BENSON, Minn. — Napa Valley is not bashful about its ability to produce some of the country’s best wines, thanks to its lush vineyards.
Maybe it’s time for Benson to brag about its ability to produce one of the country’s best vodkas, thanks to the farms around it, and the distillery located in it.
Gray Duck Vodka certainly has no qualms about letting people know. The fact that the vodka is made from corn raised by farmers in western Minnesota is an integral part of the company’s marketing strategy, as is its connection to the Glacial Grain Spirits distillery owned and operated by the farmers comprising the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that we have them make it. They do a great job of distilling and making a very clean and great product,” said Chad Greenway, the former Minnesota Viking and one of the partners in Gray Duck Vodka.
The company is marking its first-year anniversary this month. The year has been a whirlwind, according to Greenway. Sales have continued to grow. The company has expanded its market reach from the Twin Cities metro area and Minnesota into South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa.
It’s also established itself as one of the country’s best vodkas. It reports that in three spirits competitions, Gray Duck has won three gold medals and never scored lower than 90 points, beating out several national vodka brands.
It all starts on family farms in western Minnesota, which raised the 5,108 bushels of corn used to produce the vodka in its first year. Company founders Mark Cotter, Jerry Schulz and Jamie Quesnel created the vodka using a recipe developed by Quesnel. They chose corn as a gluten-free ingredient, and decided early on that it would be Minnesota-grown.
The name chosen for the vodka tells the story. The partners knew that nothing said Minnesota more than Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Everywhere else the childhood game is Duck, Duck, Goose.
Minnesota Viking Kyle Rudolph’s famous Duck, Duck, Gray Duck touchdown celebration against the Chicago Bears in 2017 reminded everyone of the fact.
As part of its first anniversary celebration, the company set a world record for the largest game of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck with more than 108 people in Canterbury Park.
Greenway serves as the public voice for the company. He grew up on a farm near Mount Vernon, South Dakota, and said he appreciates the vodka’s ties to area farms.
The connection to Minnesota farms is important to consumers as well, according to Greenway. Consumers favor locally sourced products, he said.
The company is now looking to expand its distribution into western Wisconsin, where it knows many residents have Minnesota ties. Gray Duck promotes its Minnesota origins, and partners with mixologists to create specialty drinks celebrating the North Star state’s sports teams and themes.
Greenway said the founders are also looking to promote their support for Minnesota charities. Gray Duck raised more than $20,000 for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital during the Twin Cities Summer Jam.
The relationship with Glacial Grain Spirits is certainly important to Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company. Its distillery was touted as one of the financial brights spots at the company’s annual meeting in February.
Chad Friese, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company general manager, said the connection to Gray Duck offered another perk: He appreciated the opportunity to meet Greenway.
The former Viking expects to be in the Benson area during the corn harvest to produce a promotional video for the brand.
Greenway said the company is focused on continued growth in the Midwest. It would like to see the day when Gray Duck demands all of the production capacity of the Glacial Grain Spirits distillery and possibly triggers its expansion.
“(It) really comes down to bringing a Minnesota farmer-based product to market to show the world that west central Minnesota can produce the quality of corn that can produce one of the best vodkas in the country,’’ Greenway said.