N ear the end of Royal Avenue in North Memphis, past a row of identical warehouses long forgotten, the grandsons of Humphrey Folk Jr., founder of the landmark restaurant Folk’s Folly, are shaping a new chapter to the family legacy built on spirits instead of steak. Smart, personable, and energetic, the young entrepreneurs are distilling small batch vodka made with local ingredients in a former adhesive plant that these days smells like a Wonder Bread factory. Even more impressive, Memphis-made Pyramid Vodka (possibly the smoothest you will ever taste) is the only locally crafted vodka in the state of Tennessee. Most vodka in the United States, which by definition is 95 percent grain alcohol when it comes off the still, is produced by a central distillery in Indiana and shipped to individual producers to be diluted, bottled, and branded. But Winston and Alexander Folk take an entirely different approach. They make vodka by hand with a copper and stainless-steel still designed by Winston, manufactured in China, and reassembled in Memphis at the Pyramid distillery. The still is 22 feet tall. “It took four of us 16 hours to assemble it from start to finish,” says Winston, shaking his head, still a little dumbfounded. “All we had was a forklift, a scissor lift, and pictures from the factory where the still was made.”
In many ways, the brothers’ path from being part of a famous Memphis restaurant family to craft vodka-makers is a seamless blend of education, opportunity, and can-do attitudes. Both men grew up in Folk’s Folly, working summers and Christmas breaks at their family’s popular East Memphis steakhouse. Alexander, who graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in hospitality management, worked for a year after college managing Itta Bena restaurant on Beale Street. “I loved the food and beverage industry, and I wanted to stay in it, but I wanted to be on the manufacturing side,” he says.
Winston, who at 28 is the oldest person on Pyramid’s five-man team, moved in a different direction. He joined the Coast Guard and later worked as a management consultant for the off-shore oil industry. “I was gone 21 days a month,” Winston says. “So when Alexander called and asked, do you want to do this, I said, absolutely.”
Largely self-educated about vodka distillation, the brothers spent two years working through plans and licenses, a tedious and complicated state and federal process. They located the 25,000-square-foot distillery in North Memphis by intent. ”We really want to help revitalize this area and bring manufacturing back to Memphis,” Alexander says. “We are committed to our city.”
Local partnerships matter, too, from Pyramid’s sophisticated black and gold labels created by downtown’s S2N Design to the company’s branding at the Pyramid Vodka Studio, a lounge that opened November 1st in the lobby of FedExForum. Order vodka cocktails, and the drinks are made exclusively with the hometown label.
What’s inside the bottle also depends on locally sourced ingredients. Vodka, which is distilled from starch-rich plants, is typically made from local crops like sorghum, potatoes, or wheat. Pyramid uses corn grown 40 miles away in Wilson, Arkansas, going through about 2,500 pounds a week. After distillation, a local farmer picks up the corn’s spent mash and feeds it to his hogs.
Equally important for Pyramid Vodka’s fresh taste is the local water supplied by the acclaimed Memphis Aquifer. The entire distillation process depends on Memphis water, from diluting the distillery’s grain alcohol to cleaning its equipment. “Memphis has the sweetest water in the world,” Alexander says. “The ingredients give our vodka its background flavors and aromas, but it’s the water that gives it a clean and smooth finish.”
Memphis vodka drinkers apparently appreciate Pyramid’s taste and local appeal. The distillery rolled out its first batch the night before Thanksgiving and quickly sold out. A second big push is now producing about 250 cases, or 1,500 bottles, every month and placing Pyramid Vodka in more than 70 area restaurants and 50 liquor stores.
• PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS •
“Memphis has been extremely responsive,” Winston says. “We can hardly keep up with demand.”
To accommodate production of 450 cases a month by year’s end (look out, Nashville, you are next), the company added more fermentation tanks, a relatively simple task because of the still’s hybrid design that combines pot distillation with column distillation to facilitate increased production. “The column still has the ability to get an extremely high alcohol percent quickly and efficiently, plus the ability to control the quality with each individual batch,” Winston says.
Batch control is important to the vodka-makers who evaluate their finished product the old-fashioned way: by taste. “Everyone who works here does a blind tasting for every batch. There’s no way to automate this part of the process, but who would want to?” Alexander asks. “We get to come to work on Monday mornings and taste vodka.”
Certainly, the spirit is mellow and smooth enough for straight-up shots, the brothers’ preferred way of drinking vodka. But the vodka’s vanilla nose and clean presence also make it an excellent choice for cocktails, says mixologist Michael Hughes, general manager of Joe’s Liquors & Wines in Midtown Memphis.
“Pyramid has a clean and clear note of grain to it that is reminiscent of a very good grappa,” says Hughes, who developed the cocktail recipes shown in this issue to highlight the fresh and bright flavors of spring. “It’s not a shy vodka, so it doesn’t get overwhelmed either.”
Alexander compares the thicker mouth feel of Pyramid to European-style vodkas, and the vodka’s finish as a pleasing burn. “You want to feel a warmth down your throat, not a harsh burn, and that’s exactly what we’ve got.”
Visitors will be able to taste the vodka themselves later this year, when Pyramid opens a tasting room at the North Memphis distillery. “We want to showcase that a product made by hand in small batches is actually different from the commercially mass-produced batches,” Winston explains. “We think a lot of people don’t understand that when it comes to vodka.”