How a Polish immigrant built a brand of vodka that supports relief efforts in Ukraine | Peninsula Foodist | The peninsula foodist
By Zack Fernandes
Rocket Vodka founder Dariusz Paczuski in his garage in Menlo Park. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Like so many tales of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, Rocket Vodka’s origin story is set in a garage. But it wasn’t a technological revolution that Menlo Park founder and resident Dariusz Paczuski was chasing – it was the memory of apples from his childhood and the desire to make premium vodka.
Although Paczuski’s first distillation took place in a garage in Menlo Park, he says his connection to spirit runs deep and goes back a long way. “The first time I drank it was vodka,” he says, adding that “vodka has always been my spirit of choice.” Born in Poland but raised in the UK and Norway, Paczuski’s earliest memories of vodka at the dining table are a guideline of his Polish heritage, with shots of vodka serving as the de facto drink and a perfect foil for the salty, the rich and the meaty. -laden kitchen around which he grew up.
When Paczuski’s parents saved enough money to buy the family’s first home in the Norwegian town of Drammen, they found themselves on a property that also had apple trees in its backyard. As a child, Paczuski was often sent to harvest fruit that had fallen from the ground. “They were the sweetest and ripest,” he recalls, describing the apples his mother pressed for his father to ferment into alcohol.
Dariusz Paczuski’s father picks apples in their garden in Norway, where Paczuski grew up, in this photograph taken in the late 1970s. Photo courtesy of Dariusz Paczuski.
The son of a glassblower and an amateur distiller himself, Paczuski’s father had used old tools to reconstruct a makeshift still from copper pipes in the family’s root cellar. There he would distill the fermented apple cider into a spirit before aging it in barrels to make an apple brandy. “During the distillation phase, when it (the spirit) was starting to drip, it would let me put my little finger in it and taste it,” says Paczuski. It was the memory of this apple brandy that later inspired Paczuski to produce his apple-based vodka.
The Nordic backdrop of Paczuski’s childhood not only set the stage for a future in artisanal minds: it also inspired him with a love of skiing. Several years later, after moving to the United States, Paczuski would earn the nickname “The Polish Rocket” from a pal, a reference to his penchant for speed on the tracks. Paczuski tidied it up in his mind as the perfect name for a brand of vodka – an idea he had already started toying with.
In 2015 Paczuski was introduced to a local distiller through a mutual friend. The distiller, who worked at Google by day, had made batches of his own vodka and was happy to be a resource. With some guidance, Paczuski decided to give it a shot.
“I went to the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market. I bought Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Fuji apples,” says Paczuski, intent on finding the perfect varietal for vodka production. After coring and mashing the apples, he mixed them with warm water and yeast and left them to ferment for three weeks.
This first batch was mostly unsuccessful. As Paczuski learned, not all ferments are created equal, and making vodka from apples would prove a bit more difficult than making it from grains, potatoes, or corn (some of the basic ingredients typical of vodka).
Granny Smith’s juice had moldy, even giving Paczuski a rash after tasting the ferment. The Red Delicious juice didn’t seem dangerous, but didn’t fare much better, as the apple flesh was too fibrous and lacking in fermentable sugars to produce enough alcohol. But with Fuji apple juice, Paczuski had found success. He’ll eventually settle for a mix of Fuji and Golden Delicious apples, with added apple juice and concentrate to boost natural sugar levels and aid fermentation.
Rocket Vodka is made from apples harvested near Sacramento that are fermented and distilled in small batches. Photo courtesy of Rocket Vodka.
Today, Rocket Vodka has expanded its operations from a garage to the Dry Diggings distillery in El Dorado Hills, northeast of Sacramento. There, apples harvested from nearby Apple Hill are fermented and distilled in small batches into a 190-degree alcoholic spirit (i.e. 95% ABV) before being cut into a more palatable vodka. at 80 degrees (40% ABV), with mountain water from the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The brand has grown steadily and retailers like The Willows Market (Rocket Vodka’s first retail distribution account), Draeger’s Market and K&L Wine Merchants, as well as bars and restaurants like Ettan, Terún and Flea Street Cafe , all in stock Rocket vodka on shelves or behind the bar.
Although Paczuski, who also has a job in marketing, runs Rocket Vodka with the care and attention of a full-time business, it ultimately falls somewhere between a passion project and a side hustle for him. “I’m in no rush to make this a multi-billion dollar brand,” says Paczuski, noting that this approach gives the company some flexibility to do good.
In late February, as images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominated the news cycle and refugees began arriving in Paczuski’s native Poland, he thought of his own parents, who fled the country. to escape Soviet oppression. Paczuski was not alone – his business partner, Dmitry Lipkin, was born in Ukraine, in the now beleaguered city of Kharkiv. “The hospital I was born in, the school I went to, the building I grew up in…everything was demolished,” Lipkin says.
Given the popularity of vodka in Eastern Europe, Paczuski’s two worlds began to collide. Stories began to appear of bars and liquor stores removing Russian vodka from their shelves. “A lot of people were suggesting to me like, ‘Oh, you should enjoy it,'” Paczuski says. “It didn’t feel right to me…I don’t want to be a war profiteer.”
Less than a week after the invasion, Paczuski, his wife, and Lipkin came together to figure out how Rocket Vodka could help. Lipkin went so far as to consider flying to Ukraine to try to help in some way, an idea his wife would later dissuade him from. But after seeing that World Central Kitchen – the aid organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés – had taken on the cause of feeding people displaced by the war on the Polish border, Paczuski and Lipkin took a decision.
Rocket Vodka founder Dariusz Paczuski and Flea Street Cafe owner Jesse Cool teamed up for a cocktail served at the cafe to raise money for organizations helping Ukrainian refugees. Photo courtesy of Rocket Vodka.
“It was the most obvious choice for us,” Paczuski says of their decision to support World Central Kitchen. In a video statement posted to Rocket Vodka’s social media accounts, Paczuski and Lipkin announced that they would be donating 100% of Rocket Vodka’s profits for the month of March to World Central Kitchen, an effort that would raise nearly $4,000. to the organization. Rocket Vodka has also teamed up with Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park to place a special cocktail on the menu: The Peace Rocket, made with Rocket vodka, Cointreau orange liqueur, cranberry and lime juice. Flea Street donated proceeds from the sale of the cocktail and a Ukrainian borscht to World Central Kitchen and Nova Ukraine, a Ukrainian humanitarian organization.
In the weeks since these fundraising efforts began, the war in Ukraine has continued to escalate. Lipkin’s hometown of Kharkiv came under sustained attack, with a Russian missile strike reportedly destroying a local restaurant that World Central Kitchen used to prepare food. The evolving situation has led Rocket Vodka to extend its fundraising efforts through April, for as long as the company can sustain it.
As Paczuski looks to the future of Rocket Vodka, he says he wants it to be widely recognized as “a great vodka brand.” He just might get his wish – Rocket Vodka has won numerous awards at spirits competitions, including being named Best Vodka at the 2017 SIP Awards International Spirits Competition.
Paczuski would like to thank the universe for playing a role in Rocket’s success, noting the random presence of chance that led him to taste his father’s apple brandy to find an expert distiller. at home and, ultimately, to be able to help the humanitarian efforts on the ground. in his homeland. “In life, but especially with Rocket, serendipity is key.”
Email Contributing Editor Zack Fernandes at [email protected]
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