From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Mark Byrne

A Conversation with Mark Byrne

The former journalist and current maker of Good Vodka talks booze sustainability.

When I talked to Mark Byrne for my piece “On Booze,” I was so excited by the free-flowing conversation that I knew I had to do a proper interview. He’s a journalist turned distiller who has co-founded Good Vodka, made from coffee waste. While it hasn’t turned me into a vodka martini person (nothing could rip me away from gin), it is a gorgeously vanilla vodka with a rich mouthfeel that has changed my mind about the spirit. Someone once told me vodka is simply a “feat of engineering.” Good Vodka proves that’s not necessarily true.

We discussed how he made the decision to leave magazines (an easy one, it seems), how corporate booze green- and virtue-washes their real planetary impacts, and how alcohol can become sustainable again. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Mark. Thank you so much for coming on.

Mark: Thank you for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Mark: Yes.

So, I kind of bounced around a little growing up. I was born in Southern California, and then moved to Kenya when I was very young and lived there for several years. And then we moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, which is a paper mill town in northern Wisconsin, in the early ‘90s. And then in the late ‘90s, moved back to Africa, this time to Zimbabwe for a year. And then back to Appleton. And then Appleton is where I graduated from high school, and then I never went back.

Alicia: Oh, ok. [Laughs.]

And what kind of food was present during those times bouncing around? Did you get a good sense of the kinds of differences and cuisines from those different places?

Mark: Yeah, definitely.

I mean, in Kenya, obviously the food was very regionally specific there. For I think about a year, we lived in a little village called Igunga, which is in the western part of the country, near Lake Victoria. And that was a very rural, very, very rural village. And so, that was kind of traditional Luhya food. I don't know. I just struggle to describe it in any way other than kind of maize-based staple dishes. And so, that was what we had over there. 

When I moved to Appleton, obviously, that was a very different type of cuisine. [Laughs.] Culture shocky. So, Appleton—there's a lot of malls and fast food and stuff like that. But my dad had actually been a chef when he was younger. He'd been the head chef of a restaurant in St. Louis, and he was a very confident, competent cook. I've never seen him open a recipe book in his life. He was the main cook in our household. I would say it was pretty traditional fare. I mean, he liked French food a lot. He was a Francophile. And, so I'd say on good nights we'd have a filet mignon with a couple of side dishes. And he was really into trimming the meat himself. 

And then around, when I was 12 or 13, my dad started working out of town. So, he'd fly out every Monday and fly back on Fridays. And my mother did not cook at all. In fact, I've never even seen her in the kitchen. So at that point, it became my mom would leave money on the counter and we'd order pizza. 

And then when I was 15, I got a job in a restaurant, kind of like a high-end, white tablecloth place. And I pretty much just every night, I just had a family meal there. And that's where I got most of my sustenance through the end of high school.

Alicia: Did you like cooking? Do you still cook?

Mark: I love cooking. Yeah, I'm the primary cook in my household now. Yeah, I love cooking. Absolutely.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Awesome. 

And you started your career in magazines. Why did you want to work in magazines, to begin with?

Mark: Uh. God, I don't know. I mean, that's such a complicated question. 

I'm gonna answer this in a way that I feel like is really cliched and apologize in advance for that. I've always been good at it. All my teachers had always been like, ‘You’re really good at writing.’ And I was kind of a really bad student in every other aspect. And so, that was kind of the thing that I latched on to and was like, ‘There's a pathway here,’ that seemed like one that I could excel at. And what I really liked about it was it was a portfolio-based pathway, where if I could present, if I could do a good job on a writing assignment, if I could publish something, then it kind of made up for lacking the other credentials around academics. 

And so, I kind of just took that path. I thought, ‘Ok, I'm gonna publish a lot. I'm going to be a real self-starter and pitch a ton in college and have a real clip book by the time I’ve graduated. And then, that will kind of make up for the fact that I'm just an astoundingly subpar student.’

Alicia: [Laughs.]

And did that work out? Is that how you got into your first jobs? 

Mark: Yeah, it did.

I got my first internship in Chicago, at Chicago Magazine. That was a fact-checking internship. And at that point, I had been working on the school newspaper, I was at Columbia College in Chicago. It's an art school. And I got an internship at Chicago Magazine that I wrote while I was there. I pitched a bunch of different sections and wrote for it. 

