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Two Campbell Law School alums are taking vodka distilling to the next level.
Take two successful lawyers with a desire to do something different. Start with a centuries-old family recipe, resurrected at a family reunion. Gather the ingredients, primarily rice. Cook it down, cool it, then put it in a still. Wait for the result—Bedlam Vodka, a smooth, gluten-free, “drinkable” spirit made at Durham’s Graybeard Distillery.
The lawyers, Brandon Evans and Scott Russ, are 2006 graduates of Campbell Law School, which moved from Buie’s Creek to downtown Raleigh in 2009. Three years ago, both were seeking a new professional challenge.
“Scott came to me with this recipe and, honestly, what attracted me to [it] right away was the backstory, the history to it,” Evans said in a recent interview for the Campbell University podcast Rhymes with Orange. “Today’s consumers look for authenticity. No longer can you slap a goose on something and charge $30 for a bottle with no history. People are looking for something that has roots.”
Russ, who was winding down his law practice in 2016, had been experimenting to adapt an old family recipe of poitín—a traditional Irish distilled beverage made from rice during the country’s potato famine—into something he thought American consumers would enjoy.
The old style of poitín distilling used a malted barley base for the mash, the same method used for single malt or pure pot still whiskey distilled in Ireland today. Bedlam Vodka started out as an unaged whiskey and, during the famine, Russ says his family was struggling to feed themselves. “They hit upon this idea to use rice, which had a fantastic yield and a great taste.”
Russ let Evans try the recipe, which he was perfecting in his garage in a 5-gallon pot still; Evans liked it, and a business was born. But the pair found significant differences between making spirits in a 5-gallon still to making it in a 1,500-gallon still. After buying the requisite machinery, they spent weeks at the distillery around the clock, sleeping on cots, trying to figure out how to make vodka on a large scale.
“Us knowing nothing about the industry was the fun part,” Evans said of learning to navigate vodka distilling and distributing at scale. “We had the law background and some business background and that always, always helps understanding how to navigate legal and corporate hurdles.”
“The best part, for me, was combining the best parts of law school and the best part of legal practice—latching onto something, trying to understand all the parts, distilling, how the industry works, how the consumer thinks, the regulations, the rules,” Russ added. “Our legal training has been our best asset.”
The Bedlam brand name is taken from a rugged coastal town in northwestern Ireland but derives its attitude and purpose from the definition of “bedlam” to mean chaos and conflict. Fast forward to today and Bedlam Vodka has received gold medal awards in San Francisco and Singapore and earned double gold in China. It was also named one of the top three vodkas in the U.S. at the London Spirits Competition last month.
With the recent passage of Senate Bill 290, which, as of September, allows distilleries to make and sell cocktails on their premises, the Bedlam brand has even more room to grow.
“It allows us to sell what the consumer wants [directly] and to show how the product can be used,” Russ said. “We can operate the distillery as a destination, where you can hang out for the day.”
“You go big or you go home,” Evans added. “We wanted to be prepared to compete with the masses. We developed this distillery to be the largest in North Carolina. We wanted to progress quickly.”
Graybeard Distillery is open for tours; learn more at bedlamvodka.com
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