Local family creates a premium vodka

ContributedHead distiller Elias Barber works inside the distillery at Barber’s Farm in Middleburgh in this undated photo. 

The Barber family of Barber’s Farm in Middleburgh is continuing more than a century’s worth of tradition while also embracing something new in the world of cocktails: farm-to-table vodka.

Dorcas Roehrs was fresh off of leaving her career in the New York City interior design and architecture scene when she asked her nephew, Ford Barber, and his wife over dinner what venture she ought to pursue professionally next. At the time, Barber noted that his mother and father had always bandied about the idea of potato vodka, but as working farmers, they lacked the time to take on a new project. 

“I was thinking of designing a project — some kind of chair or specialty lighting — but that got boring and I wanted a product that could sell itself,” Roehrs recalled. When her nephew mentioned potato vodka, something snagged in Roehrs’s imagination. She told her nephew that, if his parents were in fact interested, she had the time and the vision. 1857 Spirits was born.

The decision to explore potato vodka led Roehrs into a year of plodding around fields and probing distilleries. Upon making the decision to attend an immersive course at a distillery college in Utah, Roehrs recruited the help and enthusiasm of another nephew, Ford’s brother Elias, who now operates as head distiller for the company. Elias and his Aunt Dorcas completed the course and at its end, Roehrs said she turned to her nephew, looking to see if potato vodka was something they both really wanted to do. With his assurance that he was interested and invested, Roehrs declared, “Well then, we’re ready.”

Roehrs then launched into developing their business plan, securing financing and setting up a budget, while Barber headed back to Utah to undergo a month-long apprenticeship at the distillery college. Roehrs said her nephew then spent a further year travelling around the U.S. and Canada, visiting distilleries, gleaning tips and knowledge, before returning to begin the experimentation process with their own product. (A process aided, no doubt, by the fact that Elias has a degree in plant biology from Cornell University.)

Roehrs’s prudence and Barber’s combined patience and hard-earned expertise paid off in the form of a superior vodka that is said to possess “a perfectly smooth and creamy flavor.” Roehrs herself said the final product possesses none of the harshness typical to vodka, but rather a subtle “vanilla and pear flavor,” though there is virtually nothing added to enhance or produce that smoothness other than the potatoes.

And those potatoes are something of a family secret. Roehrs explained that she and Barber went, appropriately, to Cornell seeking specific guidance and data as to just what variety of potato to use. Roehrs said the people at Cornell gave them two varieties to try initially, based on factors like the geographic growing region and soil quality, and after finding that one of those stored better and yielded a better flavor, Roehrs said the choice was clear. That does not, though, preclude continued experimentation. Roehrs mentioned that just recently her nephew distilled a small batch of vodka made with delicious red table potatoes that resulted in an interesting spiciness, leading her to speculate that such a yield might lend itself well to a jalapeno martini, something savory and piquant.

Roehrs said of nephew Elias, “He’s concentrating on the distillery itself. His brother Ford is in charge of licensing and regulations. It really works out to being a terrific team.” She added, “How wonderful it is to be able to work with family. Everyone involved is really so creative.”

Echoing Roehrs’s claims of smoothness, fans have described 1857 Vodka as “the best tasting,” calling the spirit’s mouthfeel “buttery.” Not words typically associated with vodka. But 1857 Vodka tastes and feels different because it’s made differently. 

Five acres of Barber’s Farm are now dedicated specifically to growing potatoes destined for the distillery, and those spuds are grown nine feet down in the centuries-old alluvial Schoharie Valley soil renowned for its richness, spring-fed with the waters of the natural aquifer beneath. Each potato is hand-washed and hand-harvested; each small batch of roughly 350 bottles lovingly tested, tasted and numbered. (Roehrs shared that she is currently selling Batch 7, while Batches 8, 9 and 10 are being processed). Barber even makes use of a hammock strung up inside the distillery, the better to be ever-present in the process.

Cases of 1857 Vodka are disappearing as fast as Barber can produce them — to places such as New York City’s Columbus Wine and Liquor and Viscount in Wappingers Falls. 1857 Vodka has recently been added to the menu at the Cornell Club of New York City, and the swanky Bear’s Steakhouse of Duanesburg featured 1857 as the focal point of its signature fall martini. 

Locally, the top shelf spirit can be sipped on-site, in the 1857 Tasting Room, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. And it is made for sipping. 1857 Vodka is a slow-savor spirit; visitors to the tasting room will know nothing of the toss-it-back grimace induced by so many lesser vodkas. While there, guests can stop into the roadside stand, which is selling winter vegetables. Roehrs laughingly recalled one memorable visitor’s claim that the Barber family farm was “the place to go to get your V’s — veggies and vodka!”

As the Barber farm grows and thrives, the family behind 1857 Spirits anticipates doing the same. Elias Barber will continue to experiment and refine and likely develop additional liquors for the 1857 Spirits brand. Roehrs said there’s a definite potential for an 1857 Gin in the future and that, right now, they are working on establishing two lines of 1857 Vodka: traditional and signature. Harkening back to the patience and attention to detail at the business’s inception, Roehrs emphasized that “we won’t put anything out until Elias is really happy with it.”

More can be learned about the premium potato vodka at 1857spirits.com or on the 1857 Spirits Facebook page. Or, as more temperate weather arrives, the distillery can be visited as one of the participating stops along the Schoharie County Beverage Trail, something Elias Barber himself was involved in bringing about. Teaming up with the SCBT only makes sense for a family like the Barbers; defining itself as “dedicated to creating distilled, brewed, and fermented beverages from locally grown ingredients exemplifying Schoharie County’s farm to table commitment,” the trail reflects the Barber family’s own commitment to agricultural excellence, sustainability and superior spirits.

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