Nationally in Labor Participation
Tim Kyle Made First Shipment of Milo Vodka September 1
24 Oct 2017
Story originally appeared in The Hutchinson News on October 13 written by Amy Bickel.
KINSLEY - When life gave his hometown of Greensburg a tornado, Tim Kyle made vodka.
Or at least, that was the plan he’d been mulling in his head since coming back to Greensburg shortly after the May 2007 tornado destroyed much of the city. He and his wife, Kari, opened a coffee shop called the Green Bean in 2009 as part of the rebuilding efforts, but Kyle kept thinking about ways to bring manufacturing jobs to the Kiowa County seat.
Community discussions on growing Greensburg’s industry included lumber and strawboard plants.
“But we don’t have trees,” said Kyle, a carpenter by trade. “I kept thinking about what do we have, and it occurred to me that if a person wanted to make hard liquor, you need three things. You need grain. You need water. You need fuel. Here on the Ogallala Aquifer, we got water. Here on the Hugoton Gas Field, we have fuel. And here in southwest Kansas, we’ve got grain.
Kansas grows more milo, or grain sorghum, than any other state, he thought. Why not make vodka out of milo?
Two years after selling the Green Bean, Kyle stood in an old bank building in downtown Kinsley where a couple of silver tanks sit along the east wall. It once was a bank building and then a jewelry store, but it’s been closed for a couple of decades. Cash-strapped, Kyle has been exchanging the labor of fixing it up for the rent.
There is more to do, he said on this late September morning, rain pouring outside - enough that the upstairs roof is leaking. But Kyle talks excitedly about his successful beginnings.
After six years of research and two years of construction at what he now calls Orney Brother Distilling, his dream has become a reality.
Kyle got his final label approval Aug. 22, which allowed him to go to market. The first cases of milo vodka shipped out Sept. 1.
“It is a freaking fairytale story,” he said. “I feel like a third party watching it happen.”
The Kansas-made alcohol business is booming. The craft brew industry has grown from eight or nine breweries a decade ago to nearly 40. State distilleries also are increasing - with the Kansas Department of Revenue issuing licenses to nine businesses.
Kyle estimates about half of them are producing liquor at this time, including distilleries in Dodge City and Wichita.
It took Kyle more than 1 ½ years to get all his licensing. In the meantime, he installed his distilling equipment, including a large fermentor. He also worked on his white milo-based recipe.
About 80 percent of vodkas are made from wheat, he said. He wanted to do something different.
Kansas grows more milo than any other state. Kyle wanted to capitalize on the gluten-free grain. He bought Kansas milo flour milled at Dodge City. Moreover, he wanted to make sure all the other ingredients were made in Kansas.
“We are famous for high-quality grain,” he said. “Why should everybody else be making liquor with our high-quality grain?”
Kyle said it takes about two weeks to make vodka, which includes nine days to ferment. Instead of sugar, he uses 100 percent milo. He adds enzymes to convert the milo into sugar. The sugar in milo is a complex carbohydrate and the starch must be broken down so the yeast will digest it.
“Kansas doesn’t have a sugar industry, and if I’m going to say I’m Kansas-made, I want to be Kansas-made as much as possible,” he said.
After securing a wholesaler, Kyle worked three days straight on his first-run of vodka. But like any first experience, he ran into a few issues. He experienced losses to evaporation and worried he didn’t have enough vodka to fill the order. Then when he was preparing to bottle he was concerned he added too much water.
The first run couldn’t have turned out more perfectly. He produced 28 cases - 336 bottles to be exact and not one more or one less than what his wholesaler had ordered. It tested at exactly 40 percent alcohol - the requirement for vodka.
“It was one thing after another after another,” Kyle said. “That led me to believe if the good Lord didn’t want me to make liquor, I wouldn’t have had the Friday I had. I would have fallen flat on my face.”
Now on his third run of vodka, Kyle spends days in the vehicle, touting his liquor to retailers across Kansas. Next week, he expected to travel more than 2,000 miles - with stops from Sharon Springs to Manhattan. Kari helps with social media.
The hard work marketing milo vodka is paying off. At the end of September, the product was in about a dozen liquor stores. At present, it is in more than 60.
Several liquor stores in Hutchinson will carry milo vodka when the next shipment comes from the wholesaler. Egbert Liquor on Monroe had three bottles from the first run, but the store has already sold out, said employee Dan Barrett. He expected a shipment next week.
“That is what is blowing me away,” Kyle said of the positive feedback. “I made something, and it seems like everyone likes it.”
Milo vodka tastes completely different than traditional vodka, he said. Upfront, there is a bit of sweet, earthy flavor - the flavor of the milo. In the middle is the 40 percent ethanol - so it tastes a lot like alcohol. “It finishes with an anise, almost licorice aftertaste.”
The No. 1 feedback he gets is it doesn’t burn like the typical liquor. It’s smooth.
“It tastes good,” said Ben Arensnan, a Kinsley farmer and business owner who owns the old bank building in Kinsley and has been encouraging Kyle along the way. “You can tell it is made from a grain - white milo.”
In Greensburg, Kyle found a fan in resident Matt Deighton. Deighton recalls how Kyle’s fledgling business is similar to an experience he had 20 years ago.
Deighton was running Buzzard Billy’s Armadillo Bar and Grill in Waco, Texas. Another budding vodka maker was touting his Tito’s Homemade Vodka by buying a few vodka-based drinks for Deighton’s customers.
“What happened is, Tito’s became household terminology,” he said, adding he could see Kyle’s vodka taking off in a similar fashion.
“I thought the milo vodka might be unique, so I bought a bottle,” Deighton said. “It had a pleasurable taste to it and I thought, ‘This kid has a hit a home run.’”
He called it one of the best economic engines to come to Kinsley in a long time.
“I know he is going to do very well with it,” Deighton said. “In a couple of years, it could be on a couple of major airlines.”
Kyle and his wife have other dreams for Ornery Brother Distillery. Someday, they hope to be big enough to have a tasting room and generate a few more jobs.
If that happens, Kyle said he would more than likely build it in Greensburg, with its busy Highway 54 that passes through it. After all, Greensburg is why he considered the idea in the first place. But the town didn’t have a place for a distillery, and Kyle didn’t have the cash to build new.
“That’s the reality of how you turn it around in western Kansas,” said Kyle. “It won’t be a manufacturing plant that comes in and puts everyone to work. It is going to be one guy who has been able to generate four or five jobs and that being repeated over and over again.
“Prince Charming isn’t going to come and whisk you away. You are going to have to do it yourself,” he added.