Getting into the mix

N.C. newest vodka distillery makes a grand entrance

L-R: Social House Vodka co-founders Cary Joshi, Mark Mullins and G Patel | Courtesy Social House Vodka

RALEIGH — Carter-Finley Stadium will see hundreds of thousands of people through its turnstiles this fall, but Saturday night brought a preview of tailgates and late-night celebrations as Social House Vodka made its debut in Raleigh. The special event — to showcase North Carolina’s newest vodka — transitioned from tailgate favorites to sophisticated cocktails to late-night libations.

Social House Vodka is distilled by Three Stacks Distilling Company in Kinston on the site of a century-old, abandoned power plant with three distinctive smoke stacks. Founded four years ago by entrepreneur Cary Joshi, N.C. Spirits Association president Mark Mullins and restaurateur Gaurav “G” Patel, the brand is a farm-to-flask spirit that sources its corn from a local farm.

The launch party was a well-orchestrated event that brought around 1,000 people to Vaughn Towers to experience what Joshi hopes will be “North Carolina’s No. 1 vodka.” The invite-only crowd was treated to a true Wolfpack tailgate outside of the stadium with a rock band, barbecue and vodka-based lemonade. Following the tailgate, the party moved inside where a jazz band performed as craft cocktails were passed in a speakeasy environment. The night ended with a DJ and energy drinks paired with Social House Vodka.

Joshi says that the founders — who were friends before they started Social House — selected vodka over other spirits because of the social nature of its use. Even though vodka is not as popular in its pure form as bourbon or whiskey, the group spent six months working with NC State food science experts to analyze more than 20 different vodka formulations to create their signature flavor. While Joshi said the vodka tastes great “just over ice,” his favorite cocktail to make with it is a dirty martini.

“N.C. is home to all of us,” Patel said, but the trio did evaluate sites in South Carolina and Virginia for their distillery before selecting Kinston. Patel and Joshi emphasized — in an NSJ exclusive interview — that Kinston is the key to their business with the distillery’s proximity to other local attractions, including Vivian Howard’s renowned Chef & the Farmer restaurant, Mother Earth Brewing (which also started a gin, whiskey and rum distillery three years ago) and the Kinston Arts & Cultural District.

“The city put the right rules in place to foster this industry,” said Joshi when asked about the reasons for Kinston’s success in growing its food and beverage industry. He and Patel cited the pairing of great restaurants and drinks with a commitment to the arts for making Kinston what they say is “the Asheville of the east.”

While the local rules are helping their business, Social House Vodka is also benefiting from recent changes to the N.C. alcohol laws by the General Assembly. The well-known “brunch bill” is especially helpful to Social House because vodka is a key ingredient in the brunch-favorite Bloody Mary. But legislation that lifted the number of bottles that can be sold on site may be more important to the bottom line, according to Joshi. He says that on-site sales can account for as much as 30 percent of revenue for a distillery.

“A lot of people want to support a local business and distillery sales help that,” Joshi said.

While Social House is happy with the recent legislation, Joshi hopes that more changes will come.

“Prior to prohibition, N.C. had the most distilleries in the country,” he said. “We continue to make strides in N.C. to make legislation favorable to distillers and consumers.”

One specific area where Joshi hopes further legislation can help his business is in the area of free sample regulation. Currently distillers are only allowed to sample a half ounce, but vodka samples made into cocktails need more volume. Online sales are another area where these spirituous entrepreneurs hope they will eventually see a change.

Social House is still celebrating a successful product launch on Saturday night, but Patel and Joshi are focused on completing a second round of investments totaling $4 million which they hope to close by the end of 2017. The company is finalizing a distribution deal that will bring Social House Vodka to N.C. ABC Stores from Murphy to Manteo.