With a Masters degree in Education, ORGANIC NATION Co-Founder Diane Paulson is no stranger to the power of learning new things. Her and partner David Eliasen first concocted the idea for making organic vodka in Ashland, Oregon after sipping martinis together in 2006. She had a background in real estate; he was a water expert, having previously been a Water Master in nearby Jackson County. Figuring that the modest space requirements to get a distillery running were reasonable, they did not waste any time, starting in motion the process that would ultimately lead to becoming the first certified organic distillery in all of eco-friendly Oregon. Today, ORGANIC NATION is certified organic by the Oregon Tilth.
Along the way they’ve made a plethora of new friends in the industry, including a southern distiller named Thomas McKenzie, who actually moved in with the couple for three weeks to help show them the ropes. Perhaps the most unique partnership to come out of ORGANIC NATION’s efforts to date has been with Mark Wheeler’s Pacific Botanicals, a certified organic grower of herbs and spices located in Grants Pass, Oregon. Since their first introduction in October of 2007, Wheeler has been growing the organic rye for O-N’s vodka. DTE recently spoke with Paulson and Wheeler about their successful business relationship.
Along with her Partner David Eliasen, Paulson first reached out to Wheeler via the Internet. Her mission? To find out whether Pacific Botanicals was interested in growing organic American Rye for their new vodkas. As Wheeler recalls, “It was perfect timing, as any later and it would have been too late to plant for the season.” Following a lengthy conversation and a simple verbal commitment, Pacific Botanicals began the process of planting two acres of the crop, which would be available the following summer.
Despite not having grown rye before, Wheeler liked the idea of working with a sustainability-minded distiller located just over an hour away. “It’s nice that they can drive up anytime and see the process.” That locality came in handy when O-N was ready to pick-up the first season’s bounty. Despite the fact that Pacific Botanicals delivers to most of its clients, Paulson and her partner decided to save time and money by using her SUV to pick-up the rye, which at this point was in multiple bags. She quickly learned that the flour-like crop and luxury leather seats don’t mix. “I was finding traces of rye in my car for months afterwards.” Still, Paulson notes that they have frequently brought potential customers through Wheeler’s farm to see the organic growing process in person, adding, “Our clients absolutely see the value.”
As Paulson and Wheeler explain it, the organic vodka distilling process from farm to bottle may be a little like cooking a gourmet meal that takes months to prepare. The process begins by preparing the land, which for certified organic growers like Pacific Botanicals means using no pesticides or chemicals to treat the dirt (there are no shortcuts to land fertility). Once planted, rye grows through the winter, flowering in the early summer. “Rye is actually a good cover crop, and requires no irrigation,” explains Wheeler. It is ready for the combine harvester after it reaches between 13-15% moisture in the grain. Pacific Botanicals then cleans it before bagging.
Once at the distillery, the process moves much quicker. The rye is mixed into barrels with yeast and water to ferment. It is then taken to the still to be made into alcohol. Paulson says that most batches will come out between 110-150 proof, considerably higher than the 80 proof final product. “You have to mix it with water to bring the alcohol content down.” O-N uses a custom-made still that is originally from Germany. From there, the only steps left are quality control, bottling, and labeling. While the farming process may take months, the distilling process can actually be condensed into a matter of days.
When asked if being organic might limit the company’s growth, Paulson answers emphatically, “We don’t believe being organic will constrain us at all. We were one of the first to do this, and we plan on becoming national, and eventually, international.” The numbers would seem to support her optimism. According to the Organic Trade Association, the already $6 billion organic food industry is expected to grow 59% by 2012.
While the company aims to grow quickly, Paulson promises that it’s not going to forget its organic roots anytime soon. ORGANIC NATION now produces a gin with a label that uses 100% recyclable, post-consumer material, and also provides mash from the distillery process to local farmers. For the future, they are also working on a recycling program with their retail partners, and plan to eventually move to bottle etching to replace labels altogether once volume is large enough to support it. As Paulson writes at the bottom of every email she sends out, “Life is good!” We’ll drink to that.