Vodka made from apples has deep ties to Lake Tahoe region
Darius Paczuski is just coming off the slopes after a powder-filled day of skiing at Northstar California.
Meeting at Copper Lane Café in the resort’s village, people are milling about buying coffee, beer and après ski snacks. A groceries section in the corner displays tall bottles of Rocket Vodka — Paczuski’s brainchild spirit that was inspired by a trip to Lake Tahoe.
Being an avid outdoorsman, Paczuski came up with the idea of Rocket Vodka while skiing at Heavenly in 2006. His friend gave him the nickname “The Polish Rocket” because he skied so fast.
“I think it represents aspiration and achievement,” Paczuski says.
Paczuski was born in Poland but then moved to Norway with his parents. In his childhood, Paczuski picked ground apples for his father’s moonshine formula, in which he took fresh apples and smashed and fermented them, and then aged the liquid in oak barrels to create a sweet, potent drink.
At 20 years old, Paczuski came to the United States on a California State University, Long Beach, swimming scholarship.
“When I was applying for college I was living in Northern Norway above the Arctic Circle. It was cold and dreary most of the time, so I only wanted to move to the southern states where it was warm,” he says.
Since California is known for its sunshine, Long Beach proved to be a good choice. He bounced around to different places until meeting his wife in 1996 and moving to Silicon Valley/Mountain View to work in the tech field.
‘I WAS LOOKING FOR AN OPENING’
However, Lake Tahoe was always a great getaway place for Paczuski’s active lifestyle.
“The first time I came to Tahoe was in this crazy snowstorm. Norway has great skiing, but it is so different here,” he says. “The day after we arrived was bluebird and that contrast of the blue/green of the lake was incredible.”
While working in the Bay Area, launching a spirits-based business with ties to Lake Tahoe was always in Paczuski’s mind.
He started forming ideas and making notes, imagining a life where he could ski in the morning and promote premium vodka in the afternoon to active people like himself. He dove into researching how to make it and who to market it to, especially in an industry saturated with many other spirits.
“I was looking for an opening … how do I create something new and differentiate from all the other vodkas? Can I growth-hack a vodka company?” Paczuski asks.
During his period of learning consumer insights, product innovation and competitive intelligence about the spirits business, Paczuski recognized a few things.
“I felt like I needed to own an occasion. I looked at the Tahoe lifestyle and realized that it’s those moments with friends and family that you remember. And spirits are a part of that,” he says.
AN APPLE A DAY…
Although there are thousands of vodka companies, Paczuski wanted to create something clean, simple and pure.
What sets Paczuski’s vodka apart is that his main ingredient is something he is all too familiar with — apples — instead of grains or potato in traditional recipes. Rocket Vodka is made of only three ingredients — water, apples and yeast — and then it is distilled/double-carbon filtered.
“We cut it twice to get the purest vodka and it keeps its character,” he says. “You can make a spirit from anything that can be fermented. Grain and potato are the most common, but some vodkas are made from grapes or corn. Mongolians make their vodka from horse milk.”
And while alcohol itself may not be healthy, Paczuski says Rocket Vodka strives to be as healthy as possible.
“It’s random that an alcohol company targets athletes, right?” Paczuski asks. “But it’s true to say that athletes drink. Maybe not training or competing, but they care about what they put in their bodies. The healthiest alcohol is going to be the purest, which is vodka.
“We try to make a well-balanced vodka that you can mix with anything, and something that doesn’t make you hungover.”
He uses a blend of Fuji, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples that he gets from Washington state and at Apple Hill — which is located an hour or south southwest of Lake Tahoe, off U.S. Highway 50 — distilled with Sierra Nevada mountain water.
Fuji apples are similar to the Norwegian winter apples that Paczuski picked growing up, full of natural sugars that translate into a well-balanced spirit. Rocket Vodka has a hint of fruit on the nose and on the palate, but vodka connoisseurs have also said that they have tasted banana or toffee.
TAKING A FOOTHOLD AT LAKE TAHOE
Officially launching Rocket Vodka in the fall of 2016, Paczuski sold 1,000 bottles in the first three months and just this past winter released its second batch of 2,000 bottles. The premium spirit ranges from $40-$45 a bottle and is sold in several locations all around Lake Tahoe and Truckee.
As the Rocket Vodka business is taking off, Paczuski finds himself spending more and more time at the lake.
“I want to come here as often as I can ‚ I love skiing, running, road biking, and wine tasting,” he says.
Looking back, Paczuski reflects how his life has come full circle.
“I used to be so mad at my dad for sending me out in the yard in the cold to pick apples,” he says. “… There’s no way I could’ve written this as a business plan; it’s just how my life unfolded. It was everything I knew from my childhood, my father, the distiller at Apple Hill, the phrase ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ mentality…
“I launched Rocket Vodka here because it’s all about the lifestyle and celebrating life’s peak moments. I’m always looking for something local and new, something I hadn’t heard of before. And ‘California’ is a global brand with the potential to go far with it. I just want to put it in a bottle.”