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Raising spirits

A Guthrie family goes into the booze business

Guthrie’s Prairie Wolf Distillery

Corn and water are two of the most ubiquitous substances in the United States, representing billions of dollars in sales. They also combine to make the most commonly consumed alcoholic beverage. Vodka has been wetting lips since the late eighth century, beginning in Russia and Poland. Now, a pair of brothers in Oklahoma is bringing that old-world process to the prairie.

Hunter and Blake Merritt, with their wives and parents, built Prairie Wolf Distillery on Oklahoma Avenue, in historic downtown Guthrie. The building and the distillery were years in the making, traveled along miles of red tape.

After learning the business and honing their craft, “It took us a good six months just to get all the correct permits,” Hunter said, noting that the city of Guthrie was proactive in attracting the distillers. “They basically asked us what they could do to bring our business there,” which was unlike other cities where they looked to build, Hunter said.

Distilling spirits differs from microbrews in the amount of permits required. Anyone can brew beer at home, but distilling, maybe because of Prohibition’s bathtub gin, requires distillers to jump through legal hoops, and to have a dedicated site.

The family appreciated the history of Guthrie and like that they are situated “in such a cool area.” But the cool factor only gets a business so far. The brothers set about producing a line of spirits to support the Guthrie vibe, a distinctive blend of small town sensibility with a fresh, urban atmosphere. When Hunter earned his MBA in 2010, he and his brother implemented their shared life-long dream of owning a business. The brothers and their dad each took on distilling apprenticeships at three different distilleries, where they learned the science behind spirits. 

Then, all three men traveled to Louisville to study under some of the best distillers in the business. In order to get the distillery operating, they had to perfect their own recipe. Hunter said they use the same corn that all of the big producers use, and once distilled, they bring the spirits to the appropriate proof with their own blending water. The water streams through the family’s ranch, Prairie Wolf, which has belonged to the Merritt family since the 1889 land rush. They invested in and installed a reverse osmosis water filtration system on the ranch.

Most people don’t think about the flavor of water, assuming it doesn’t really have much taste. Hunter said that many vodka producers use distilled water, which has a sort of flat, stale taste. “We spent more time tweaking our water than probably anything else.”

Big names in vodka will often purchase ethanol in massive drums, which they then distill. Prairie Wolf starts at the beginning. They cook corn and water in a 100-gallon pot until they have a mash, a sort of crude beer brew high in sugar. Yeast added to the mash consumes the sugar, and as a byproduct produces ethanol. Distillation comes next, the process of heating the fermented brew. The spirit rises as steam and then condenses again in a purer form. A few years ago, a repeated distillation process came into vogue. Vodka makers distilled their vodka three times, then five, then seven, each time claiming the process yielded the purest vodka available. The Merritts didn’t fall for it. “We distill our vodka once, very slowly, and the right way. It’s as pure as it will ever be,” Hunter said. Off the still, the vodka is around 190 proof. The distiller then adds blending water to bring the spirit to 80 proof. Merritt, who tastes all his vodkas at room temperature, said the result is a “smooth, smooth, smooth” drink.

Vodka is just the beginning. Most craft distillers bring vodka to the market first, since it is a neutral spirit that doesn’t require specialized ingredients or lengthy aging. A small business can begin to create brand awareness and cash flow while preparing whiskey or gin that requires more time and technique. Prairie Wolf is no different. The other product the distillery now has on shelves is a coffee liqueur called Dark. It is made from beans grown in the Kona valley in Hawaii on land owned by an Edmond man. The distillery worked with Oklahoma State University’s food lab to find a recipe they could bring to market, and according to Jesse Fincannon, the manager at Whiskey Business, an upscale retailer of wine, beer and spirits in downtown Tulsa, it beats Kahlua and Frangelico any day. Hunter attributes this to the natural ingredients. There are no additives to make it pretty. In fact, the recipe is top-secret; the distillery is closed to the public. The liqueur and the vodka are both 100-percent American sourced and made.

In early May, the distillers put the first batch of whiskey in barrels. Now they wait at least two years. Hunter said that many craft distillers will speed up the process in order to get a product to the market, but the result is an inferior product. They have some assurance that the years the whiskey spends in barrels will not be wasted. “If it tastes bad going in, it’ll taste bad going out,” Hunter said. He said theirs will be a bourbon whiskey that “will have a lot of deep caramel, vanilla flavor, like a dessert wine, with a velvety finish.”

Fincannon praised the brothers and their product, saying that they make a smooth vodka at a reasonable price. He said that there are only two craft distillers in Oklahoma, with Twister operating out of Moore. But he expects to see more. Some of the increase in interest may have its roots in the burgeoning DIY movement, but Fincannon also said that the spirits trends tend follow those in beer-brewing. There are microbrewers all over the state now, and microdistillers are the next in line.

In the hot summer months, Merritt prefers a nice, clean vodka and soda with lime, while Fincannon suggested infusing a watermelon with vodka and serving slices. Moscow Mules, made with ginger beer, are another top summertime cocktail. Fincannon, of course, suggested a White Russian, which uses both the vodka and Dark.