And after college, I applied to New York Magazine, having never been to New York. I'd been to New York at that point for like a week. But I definitely did not know New York from Chicago, from Appleton. None of it made any sense to me. But I used my cousin's address on my résumé to imply that I already lived there, which I did not. And I had a pretty good clip book at that point. I've been writing for a lot of small publications around Chicago, and probably five or six different magazines and zines. And coupled with the, what I would say, the minor lie that I already lived in New York, I got an internship at New York Magazine, which at that point was a full-time, minimum wage position, but full-time. 

I had to figure out how to move to New York. I moved to New York in like four days. I found an apartment on Craigslist, went back to St. Louis, where my family was at that point, and then drove back and basically moved into the first apartment I saw, which was this terrible loft in South Williamsburg. 

And then I started in New York, and I wrote for every section while I was there. I made myself kind of indispensable in that internship, and they kept me on afterwards. I'm good at being annoying until I get something published. 

Alicia: And then, yeah, what were you writing? What kind of stuff were you focused on writing?

Mark: I was kind of just doing everything. 

I mean, at that point in my career, I was like, 22, 23. I worked a lot with the books editor, Boris. And so, I was doing a lot of book, kind of collating reviews and figuring out what we would pass along to Sam Anderson, who was the critic at the time and kind of made myself in charge of the book galley room. I ended up editing this little section called Agenda, which was at that time-I think it's changed a lot since then-but at the time, it was five or six things that you could do in the upcoming week.

I did a thing called the Recession Index, which was a cool little-so, this was obviously 2008, and the economy had just tanked. And so, we started putting together a little-an index of, a documented data sets from the recession. So how many Lehman Brothers bankers had been fired that week, or things like that. They were kind of quirky. I'm struggling to think of a good example. How much Brooks Brothers stock was down. That kind of stuff. 

So I was doing that, and I was doing the book stuff and I was doing Agenda. And I was writing little culturally, things. I don't know. I mean, I was 22. So, I was writing basically anything that I could.

Crucially, I was also doing a lot of Party Lines reporting for Jada [Yuan], who was that time, at that point, kind of the queen of Party Lines. And that was great, because that meant I would get sent to some ridiculous celeb party, where I wouldn't have to buy myself dinner because it'd be passed hors d'oeuvres. So, that was a real like, act of kindness. And then, all I had to do was kind of find a couple celebrities and ask them questions. Unfortunately, that's the thing of my job that I was the worst at.

Alicia: Really? 

Mark: Oh, yeah. I'm incredibly shy about—I don't like to approach people at parties. It's not what I do. So, I ended up doing-kind of side kicking it with other reporters. But for the most part, I was just there for the hors d'oeuvres, to be honest.

Alicia: Right.

How long were you there? ’Cause I started there at the end of 2009.

Mark: I left in the beginning of 2009. So the middle of 2008 to around, I guess, mid-2009.

Alicia: Well, how was it that you decided to leave the magazine industry? And are you completely out of it now, or is it— [Laughs.]

Mark: I would say, I'm pretty pretty much out of it. 

So from New York Mag, I went to—I ended up going to grad school at NYU. In retrospect, I have no idea why I did this. It seemed like an opportunity to write a thesis and do another thing that I could then pitch into a portfolio. So, I was writing a thesis about the independent publishing industry, which I was really interested in at that point. And that was kind of I thought of it as an opportunity to just kind of write a book proposal, basically. I was really interested in how indie publishers were innovating against the big houses, which is still kind of a fascination of mine, just like in alcohol. 

And I was there for three semesters. And then, I was also working at Esquire. I'd gotten a job as a fact-checker at Esquire. So, I was doing that on a regular basis, too. And then I'd also was—had started working at this distillery, Kings County Distillery, which was where David Haskell, who's now the editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, had started this distillery and asked me to be their first employee. Which is another kind of great kindness of his, just teach me how to make whiskey. 

