Career Path: Three longtime friends bring farm-to-flask dreams to North Carolina | Crain's Raleigh Durham

Career Path: Three longtime friends bring farm-to-flask dreams to North Carolina

A new distillery is gearing up to call the Tar Heel State home.

Social House Vodka, headquartered in Raleigh and distilled in Kinston, is launching its handcrafted, gluten-free, farm-to-flask brand of vodka this summer. The distillery is in a 100-year-old abandoned power plant in Kinston in eastern North Carolina.

In a conversation with Crain's Raleigh-Durham, co-founders Cary Joshi, G Patel and Mark Mullins shared their journey and what they hope for their brand.

What is behind the commitment to distil and operate in North Carolina, specifically Raleigh and Kinston?

Joshi: North Carolina is my home. I have lived in Raleigh longer than anywhere else and proudly call it my home. I've built a life here, and part of that life is sharing my love of spirits and friendship with people who love this beautiful state as much as I do. When it comes to Kinston, that was easy. Kinston is experiencing a renaissance. It's beautiful to watch, and we wanted to be a part of it. As soon as we showed interest, the community warmly welcomed us and now share our excitement for Social House Vodka. We love giving back to the Kinston community, getting to know its residents and watching the town fulfill its potential. We want to actively make an immense difference for the town and people that live there.

Mullins: Growing up, my family often vacationed in in the Outer Banks, and my first duty assignment for the Army was in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. That gave me the opportunity to spend time in Raleigh when I had free time, and I really enjoyed the vibrancy of the city. I was able to return to the area five years ago when I was offered a position with Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits to run one of the sales divisions. I settled my family into Cary and have loved every minute. The Triangle is the perfect place to raise a family, start a business and enjoy all that North Carolina has to offer.

When we first began looking at options around North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, Kinston was the perfect match for its proximity to Raleigh, transit options like I-95, abundance of local corn farms and our onsite crystal clear deep water wells that draw water directly from the Black Creek Aquifer. There was also an unbelievable opportunity to convert a 100-year-old coal-burning power plant into a vodka distillery. How cool is that? The city itself has such a cool thing going on right now. It's becoming a top place in eastern North Carolina for tourism and hospitality. The mayor and city manager have been terrific to work with and we can’t be more excited to be a part of Kinston’s present and future.

Patel: North Carolina has become home for me after moving from India in 1993. We landed in Morehead City, our first home in the United States, and I fell in love with Raleigh through my studies at North Carolina State University. I’ve been blessed to travel the world but have not found a place that brings the same charm, hospitality and balance of life in Raleigh. I always knew of Kinston from my days commuting back and forth from NCSU. Until the Social House Vodka team began visiting different sites around the Southeast for the perfect distillery location, I would have never realized Kinston’s charm. It brings back memories from India for me – this beautiful town of Kinston is surrounded by kind, caring and spirited individuals who are very tied to their roots. That is the essence of what we want to spread with Social House Vodka.

Most of us are familiar with the farm-to-table movement, but perhaps less familiar with the farm-to-flask movement. What is it exactly and why are you all championing the effort?

Joshi: Farm-to-flask is similar to the farm-to-table movement, in that we believe that transparency in the where, what and how crafts spirits are made is important. We believe in sourcing locally, investing in the community and stewarding our environment for generations to come.

Mullins: Quite simply, it’s the right thing to do. The United States economy is driven by small business – being able to help local farmers sustain their practices is vital to the community. Additionally, consumers are more aware of what’s going into their bodies more than ever and have easy access to that information. Any chef will tell you that quality ingredients are critical to quality meals and the same goes for spirits. By sourcing directly from a local corn farmer, we’re able to have better control of the quality of our base ingredient and that means we can create a better quality product.

Patel: We believe in being socially responsible, reducing our carbon footprint, supporting the local economy and using the product from your backyard. Our corn is sourced eight miles from our facility, from farmers who’ve been honing their craft for multiple generations.

How did you all get into the distilling business?

Joshi: The idea stemmed from a monthly get together over food and cocktails with close friends four years ago — sharing ideas, thoughts and laughs about our journeys in life. Over the next two years, I traveled and visited more than 53 distilleries across the United States and internationally to determine if we could establish a sustainable, competitive advantage. For the next two years, the focus was on building the team, selecting a location and building the distillery and brand.

Mullins: Over the last 12 years, I have worked in all aspects of the industry. I’ve worked for large suppliers like Diageo and Bacardi and for a small, all-natural mixer company called Stirrings. I’ve worked for the country’s largest distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. I’ve bartended, waited tables and was a partner in a restaurant. I love this industry and all that it has to offer. When Cary and G approached me about being a part of something they had been working on for a couple years, it seemed like the logical next step in my life. Being able to build a business and brand with my friends that others can connect with is something extremely special.

Patel: Being in the restaurant business for almost 13 years, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many spirits. Simply put, I love my martinis!

What was behind the decision to operate in an abandoned power plant?

Joshi: Vacant and abandoned spaces create opportunities for sustainable development where we can reinvent historic structures for new uses. Along with brownfield reclamation, adaptive reuse is a key factor in land conservation and the reduction of urban sprawl. Our decision to use this site for our distillery was a combination of identifying how the characteristics of the structure could be adapted to our use along with the appeal of the physical property characteristics as a future agritourism destination.

Mullins: When we first saw the building, we knew it could be something very special. The idea of potentially converting a 100-year-old coal-burning power plant into a zero net carbon footprint distillery is something incredible. The onsite deep water wells that bring crystal clear water directly from the Black Creek Aquifer certainly helped. Water is such a critical ingredient in all spirits, especially vodka. Having those wells is just another way we can ensure we’re putting out a quality product.

Patel: When we saw the power plant, it was love at first sight. We wanted to preserve the history and find an alternative use for it. When walking through the facility, we realized it was truly made for a distillery from the way it was laid out, the height of the space and its functionality.

What do you want customers to associate with your brand?

Joshi: We are dedicated to establishing a widespread community of friends who get together and share their experiences, hopes and stories.

Mullins: We want people to know that when good friends get together, great things can happen and Social House moments can happen anywhere. We want consumers to think of Social House Vodka during those times. Everyone has different Social House moments; it’s the times you share with friends that are most important and Social House Vodka can complement these moments no matter how big or small.

Patel: Social House Vodka is a distinctly American spirit made of the highest quality, locally sourced ingredients that act as the perfect complement to moments both big and small.

What are your hopes for the business?

Joshi: Our focus is creating a fine craft spirits company and premium gluten-free vodka, through Social House Vodka. We also seek to provide meaningful work for our employees and create opportunities to elevate the economic condition of the surrounding community, while being good stewards of the environment.  

Mullins: In the short term, I want to make sure we put out the best American-made vodka. We’ve put a lot of work into this product, both with branding and the product itself to make sure the end result is exceptional. We want to bring even more credibility to the great spirits already produced in North Carolina. Further down the road, I hope we can continue to connect with more consumers around the country and even globally by focusing on the power of friendship and helping people create even more Social House moments, while enjoying Social House Vodka, of course.

Patel: In short, we hope to become known as the No. 1 vodka in North Carolina. Beyond that, we hope to grow and become a global brand continuously.

July 5, 2017 - 3:48pm