from Kjos Springs, a few miles away, in rural Walsh County.
Vodka can be made from several sources, including grains such as wheat, rye or corn, as well as from potatoes or even molasses.
In this case, a potato mash is created by combining potatoes and water, heating the mixture into a mash to convert the starches into sugars. Then, liquid is extracted from the mash, which starts the fermentation process.
The Thompsons use wood- and coal-fired heat in their distillation process, which begins when the "dead yeast" is filtered out through a series of carbon and paper filters.
Then, the liquid moves to a proofing tank, where it is mixed with water to obtain the required 40 percent alcohol content, or 80 proof vodka, for bottling.
It takes 12 pounds of potatoes to make one 750-milliliter bottle of vodka. So, a 100-bottle batch takes 1,200 pounds, or 12 100-pound bags.
Other products in the mix
While the company's product could be distributed beyond the distillery, Thompson Brothers Vodka probably won't be on liquor store shelves anytime soon.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to go down the traditional channels of marketing and distribution," Scott Thompson said. "It gives us a bigger cut of the overall product. Distributors take a cut."
Instead, the brothers and cousin intend to market their products directly to the consumer, through the company's website and Facebook pages.
But the Thompsons are not content with just vodka. Rather, they're looking to expand their beverage offerings.
They've talked about producing whiskey, although that probably is a few years down the road, because it would require some modifications to their distillery, Scott said.
They're closer to making honey wine, more commonly called mead. Scott Thompson said he already is experimenting with recipes.
"North Dakota is the No. 1 producer of honey. We're going to try to do something unique, like a holiday release," he said. "Mead takes a while to make, to ferment. It has unique characteristics that lend (it) to being nice for limited releases, such as for holidays."