Kjersten Merila and her husband, Steve, have two big passions: giving back and the booze business.
It was on an anniversary road trip in October 2015 through Tennessee and Kentucky visiting distilleries that Steve, co-founder of Big Wood Brewery, mentioned to Kjersten that he was kicking around the idea of opening a distillery. “So all the way down [to Tennessee], we have 13 hours to do nothing but talk,” Kjersten recalls, and the questions started flowing back and forth of how it would work. “And the more we talked about it, the more I got excited about it.”
So Her Spirit was born, like many great ideas, somewhere on an American highway. The product will hit store shelves in May.
“Both Steve and I are people who love to give back,” Kjersten says, and while a few ideas were floated around about who the beneficiaries should be, it became clear that they should build the business to give 50 percent of its profits to local women entrepreneurs.
A number of things influenced this decision, she says, including their admiration for strong women. Steve “thinks they’re smarter than men, that they work harder, that they get stuff done. And that’s kind of my personality: tell me what to do and I’ll get it done,” she says. “I, over a very quick time, developed a passion for this [project].” And so, while Steve helps with connections in the distilling and brewing industries, Kjersten is the sole owner of Her Spirit.
While she would love to have a local distillery for the vodka, she doesn’t want anything taking away from the money given to the entrepreneurs, so for now, it will be outsourced and she’ll put that money into the giving-back portion of the business. But “it will be bottled locally, packaged locally. [I’ll use] as much local products as I can.” The vodka will be distilled six times for a smooth finish, with a price tag in the same range as Tito’s or Svedka.
“We’ll be in the market of national brands,” Kjersten says. “I want the giveback to be huge. If I don’t sell vodka, I don’t have any giveback, and this is what’s driving me right now.”
How the Program Works
“Women will submit their applications to an advisory board of women who will then vet the applications,” says Kjersten. “The applicants will be narrowed down and the finalists will go in front of the five entrepreneurs. It will be like a local Shark Tank.” While she knows that many cities could benefit from this kind of program, for now, “I want to help the local women that I’m already meeting and networking with.”
The Vodka Distilling Process
- Vodka starts by using a basic fermented ingredient; most use grain, potatoes or sugar beets; some use apples and grapes.
- The grain (in Her Spirit’s case) is crushed, mixed with water, and heated, converting the starch to sugar.
- This “wort” is combined with yeast to produce mash.
- The “wash” (alcoholic liquid) is distilled from the mash to separate the ethanol (drinking alcohol) from the other chemicals and water present in the mash.
- Since alcohol boils faster than water, the alcohol vapors are captured, cooled, and condensed into alcohol.
- It’s very important not to capture the initial vapors (the head) or the last vapors (the tail) as this is where the impurities lie.
- Her Spirit will be distilled six times to remove impurities, leaving a clean, refreshing vodka.
Sip on This:
Prior to 1885, vodka was only sold in 12.3 liter buckets.