Entrepreneurial spirit(s): Vodka distillery at home in Midlothian
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com July 7, 2012 12:10AM
Matt Altman holds up bottles of his CD (Catalina Dynastii) Vodka at his new vodka distillery, Mid-Oak Distillery in Midlothian, Ill., Friday, June 15, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Vodka distilleries in Illinois
5124 N. Ravenswood Ave, Chicago
Mastermind Vodka Inc.
4262 Illinois Route 162, Pontoon Beach
4704 W. 147th St., Midlothian
North Shore Distillery
28913 Herky Drive, Lake Bluff
Updated: August 9, 2012 6:02AM
When Matt Altman quietly raised the blinds on his storefront window recently, he was not only opening his new business venture, he was signaling a first for the Southland.
His Mid-Oak Distillery, at 4704 W. 147th St. in Midlothian’s Tiffany Plaza, is the first and only vodka distillery and tasting room in the area.
For the Midlothian-born-and-raised Altman, who lives within walking distance of his new job, this venture was a “no-brainer.”
“I do drink a lot of vodka,” Altman said.
And he knows he’s not alone. For all those knocking on his distillery’s door during construction and asking “When?” the time arrived about three weeks ago.
Given what he called an “absolutely crazy” response from the crowd that attended his “soft opening,” perhaps Altman has found a niche, and he said Friday business has been booming.
A grand opening is in the mix, one that will include other businesses in the Tiffany Plaza — all of which have been very supportive of this new kid on the block, he said.
For Altman, it has been a two-year process of detailed planning, research, background checks, paperwork and approvals from federal, state and local government agencies. The final step was unanimous approval by the Midlothian Village Board on June 13.
His biggest challenge was explaining to officials exactly what he was doing, as he needed permission to “manufacture” vodka in a retail strip mall.
Some had to overcome a fear of the unknown — there’s nothing similar in town to Mid-Oak Distillery — and a fear of a still exploding or creating a fire in the mall.
“We’re 150 square feet. We’re not a huge operation,” Altman said. “We’re not sitting around a campfire making moonshine.”
What he does make, he said, is a high-quality liquor that harks back to the day of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The “CD” in “CD Vodka” stands for Catalina Dynastii.
As the tag of every bottle explains, some of the best vodka in the world was produced during her reign.
The operation in Midlothian is a single copper still that produces the liquor, and a machine that fills two bottles at a time.
It is capped, wrapped, labeled by hand, and each batch is numbered. Altman’s goal is to produce 25,000 bottles a year of 80 proof vodka.
Visitors will be able to “tour” the back room, but no vodka will be produced while it is open to the public, Altman said.
“This is the payoff,” he said as he looked around the tasting room, which he admitted was an afterthought.
He was primarily concerned about producing his vodka and getting into local bars and liquor stores, but he also had enough space for folks to sample his product.
“We don’t want to get into the bar business. We just want to produce the best quality vodka,” Altman said.
The tasting room features bottles for sale, along with gift baskets and black and white T-shirts that say: “Support your local distillery. Drink more vodka.”
A few high-top tables join a long oak bar, where guests can sample more than a dozen different vodka drinks that range from the traditional — screwdrivers, bloody Marys and cosmopolitans — to the more creative — Georgia Peach, Mango Summer and Cranberry Cali.
Mixologist Christina D’Ambrosio likes to put her own twist on favorite recipes and offer seasonal flavors.
“There will always be something new,” she said, and she encourages customer feedback.
On opening night, D’Ambrosio said the most popular drinks were the “Bullfrog” — vodka with fresh lemonade and a splash of lime — and “Up on the Roof” — with cherry juice, lemonade and Coke.
Mid-Oak will offer private parties and tastings by appointment, too. Through its distributor, CD Vodka is available in local bars and liquor stores, Altman said.
He’s proud of the fact that Mid-Oak Distillery is basically a South Side/south suburban operation.
His staff, his team, his accountant and attorney all are local, and his equipment, bottles and bar stools all were bought locally, he said.
“People will know me. They don’t know Mr. Smirnoff,” he said.
The distillery is a dream come true for Altman, an electrician who brewed beer in his basement for personal consumption and was familiar with the fermenting process.
With the micro-brewery market already saturated, and given his own love of vodka, he took his tastes and talents to the next level with this new distillery.
“This is the ultimate mixable drink,” he said.
He spent a lot of time researching the business and even broke a few beakers along the way.
“My whole life is wrapped up in this,” said Altman, although he has not yet quit his day job as an electrician.
He talks excitedly about the future. In six months, he hopes to expand and offer flavored vodkas and develop a single-malt American whiskey.
“We want to branch out. Experimenting is half the fun,” he said. “You get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.”