Paul Grey is anything but conventional. The CEO of Grey Matter Distillery (which produces Carve Vodka) left a safe and steady career to risk chasing something completely different. As someone who mostly drank spirits, namely vodka, Grey noticed the lack of locally produced spirit options in Jacksonville despite the seemingly endless uptick in breweries.
So he rolled the dice. He left his full-time job, partnered with a co-worker at the time (co-founder/investor Sam Durham) and trained at Six and Twenty Distillery in South Carolina to learn and hone the craft.
“The great thing about that experience was being able to ask questions and meet people in the industry and figure out how to do things, because I had never run a business before,” Grey said. “I had done some home distilling but it wasn’t really good. So I knew I had to meet people and make the connections because there wasn’t really anyone to learn from here in Jacksonville.”
Much has changed since the uncertain, couch-surfing nights that starting a distillery in a state like Florida, with its strict liquor-production laws, generates. Carve Vodka has been in local bars, restaurants and on liquor store shelves for three years now while new distilleries have started rising across the First Coast. Though the landscape is changing it doesn’t mean it’s without its challenges.
Grey Matter is still a small company that lacks the financial backing of most of its competitors, local or not. While stepping into other spirit categories has always been a goal for Grey, it just hasn’t been an option up to this point.
But if Grey’s path to distilling was a bit unconventional then it’s no surprise that his approach to whiskey, planned to be released later this year as Live Oak Whiskey, will be along the same lines.
“We want to create a whiskey that is Florida. Because while I like bourbon, I would rather leave that up to Kentucky,” Grey said. “What I want to do is create a distinctly Florida whiskey.”
Using a special blend of Florida ingredients like molasses, citrus, Florida sugars and oats, Grey is hopeful that Live Oak will check the box for whiskey lovers while maybe providing a new twist with its own individual characteristics.
However, producing a spirit like whiskey requires more capital for ingredients, barrels for aging, space for those barrels and, maybe most importantly, time (usually years) for aging. Time that Grey Matter can’t afford to waste. But what if there was a way to cut that time in half?
“With the whiskey, I don’t want to say it fell into our lap, but we met Oliver Epstein [formerly of Frequency Spirits], and we brought him under our wing and he’s the mad scientist,” Grey said.
A trend that’s gained traction among some craft distilleries is the use of various rapid-aging technologies. The techniques range in complexity and machinery, but one of the more unique approaches to emerge, and the direction Grey Matter Distillery is moving in, is the use of sound.
Think about being at a concert or in the backseat of someone’s car with an overzealous speaker system. The bass drops, everything vibrates and you can feel it in your chest. Now apply that same logic to the distillation process.
After Grey Matter’s whiskey base is produced, it sits in stainless steel barrels with soaked oak chips. Live Oak Whiskey abbreviates to LOW, a nice play given Grey Matter’s use of subwoofers to push low oscillating sound waves to expedite the whiskey’s maturity in a fraction of the time. The vibration agitates the whiskey and wood chips, allowing the oak-aged flavor and chemical process to occur in a much shorter amount of time.
Some purists profess these techniques are shortcuts to the craft, but there’s a separate, unique ingenuity and creativity it takes to refine this sort of production that shouldn’t be overlooked. Not to mention the added benefits of producing a viable product at a much cheaper and faster rate, and more room to experiment without the consequences of potentially wasting years.
“I don’t want a $50 whiskey, I want something I would pay for and try,” said Grey. “We’ll be able to save money in production and pass those savings on to the customer which is really cool. And it tastes amazing, it really does, and I think people are really gonna enjoy it.”
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 3, The Drink Issue.