So, I was doing a lot. And this was 2010. And then, at the end of 2010, my dad died suddenly and I didn't finish grad school. I was one credit shy of it. I had to stop going to classes, ’cause I was kind of grief-struck. Like two weeks later, I got a job offer from GQ. And that was just kind of just very, very shocking to me, but also amazing. I quit grad school; I quit Esquire. And then I sort of wound down my time at Kings County Distillery and started doing—started working at GQ, and I kind of dove into that headfirst and was there for five years. 

And the reason I would say I left magazines is, I started to see a pathway around alcohol was opening up for me. It seemed like something that was worth pursuing. And at the same time, I started to kind of look down the line a little bit at what my magazine career might look like. It was looking to me there were maybe a handful of jobs that would be available in magazines in 10, 15 years. Perhaps this was imposter syndrome, or a lack of confidence or whatever. But I didn't see myself as one of the people that would have those jobs. I saw a couple of people I was working with, I was like, ‘These people will be the three remaining editors-in-chief in this industry.’ And I was like, ‘I'm gonna be fighting for senior editor scraps into my 40s and 50s, and still not going to have a retirement.’

At the same time, I'd started to do this consulting work around liquor. I've been writing about liquor for a long time. I knew how to distill, and the consulting work was a lot more interesting to me. So, I basically started thinking of it as basically writing display copy, coming up with a name for liquor brand, or, excuse me, writing a label copy for it. Coming up with brand voice stuff is really just writing a really good caption or a really good headline or a really good deck. And that's stuff that I've always been really good at. I'm really good at writing in brief. 

And so I started doing that for liquor brands. I realized it was an entire kind of niche industry there. And so I did that for about a year or so, to just kind of give myself the confidence that it was something I could actually do. And then I left GQ. At the same time, I knew in the back of my head, I was working on this vodka project—which I think we'll talk about—I was aware that I needed to focus more energy on that, more energy than I would be able to had I continued to have that full-time 10 to 7 job.

Alicia: Right, right. 

And working at Kings County Distillery, was that your real entry point into the spirits world or did you have any interest in it before that?

Mark: Yeah, that was my entry point. 

I mean, I had an interest in it, so far I'd like to drink and talk about drinking. At that point, I guess I had a liberal arts student interest in craft beer. [Laughs.] I was like, ‘Oh, cool, this IPA, whatever.’ 

But yeah, at that point, again, I was like 23 when I started at Kings County Distillery. And I very quickly was like, ‘This is fascinating.’ And that distillery was interesting, in particular, because it was the first licensed distillery in New York City since Prohibition. And David and Colin, who started it, were pretty much self-taught distillers. And so that meant, we had a little library there on one of the shelves in the distillery. And basically everything that we knew about making alcohol came from that library. It didn't come from apprenticeships or preconceived notions about how you should make liquor. It was us reading books on the chemistry of distillation, and trial and erroring our way around recipes. 

So, that was a really deep end kind of—jumping into the deep end way of learning about alcohol. There's nothing surface level about it. So by the time I ended that, I felt like I had a really clear understanding of not just how our bourbon was made, but how alcohol in general was made. And I took that with me to GQ and started writing about alcohol. And I’d say that experience really informed how I wrote about alcohol, because at that point I was really interested then in where grain was sourced and how it was sourced and how craft brands were innovating in ways that the big brands weren't. And that that obsession kind of led to just kind of how I wrote about it.

Alicia: How did your understanding of the big brands versus the smaller brands, how did you get there, too? Was there a moment where you were—you realized that there was a huge difference in these ways of doing things, and that maybe one way was a little bit more destructive rather than constructive? How did you bring that to writing about it, and how did you bring that to working in the industry?

Mark: Yeah, that's a good question. 

I guess the first thing that kind of tipped me off was the way that people would ask about liquor on tours. We would do these little tours over at our distillery. And it became really clear to me that there were all these preconceived ideas about what bourbon was and what it had to be and what it had to taste like that were not—that didn't occur naturally. They happened as a result of decades-long misinformation campaigns, where a lot of the big distilleries in Kentucky wanted you to believe that bourbon could not be made outside of Kentucky, even though that had never been true. 

And that kind of stuff, every tour, there was somebody that would ask about that, ‘How can this be bourbon if it's not made in Kentucky?’ And then there was also—they would taste it and they'd be like, ‘This doesn't taste like bourbon.’ And I'd be like, ‘Well, I mean, what do you—if you think that bourbon tastes like Maker's Mark, that's not true, right? There's something messed up there about how we're putting flavor profiles into the world.’

