BETHALTO — Hidden in a mundane-looking garage unit off of Illinois Route 140 one of the region’s newest micro-producers make a product far from mundane.
B.T.O Distillers is the latest in the craft-spirits business with a fine, smooth vodka on the level of top-shelf brands.
Dubbed Bluestem Vodka, the liquor is the creation of three friends — Caleb Ogden, Brian Rayhack and Anthony Newton — who worked in the ethanol industry together. They decided to use their understanding of the distilling process to launch their own business in March. Although initially interested in craft beer, the crowded micro-brewery market led them to hard liquors instead.
“We all three have known each other for probably 10 to 12 years, a couple of us longer, and we were all ready to try something on our own,” Ogden said. “We already have a knowledge base on this and are passionate about it, so we thought this would be the way to go.”
At the facility’s center is the machine that makes it all happen — an old 500-gallon dairy tank, which the partners found, cleaned up, and converted into the distillation chamber.
A complicated system of pipe, gauges and knobs, thread around the building, allowing precise control over the product’s purity.
Ogden explained that the distillation process begins with milled corn, poured into the tank’s top through a hatch. Corn is the base of choice for vodka distillers.
“You could certainly use wheat; you could use potato,” Ogden noted. “But, corn is pretty much the local option for grain, and in my opinion it imparts a sweater flavor at the back end of the drink.”
Next, they use a heat exchanger to bring a corn-and-water mixture to 190 degrees to kill off any bacteria. Enzymes are added to break down sugars.
“We bring that to temperature for about an hour, and then we quickly cool it down using cooling water through that same heat exchanger,” Ogden said. “All the mash goes back into the tank when we are done, and it keeps…