Unlike his father, Dean Phillips didn't have to go all the way to Poland to find his calling in the vodka world. He found it right in his back yard. Well, actually, some barnyards and fields near Benson, Minn.
That's where the organic corn that eventually becomes Prairie Vodka is grown and distilled, to be bottled in Princeton, Minn. Still, the inspiration for this thoroughly Minnesota product did come from farther afield, starting with Eddie Phillips' discovery of Belvedere vodka in Poland and culminating with a trip that Dean and Karin Phillips took to Chile.
"We went to this market in Santiago," Dean Phillips, 39, said, "and we saw this corn on display, and it was Minnesota corn. They actually had a sign saying 'Minnesota corn.'
"So we thought if you can create a luxury vodka from Poland, we actually have a better chance of creating a luxury vodka in Minnesota, where the water and grains are probably foremost in the world in terms of quality and consistency and purity."
In relatively short order, Phillips had reached an agreement with a farmers' co-op to grow certified No. 2 yellow corn organically, and then set up a distilling process that met kosher standards. Thankfully, he said, "vodka is not that hard to make. It's tempting to tell people that it's a very time-consuming, but it's actually about as simple as making peanut butter."
The first "vintage" -- from corn grown in 2007 -- is almost sold out, and the second year's crop is being harvested after a harrowing start due to last spring's floods.
"I never thought, growing up, that I'd care much about the 'CCO weather report and ag report in the morning," said Phillips, who actually spent part of his youth helping his grandmother, Pauline Phillips, dispense advice to teenagers in her role as Dear Abby.
Choosing the base ingredient was easy, Phillips said, given that Upper Midwest corn has "the most superb flavor profile you can get, more starch and a little sweeter than what's grown elsewhere." It also was not as counterintuitive as most consumers might suppose. About 95 percent of American vodka is made from corn, Phillips noted, and most European vodkas have a wheat base. Vodkas made from potatoes are rare.
Also hard to find is any mention of vodka in portfolios that Phillips had from his company's early days. His great-grandfather had started Ed Phillips & Co. in 1912 as a candy and newspaper store in Manitowoc, Wis. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Canadian whiskeymakers were frantically seeking outlets for their now-legal product, and Ed Phillips & Co. soon became the nation's first multistate wholesaler of wines and spirits, with operations in eight states.
In 1934 the company moved to the Twin Cities, where one of its salesmen, Al Dorsch, noticed that a lot of bar patrons were putting peppermint candy in their whiskey. He developed a recipe for a peppermint liqueur that became North America's first schnapps, and in 1935 Phillips got into the distilling business.
Vodka didn't enter the portfolio until World War II soldiers returned, singing the praises of that spirit, but by 1957 the company was introducing Americans to flavored vodkas.
That tradition of innovation has, if anything, accelerated since Dean Phillips became the fifth generation of his family to serve as company president, in 2001. UV Flavored Vodkas debuted in 2002, Phillips Union (a blend of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whiskey) in 2005 and Prairie last May.
For his part, Phillips insists that his newest product is, in a sense, a backwards step. "It's doing things the way they were done 100 years ago. We know where every grain of corn comes from," he said, "from three distinct pieces of earth in western Minnesota."
That kind of "terroir" talk and Minnesota branding fit right in with the local-organic-artisanal wave pervading the food world -- as do two other regionally made vodkas: Opulent from Minnesota and 45th Parallel from New Richmond, Wis.
And that, Phillips hopes, is just the beginning.
"We are experimenting with new distilled-spirits categories with indigenous items unique to this region -- beet-sugar rums, a liqueur with native blueberries," he said. "Minnesota has more peatlands than any state other than Alaska, so we could make a Scotch-style whiskey that would be very compelling. Our grains and corn are iconic, so to make a rye or a bourbon would be very compelling.
"We could see multiple expressions, to use different oaks, different styles, but use only Minnesota white oak, only Minnesota grain, only Minnesota water and Minnesota weather. Which is one thing you truly can't duplicate anywhere else."
He chuckles again, a faraway look in his eyes, his feet firmly planted on Minnesota turf.