And a lot of it is because a lot of these distilleries basically share resources to the extent that a lot of their product is made in the same distilleries from the same grain and very, very, very similar mash bills. So, people would kind of come in there with this idea that if it didn't taste like Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, which are functionally identical, then it wasn't—then they were like, ‘Well, why does it taste wrong?’

And that was something that I just kind of mentally went to war with that. What is this idea that we have that something has to taste this way? Bourbon is just something that is made in America made from 51 percent corn and put in a barrel for at least a day. That's all that it is. And it can taste like so many different things. I really wanted to dive into where those misconceptions come from and how we can challenge them. So it was less about at that point the-specifically about the sourcing, and more for me about like, ‘What can we do to challenge the notions of what bourbon is and what alcohol is in general?’

Alicia: And I think that this is such an interesting thing, because then—we've talked about this before when I wrote “On Booze”. But the idea that brands really own the flavor, and they own the categories. And so many times people don't ask for a spirit, they ask for a brand. And I think that this happens across the spectrum in food, especially in the United States, where people really connect food products to brand products and that they won't think of maybe mayonnaise as something you could make with eggs and olive oil, but as Hellman's in a jar. Or chocolate isn't a pod of cacao, it's a Hershey bar.

But I think that it's less questioned, of course in alcohol. And I guess it was Prohibition, maybe you can talk more about that. But how this kind of understanding of where alcohol comes from was totally cut off. I mean, yeah, what do you think is the cause of this that—I mean, obviously, it's money, that the brands have money. There's this real disconnect between the origins and everything. And that's why there's brands, like Tito's Vodka can say that they're handcrafted, or they're—People make a big deal about a spirit being gluten free, and it's like, ‘Well, of course, there's no gluten in it.’

How is this misinformation so powerful in alcohol?

Mark: I think conglomerization is a big part of it. It's that conglomerization demands things to be kind of, processes to be combined. The entire reason that companies like Diageo and Beam Suntory and Brown–Forman, the entire reason they're so profitable is because they share so many resources across brands, and to some extent, it doesn't even make sense to talk about those brands as distinct things other than labels. It's that they're creating all this stuff in the same places, and then it goes to a bottling line and at the bottling line they kind of decide, ‘Which of these spirits is it going to be?’ 

That's kind of what happens in product generation, too, new products development is they have—the liquid is the last thing that they think about. What they first think about is, ‘What's the name going to be? And what's the path gonna look like, and how is that going to appeal to the demographic that we want?’ Because the liquid inside is the easiest part. It's already done. They're not interested in changing that, because it would be so disruptive to their efficiency to do that. 

These are companies that have these gigantic industrialized supply chains, one big farm feeding one big wholesaler feeding one big distillery, which is basically like a big ethanol plant. And then that's churning out neutral grain spirits, like 95 percent alcohol, basically pure, into a series of little, but also still big distilleries that are then putting it into barrels. It would be so disruptive to their bottom line to have to break out the different pieces of that into interesting parts. 

To say, ‘Okay, we're going to source at this one little farm that's making a really amazing batch of something this year,’ just getting like the logistics involved in that. The trucks to move that stuff from the farm to their processing facility is way more expensive than they would ever—then they would ever agree to. It's really they've built up these efficiencies. These efficiencies compound on one another, until you basically have something that if you want to start a new spirit at a big house, the question is not, ‘Where will the spirit come from?’ The question is, ‘Which of our pre-existing spirits are you going to put into a new bottle?’

Alicia: Right.

And how has the craft movement in spirits pushed back against this, and how are—do you think it's being successful in this, or is it being successful maybe only in tiny pockets where people really have access to these things?

Mark: Honestly, the latter. The latter, that’s the approach.

Yeah, yes, absolutely. That is a part of it. Has it been successful? I think it is in the process of being successful. And I think that you're seeing the big houses kind of realigning against these new expectations for the kind of numbers that craft brands could, can do. And to them, that means—and then, forgive my cynicism as I recount this, but to them it means purchasing a craft brand and incorporating it into their pre-existing supply chain. 

