by Lee Graves
As a lover of vodka, Paul McCann was stirred, but not shaken, by a realization that struck him while drinking with a friend in a Richmond establishment.
“We were looking at the selection of vodkas behind the bar and I asked him, ‘Why is it that everything we like to drink — that we can drink or is available at the premium level — why is it all imported? How come no one is doing this in the U.S.?’”
McCann answered his own question by starting Cirrus Vodka (http://www.cirrusvodka.com) in 2004. By bucking common vodka distilling techniques — he uses only potatoes in a traditional copper-pot still with no additives — McCann produces an uncommon spirit.
Cirrus is not the tasteless and odorless liquid found in most bloody marys and screwdrivers. Its vanilla nose and creamy mouthfeel have mixologists insisting that the only way to fully appreciate Cirrus is to drink it “neat” — unsullied by ice, water or juice.
McCann has won multiple awards for his vodka, including a gold medal at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Business is growing, he says, thanks to his conviction that vodka should have character. “Why should vodka be a spirit that is produced only to be consumed in juice? I feel you should be able to sip vodka and enjoy it as itself, as one would a single malt whisky.”
A native Virginian, McCann gained experience with spirits while working in bars and restaurants as an undergrad at Virginia Commonwealth University and in graduate school at Old Dominion University. Still, a lot of research preceded the launch of Cirrus and its parent company, the Parched Group.
McCann has focused on small batches that are distilled and bottled, using spring water, at his Stockton Street plant in Richmond. He uses potatoes — mainly russets — rather than grains, corn, grapes or the host of other raw materials used for many vodkas.
“Only about 1 percent of the vodkas in the world are made just from potatoes,” McCann says. Vodka originated from potato. Depending on demand, he’ll go through 3 to 6 tons of potatoes a month.
Cirrus is on shelves in Virginia, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. South Carolina, Maryland and Georgia are poised to be added in early 2009. McCann also has talked with distributors about getting Cirrus into the Northwest and Northeast.
“Our ultimate goal is that we want to be a million-case-a-year seller,” McCann says.