Paul Grey remembers well the first time he thought about opening his own distillery.
“It was August 2013,” he said. “I was up late thinking about the whole craft brewing thing and how there were lots of craft breweries, but no distilleries.”
He’s a vodka drinker, so he picked vodka. But he didn’t have any experience in either running a business or in making liquor. He’d worked in IT and then medical sales since graduating from college.
So he did some research and put together a basic business plan. Sam Durham, a friend, agreed to invest.
Grey, who just turned 30, bought a small still and practiced on his own. Basically, he was making moonshine. He went through a one-week program at a South Carolina distillery. He also bought a book about opening a distillery for less than $50,000 and became friends with the author, Thomas Germann, on Facebook.
“I bounced questions left and right,” Grey said. “He was great.”
Then he went looking for a place to set up his Carve Craft Vodka distillery.
Earlier that summer, the Florida Legislature had made things a little easier for craft distilleries. They could give tours, tastings, and, most important, sell directly to customers, though that was limited to two bottles per person per year.
“It was an uphill battle with the city,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us operate if we had tastings, no matter what place we were looking at. And who wants to spend money on lawyers?”
He finally settled on a 2,000-square-foot warehouse on Atlantic Boulevard. It’s just for production: no tours, no tastings, no sales.
There he brings in liquor that’s already been distilled. He distills it again — with a new professional still — filtering it through coconut carbon.
It comes out at 190 proof, or 95 percent alcohol. He has to slowly add enough filtered, de-ionized water to bring it down to 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol.
If he’s less than 79.7 proof or more than 80.3 proof, he’s fined.
He bottles it all by hand.
“That’s the only time I bring in people to help me,” he said. “My cousin or friends.”
He made his first batch a little over a year ago, but it took him awhile to get a distributor. Finally, Southern Wine & Spirits took him on.
“Being in Jacksonville, we get so much support from the city,” he said. “Riverside Liquors was the first store; that’s as mom and pop as it gets. They’re great people.”
He did get into nine ABC Fine Wine & Spirits stores and has talked to Total Wine & More.
About 80 percent is going into bars, restaurants and the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. He sells about 700 bottles a month, but has the capacity to make that much in a week.
“A lot of it is just marketing, people not knowing what it is,” he said. “We don’t have the money for billboards or ads in newspapers. So we go into bars and make drinks for people.”
It cost them about $100,000 to open the distillery. And money is still pretty tight.
“I make enough to get by, I suppose,” Grey said. “Sometimes my brother comes to town and buys me groceries. I don’t always know how I’ll pay my rent each month.
“This whole entrepreneurial thing is crazy.”
Slideshow: Carve Craft Vodka
Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296
CARVE CRAFT VODKA
Location: Atlantic Boulevard
Product: 700 bottles of vodka a month