So if they see a small bourbon brand doing something interesting, they’re not interested in the liquid inside of it. They're interested in the label and people's relationship to that label. The way that it's changing the industry—and again, I understand that this is kind of a cynical way to view this—is that they're seeing that they have to talk about their spirits differently, because they're seeing that those craft labels are having an impact. They're not looking at that, though, and saying, ‘We need to make our spirits differently,’ because that is off the table. That's not a thing that they're going to do. 

So, I think that a lot of them see these craft brands that come up and say, ‘We use estate-grown corn.’ Or talking a little bit more about their mash bills, and what they'll say is, ‘Oh, that's interesting. That's ok. We can do that too. We can have some buzzwords about our harvest or whatever on the label.’ 

And if you pay attention to the way that some of these bigger brands—I'm not going to say which ones, but if you pay attention to the way their labels have changed in the last five years, you will see this influx of dialogue around sourcing. And it's almost always just vague to the point of nonsense. ‘The best rye fields in Poland,’ or whatever. They—

Alicia: Oh, I know what brand it is. [Laughs.]

Mark: Yeah. That was not as coy as I thought it would be. I would say that they're changing the industry in that way, although it is a label-deep change for the most part.

Alicia: No, and it's so obnoxious because it's such an obfuscation of the issues. 

There's so much virtue-washing, I think, in alcohol as opposed to other food aspects. When we're talking about food, it could be really difficult to feed someone like Oscar Meyer hot dogs or something and tell them it's like, ‘We're doing something good.’ But Bacardi—I mean, whatever. I'll say what brand because I don't work in the industry. But they'll pay someone money to support a festival or something that's about diversity in the industry, or education around the history of Black work in the industry or brown work in the industry. And then, where does their molasses come from? It's on another level in the alcohol industry with all this money. And it's just really upsetting constantly to see, because people don't really listen and people don't really have a consciousness about it. And also, that access point is really difficult. 

So with Good Vodka, which you've launched last year, how are you thinking about how to bring your product to more people, to not just have it at Duke's Liquor Box in Greenpoint? [Laughter.]

Mark: We are in more liquor stores than that now. We have expanded a bit, and I do want to expand a bit.

I see Good Vodka as a platform. I don't see it as a brand. I see it as an opportunity to rethink the way that not just how coffee fruit is processed and discarded, but also how alcohol can be made. And it's important to me that the vodka’s the proof-case in this. The vodka is how I say, ‘Here's what we can do with this.’ I'm not ashamed to say my sights are set on anything that has a neutral spirit base. I want to prove that we can make a number of different products from coffee fruit. That's what's interesting to me about it, not just—we're not just one product. That's something I'm working on. 

The reason this is so complicated is because it involves the supply chain that is—it’s new. It's novel. It's never been done before. There was no movement of the coffee fruit wastewater from point A to point B before we started doing it, and there would—it actually had never been imported to the United States before. So cascara is having a little bit of a moment, and there is now some importing of dried cascara. But what we use is a fresh, ripe fruit concentrate because that's where the sugars live. That's where there's the most sugar. And that's just every step that we grow is a new—it involves more logistical work just to get it from, again, from point A to point B. 

So that said, I've got a scalable model in place with the Colombian Coffee Federation. I'm seeing how the vodka does. I'm seeing how people respond to it. And then hopefully, later this year, we're going to launch our second product and—

Alicia: Ooh.

Mark: Yeah.

And that will be very exciting as well.

Alicia: Nice. 

Well, to step back, how did Good Vodka come to be?

Mark: I was doing some consulting work around liquor, as I mentioned. And I had become kind of disillusioned by some of the projects that I was working on, continued to work on for several years after that. [Laughter.] It was this time where the—like I said, the big clients, the big brands, were changing their label copy or coming up with new products that, again, they wanted to present as millennial-appealing. The way that they wanted to do that was by talking more about their sourcing and using this craft language, and in some cases also talking about sustainability.

But it was really frustrating to me because again, I would ask, ‘What is interesting about the liquid? What are the ‘product truths’ that we can put in a label copy?’ And the answer to that would be, ‘TK’ [magazine speak for, “to come”], right? They don't have them yet, because the product truths are the least important part. To them, again, it's ‘We're gonna take this label, we're gonna put it in front of some focus groups. And then if it does well, we're going to launch it into the market at a price point that we feel like there's an opportunity to carve market share out of.’ And that process precludes interesting spirits. It doesn't give an opportunity to really innovate there. 

