In 2003, when Marc Spain pondered making his own vodka, he had no idea what an adventure this hobby would be.
"Basically, I read an article about someone who did this in California, and I figured I could do this," he recalled.
Metore's (pronounced mï-tores) is a line of world class, ultra-premium vodkas, which are exceptionally smooth -- so smooth that Spain said they should be drunk as a sipping vodka, but can still be mixed in a cocktail, producing a drink that has neither the edge nor the roughness that most cocktail recipes are designed to cover up.
And, the remarkable fact is that Spain's Oklahoma City distillery has the distinction of being the only one in Oklahoma.
The Metore's line of vodkas include Metore's Russian Heritage (80 proof), Metore's Signature Series (100 proof), Metore's Lemon flavored, Metore's Lime flavored, Metore's Orange flavored, Metore's Cherry flavored, Metore's Cranberry flavored and Metore's Chocolate flavored vodkas.
The Metore's recipe was brought to the United States when Spain visited Latvia to meet his wife Elena's Russian family. The introduction goes like this:
After a family dinner party, Marc found himself alone with his father-in-law, Simyon Metore. Metore explained that the only good vodka was very expensive and that the average Russian could only afford the vodka produced by the government.
He then took Spain to a back room where he had a small still and multiple filters set up, and proceeded to explain how he converted the poor, state vodka to the fine, smooth vodka that he and his family had enjoyed for more than one hundred years.
Spain brought the recipe back home with him and started to experiment at home, to not only repeat what his father-in-law had done, but also to improve on it.
When he was done, Metore's Vodka was born.
Spain began as most small business enthusiasts do, writing a business plan. He said when he presented it to a few people, he was laughed at -- "a distillery in Oklahoma?" was the question he often heard.
Spain was not to be squelched. Within six months, he had help from a business partner, co-founder Gary Robinson, to revise his plan with The Fred Jones Business Development Center in Oklahoma city, which is a State of Oklahoma certified business incubator whose mission is to "accelerate the growth of entrepreneurial companies by providing an array of crucial business support resources and services they need to make their ventures successful."
And even though Oklahoma has some of the silliest laws in the land, particularly when it comes to beer, wine and spirits, his plan looked good to them. Once it was revised a bit, he was ready to file for licenses.
The distinction of being the first distillery in Oklahoma did not come easily, as one might imagine, but less than a year from when he began, in May 2004, Spain began to sell his vodka.
"I started the first legal distillery in Oklahoma," Spain said. "We had to walk their people (the ABLE, or Alcoholic Beverage Laws & Enforcement Commission) through the 18 to 20-page application because no one had every applied the laws to a distillery. It then took six months to get an Oklahoma license and six or seven months to get a federal license."
But this was not the worst of it. Spain has paid out more than $6,250 in state licensing fees, and in fact, pays at least $6,000 each year for the license to run his distillery. He said he has paid more than $40,000 in license fees thus far.
Part of the reason, claims Spain, is that the fees and licenses were set up in 1958 and designed for a large distillery, not a micro-distillery like his.
In his micro-distillery, everything is done by hand.
"I have a still, I bottle, label and package all by hand," he said.
And, he proudly said that, "I have never lost a blind taste test to such other well-known vodkas as Belvedere, Grey Goose or Chopin. Forty-seven taste tests, ranging from 20 to 80 people all select Metore's as the best among the others."
Also a nice recognition has come in the awards given to these vodkas. Metore's Russian Heritage won the bronze medal in the San Francisco World Spirits contest -- only "six months out of the gate," said Spain. It also won the gold at the Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute. Metore's Signature Series won the bronze in the Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute, and the Metore's Lemon Flavored was given the silver in the Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute.
Only the Metore's Russian Heritage was available when I went to my local wine and spirits store to purchase some, and the first adjective that came to mind was "smooth."
Spain said that a big problem with getting his vodka out -- the liquor stores only carry this one vodka.
"Chew out the liquor store people," Spain said, "if not all eight are there. They are not supporting an Oklahoma product."
Gotta Have a Sense of Humor
Spain shared a funny story about how the 100-proof Metore's Signature Series came to be. He had the 80-proof version in many of the local bars in the area, who said they loved the vodka, but the customers were complaining that they could not taste the vodka in the drink. It was too smooth. "Can you make it stronger?" was the request from the bars. So, he did.
He recommends his vodka to be drunk as a dirty martini (vodka with a splash of olive juice to create a cloudy appearance) or straight. He explains how in the prohibition days, the alcohol had such an "edge" to it, it was mixed with other ingredients to create a cocktail to disguise or lessen the strong alcohol taste.
"We have come 180 degrees," said Spain. "We can enjoy vodka by itself without having to cover it up."
What's in the future for Spain? Right now he produces 40 to 50 cases a month of this wheat and millet grain vodka. He is currently working on an Oklahoma Cherry (which will be red in color) and an Oklahoma Orange (orange in color), in honor of both Oklahoma University and Oklahoma State University. He also will introduce a special seasonal product for autumn. Long range plans are to develop an olive and a green tea vodka. All these new products will be tied into the original high-end base vodka, so as not to have an edge to it.
Old Russia Distillery and Spirits is located in an historic Model T factory on the west side of downtown Oklahoma City.
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