Hand-bottling vodka is strangely thrilling: You start with an empty glass bottle, push it under a spout, watch the clear liquid gush in, pop in a cork, tape it, then dip the bottle upside-down into black wax.
At a warehouse-turned-distillery in Glenshaw, that's what two guys with a vision -- Prentice Orr and Barry Young -- have done for each bottle, all 200,000 of them since the distillery's launch in August.
Their Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka is a hands-on labor of love: the liquor made from scratch, each batch tasted 20 times and every bottle hand-signed. Their equipment was custom-made in Germany, but the potatoes are brought in from a local farm.
Each step of the distillation process is manually controlled by Young, who, as the former CEO of a pharmaceutical-services company, has a background in chemistry. Orr was formerly vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Area Chamber of Commerce.
What made two professionals trade their comfy Downtown offices for the physical labor of a humid distillery?
"Making vodka is sexy," says Orr. "It is satisfying to own something tangible, to see your product on the shelf at Casbah. And it's fun to come to work in jeans."
The vodka was named, respectively, for Orr's great-grandfather and Young's late father-in-law -- a familial nod that honors the concept of following one's dream.
Since the idea was conceived four years ago, Orr and Young have not regretted their decision. Nor, it seems, have those who have tasted B&B.
"Usually when something new comes out, people buy it because it's new and local," explains Orr. "But when they taste it ..."
"When they taste it, they say, 'Damn, it's good,'" interjects Young. "The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is telling us that people are coming back to buy our vodka, again and again."
The pair believes the secret lies in discarding what distillers call "heads" and "tails." These portions of the distillate contain flavor compounds that smell like model-airplane glue and acetone. Most commercial distilleries discard "heads," but leave in the "tails," with their dirty-dish-rag flavor, to improve yield, thus requiring multiple distillations to improve taste. Orr and Young discard both heads and tails, bottling only the "hearts."
The result: a smooth, slightly sweet vodka with no eye-watering after-burn. Plus, the satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of local labor ... and local potatoes.
Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka is available at most state stores. To check availability, go to www.boydandblair.com.