And so, I was doing these projects where all I wanted was one to be like, ‘Here is an interesting liquid. We started at square one, accomplished some interesting shit here, and we just need you to describe it.’ What I realized was that was actually—they would never give me that assignment, because that would be so easy. It's incredibly easy to sell a product that has an interesting liquid inside of it, but that's not what exists on the market. What you're selling is a vibe or a mentality or an emotion or a time to celebrate, or something. You're selling a captain character with his leg on the barrel, or like a sea creature. That's why they have these fanciful names and made-up backstories. Think about all these bourbons that have someone's name on the front. That name is not associated with the product. You can't trace back a history of Captain Morgan to how rum is made. 

So, I was doing that. And I was starting to feel someone needs to make a spirit from square one, where what's interesting about it is built into how we make it, not just—not the other way around, not, ‘We have this liquid and now we need five ways to describe it that are good.’ But what if the way we sourced it was already good?

And at the same time, my business partner, Tristan, was starting to play around with coffee fruit. He had gone to visit a coffee farm in Guatemala. He had seen this pile of fruit in the corner and become kind of fascinated—Tristan had worked at Kings County Distillery with me—he'd become kind of fascinated with the opportunity to distill it and play around with that. At that point, he was at Booker and Dax bar at that point, a very experimental cocktail bar in the Momofuku empire. And he kind of for a couple of years after that kind of kept this fruit in mind and thought about the opportunities there.

Then, we linked up. And I thought, ‘Okay, this is the opportunity to do the thing that I want with the thing that he wants,’ and kind of combine these ambitions and use the coffee fruit to build a spirit from the ground up that can speak to these things that people actually want in the spirit, which is transparency, traceability, eco-consciousness, and, at the end of the day, deliciousness.

Alicia: And how did you bring that to market? What would have been the challenges and the—-just the necessities of making a spirit like this and bringing it to market? 

Mark: Yeah, I mean, it took six years, so there were a lot of them.

First of all, we had to figure out what we were—where we were gonna process the fruit and how we were going to process the fruit. And then once we got down there, we also had to think about what piece of the fruit we we're going to process. So if you think about the piece of coffee fruit, there's the cascara, which is the shell, the husk around the fruit. And then there's a layer of pulp, which is kind of a mushy, sticky, pulpy stuff. And then there's the parchment, which is a kind of a paper around the bean. And then there's the bean. 

And like I said, around that time—so this is like 2015, early 2015—there's a little bit more of an economy growing around cascara as a tea, which is something that was actually—something that was occurring in East Africa for a while, traditionally, but hadn't really taken place much in Latin America at all and certainly not in America. 

And so we started looking at that cascara tea, this dried tea substance, but we realized that—two things. First of all, that we weren't getting as much sugar out of it because it had been dried and just wasn't retaining the sugar in a way that was efficient to distill. 

And two, that there were new economies kind of being built up around this that were subverting its byproduct nature, were becoming profitable to grow a coffee fruit specifically for the purpose of drying and selling the cascara. And I was looking at that, and—especially as Starbucks and Blue Bottle were kind of looking at that too. And to me, that was not a byproduct. That was a product-product. If you're gonna install tens of thousands of dollars of equipment on a coffee co-op to dry cascara and you're going to pick it for its ripeness, specifically for a kind of cascara flavor profile, to me that seemed a little bit like not what I was interested in. 

But at the same time, we started looking at the coffee wastewater. And the wastewater was really fascinating, because it was basically in certain types of coffee processing, semi-wet processing, they were washing the beans, washing the pulp off of the beans and ending up with this liquid that had a lot of suspended pulp in it. And in that pulp, sugar. And we realized that if we could take that wastewater and concentrate it, we could make a syrup. Kind of like an eco-conscious molasses. And that's where we started focusing then. 

So everything that I've described to you in the last two minutes was six years of work, but it was like—but each of those steps along the way took a year. And then eventually we got to this wastewater. We did a lot of tests on it. We shipped a hobby still down to an AirBnB in Colombia in Santa Marta and spent a month down there just distilling coffee fruit. 

