Traverse City takes shot at vodka; Entrepreneur producing vodka here

TRAVERSE CITY – Of three fads that hit northern Michigan in the 1950s-the hoola-hoop, Elvis Presley and vodka-one of them will now have a niche business here.

Kent Rabish is establishing the Up North Vodka Co. in a new building a half mile from the new Oleson's Food Store on Three Mile Road.

Rabish is building a 1,200-liter still that costs $250,000 and will produce a variety of vodka that will take advantage of the area's rich fruit crop.

"We can't wait to get going," said Rabish, a pharmaceutical rep who grew up in Pinconning and attended Northern Michigan University. "We are going to bring some high quality alternatives to northern Michigan, something we feel this area is ready for."

Vodka is one of the world's most popular spirits but it is relatively new in the U.S. It was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950s, but its popularity spread to America by way of post-war France.

Once it arrived here, it became an instant hit-just like hoola-hoops and Elvis.

In fact, Pablo Picasso once said the "three most astonishing things in the past half century were the blues, cubism and vodka."

By 1975, vodka sales in the U.S. overtook those of bourbon, previously the most popular hard liquor and the native spirit of the country.

Why did it become so popular, so quickly here? Experts say the fact it leaves "no smell of liquor detectable on your breath."

Rabish saw an opportunity to bring a distillery to Michigan and has worked diligently to make it happen.

"I started the process six months ago," he said. "We came up with a recipe and then went about getting our permits, licenses and land. It's a lengthy process, but now we're getting close…and it's exciting."

He is working two jobs-his regular pharmaceutical gig during the day, then working at his distillery at night.

"It will be a one-person operation for a while," said Rabish, whose wife is a surgeon at Munson Medical Center. "But that will change once we get rolling."

When he does get rolling, he expects to produce 4,000 cases of vodka a year, about 150 cases every two weeks.

"We will produce small batches so that we have good quality control," he said. "We want local support and the best way to do that is to feature our local fruits and to have a high quality product. That's our goal."

His still is state-of-the-art-7,000 pounds of copper that "is the perfect metal for distillation."

He's hoping to produce his first batch in the spring, some 500 years after Russians drank their first batch when it was distilled by monks. Vodka is thought to have been invented in 1503 by Kremlin monks, who used it as an antiseptic before they started downing it.

The word vodka means "little water" and it has had a significant impact on Russian history.

In fact, historians claim former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev tried to ban it, his successor Boris Yeltsin drank as much of it as he could, while current president Vladimir Putin prefers green tea.

For his part, Kent Rabish is hoping that his new distillery will trigger a new niche market in Michigan.

"I think 10 years from now we'll have a half dozen of these distilleries in Michigan," he said. "These will be high-quality alternatives to what's on the market now." BN