And eventually we had a product that tasted kind of interesting, too. It was a brandy at that point, so it was one step before a vodka. And we tasted it. We thought, ‘This is delicious. It can only get more delicious. If we distill it one more time, it’s just going to be just incredibly pure but still have some interesting notes to it.’ And at that point then, we started working with the Colombian Coffee Federation to build out a logistics network with us to work with their pre-existing network of co-ops and farmers to source the wastewater. 

And the other thing I'll add to that is that this wastewater stuff can't be used as fertilizer. That was important to us, too. It's too wet, and it just ends up creating methane emissions. So, when we were looking at the cascara, one of the farmers down in Colombia said to us, ‘You can take this stuff, but basically, then an organic farmer is gonna have to go out and buy a new fertilizer source.’ And it became equally important to us to not disrupt that already good reuse chain. So, the wastewater was really interesting for that reason.

Farmers in Colombia also get fined if they don't dispose of it properly, but it's expensive to dispose of it properly. So, a lot of them were just eating that fine. So for all of these reasons, we started working on this wastewater material. And the Coffee Federation helped facilitate that.

Alicia: Awesome. Yeah. 

And how has the response been from consumers? I know you launched at an odd time when it's not like it's gonna be in cocktails and that sort of thing. But how has that been?

Mark: Yeah.

So, I kind of imagined it as being a well spirit. I wanted it to be in cocktail bars. I wanted it to go in cocktails. That's where our network was strongest. But for obvious reasons, a lot of cocktail bars aren't really operating full capacity right now, and many of them are closed down in general. So, we put it in a few bars just to kind of seed it out there and see how it got used and see how people liked it. I thought we'd sell a case a month for the first year. 

But what actually ended up happening was a lot of liquor stores reached out to us and asked if they could bring it in. And that's been really fascinating to watch. I did not imagine the spirit would have a life in liquor stores that it does. I struggled to imagine people trying a new vodka when they go to the wine shop. 

But I think it does a good job of kind of selling itself on the bottle. And I think that the same reason that we imagined bartenders would like it, liquor stores like it too. Because it's something interesting to recommend. There's an interesting story to it. There's an interesting thing about it, for the same reason that it was easy to write the copy on the front of it because it's not hard to tell that story. I think shop owners like to be like, ‘Here's a bunch of things about it,’ that aren't just ‘It's gluten free’ or ‘It's handmade in Texas.’

Alicia: And like you said before, that you want Good Vodka to be a platform. Does that mean you want it to be something that kind of teaches people where alcohol comes from and that it could be made from waste?

Mark: Yeah.

Well, when I said platform, I mean I want a lot of different alcohols to be made—I would love to sell neutral alcohol made of coffee fruit to somebody that was thinking about buying corn ethanol from a gigantic industrial ethanol plant. I would love over the next few years, as people imagine what their new, ready to drink spirits could be, if they went a step beyond thinking that it has to begin with neutral grain spirits from Kentucky or Indiana. 

I, at the same time, to your point, I believe that simply telling people more about their liquid challenges the bigger brands to do that as well. And so, as I've watched that happen, as I’ve watched the language change a little bit in the way the big alcohol companies conceive of their labels, what I see is them kind of getting challenged by the little brands to disclose a little bit more. 

And I think that they're doing it kind of weakly, but at the same time I think that that challenge we made. I think that we can say, ‘Here's the harvest season. Here is the specific region. Why don't you put a harvest season on a bottle?’ It's mystifying to me why more brands don’t do that. It's the thing you said, the coffee always comes from somewhere. The grain always comes from somewhere and it always came from some time, too. I've never wanted to overlook that about alcohol.

Alicia: Right. 

And yeah, it's interesting because I was talking to Helena from Haus. Did you guys collaborate on the ‘Know Your Alcohol’ website? 

Mark: Mm-hmm.

Alicia: Yeah. 

And we were talking about how she was able to kind of sell directly to consumer with the-their apéritifs and that sort of thing. And her whole thing is about accessibility in that way. But with ‘Know Your Alcohol,’ how did you decide on the most important things to say to the consumer? I mean, you said your thing was brevity in writing as well. How did you kind of figure out how to communicate with people?

Mark: I thought a lot about those tours that I used to give at Kings County Distillery, and what were the things that people asked that I wanted them to know going in. What were the things that sort of stopped the tour and had to be explained?

The fact that people don't know that—I hate to keep ragging on these two, but they are such a good example. The fact that people don't know that Maker's Mark and Knob Creek come from the same manufacturer. That's such a crucial point of how you look at the liquor store shelf, that you have to understand that 99 percent of these spirits are made by ten distillers. And that those distillers make them for pennies on the dollar. 

And not to get too specific about this, but most vodka brands, those big market vodka brands cost their producers about 75 cents to make, including everything, including the grain, including the distillation, including the bottle. And then, that's their entire cost of goods. So these are incredibly profitable. Their profit margins are something like 75 percent. They've been really, really successful for these companies. And it's really, really hard to compete with that as a craft brand. You can't get your cost of goods to 75 cents, unless you're buying 10 million bottles at a time. So, that makes them more expensive. That means that if you're going to have sort of a craft brand and you want to break even, you have to sell it for a little more, then that puts you out of this kind of this purchasable tier for a lot of people. 

I think that kind of thing is really important to me that people know why some of those brands are able to be so cheap, and why other brands need to be a little bit more expensive. At the same time, we sell Good Vodka pretty cheaply considering how it's made, and I'd say pretty much break even because I didn't want it to be a luxury spirit. I don't see any interest in making another Tesla when there's no Prius on the market. It's not interesting to me to have something that people have to conspicuously spend in order to do the right thing. I wanted it to be the exact same ‘consumer decision’ to buy the eco-conscious brand as it is to buy the regular brand.

Alicia: Right.

And I mean, you’d mentioned that you're living in New Paltz and you're the primary cook in your house. How do these ideas manifest in your everyday living? I feel like that's always the question people have for me. Especially living in New Paltz, I'm assuming you have some really good produce.

Mark: There's a really good co-op up here. One of the reasons we moved up here, my wife and I, was because it was a really amazing co-op in New Paltz.

I really like being near farms. I love being able to know where things come from. When I do eat meat, I prefer it to be traceable. I'm not gonna say that I'm any sort of vegetarian. I’m not, and I would like to be more of one. I do try to be intentional about how I choose meat products in particular. And it's important to me to kind of know where they came from and know that it's not a gigantic factory farm. 

And how does it manifest in my life? Oh, God, I don't know. Probably not in as many ways as it should. I don't know. I guess I don't want to make it seem I moved up here as a live off the grid kind of thing. I realize that when I talk about spirits I make myself out to sound like I'm waging war against the consumerists and all of that, but, and in a lot of ways, I fail those tests, too. 

I like having a little bit of space between me and my neighbors. I like New York, but I never really felt like that was a hometown. I don't actually feel I have any hometown. I never felt that way about Appleton. I didn't feel that way about Kenya or Zimbabwe. I didn't feel that way about L.A. I kind of feel comfortable anywhere, to be perfectly honest. I like traveling. And I like kind of parachuting in somewhere and making a home there.

Alicia: Right. 

And for you, is drinking a political act?

Mark: Making alcohol certainly is a political act. Drinking, insofar as I try to be intentional about the choices that I make, and in that intentionality I think there is a kind of rebellion, then yeah, a little bit.

But to me, it's making alcohol, I think, because it is so much the—not the path of least resistance, because we've chosen to do it the hard way, is absolutely political to make those choices. It is hard every day to not just buy neutral grain spirit from the same place that all the distillers, that all the big distilleries do. It's challenging, and it's challenging to tell that story.

But at the same time, yeah, I think this is something that I think is important. And to take this full circle a little bit, I feel part of what growing up a little bit, just spending time in Africa as a kid did to me was it kind of made it so that I didn't see the self-pathology of America that I think is hammered into a lot of kids. And I have a great deal of skepticism about how—about America in general, and about how our, the things that we consume, are made and sourced. And a lot of that comes from having kind of moved to Appleton as an outsider with having come from a very rural village in Kenya. 

I don't know. I don't take for granted that we should be able to buy cheap alcohol from gigantic conglomerates. To put it how you do, it always comes from somewhere, right? That's kind of my mentality as well.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time.

Mark: Thank you. Thank you as well. 

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.