Revitalizing traditional vodka-making with Lowcountry flare
By Eliza Chapman Bailey, Photographs by J. Lachenman, Sweet Grass Vodka (Mathew Peacock)
Whether Russia or Poland invented vodka in the 15th century is heavily debated. However, one thing is without question: today, most vodka is produced in the Vodka Belt (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway). Less than four percent of vodka is made in the United States. Breaking into this competitive market takes vision, a superior product, and entrepreneurial acumen. Charleston-based Sweet Grass Vodka’s (SGV) part-owner and CEO Jarrod Swanger is the epitome of this trifecta. His award-winning potato vodka is a contender for space on the shelf.
In 2020, Swanger turned his attention to the spirits industry after selling his business. Distilling a reasonably priced, high-end vodka using only potatoes, yeast, and water resonated with his Tennessee roots, his wife Alicia’s Polish ancestry, and their love of the Lowcountry.
The Swangers immersed themselves in vodka-making by consulting farmers and moonshiners while embracing life in South Carolina. Through trial and error, they discovered that the mineral properties in water sources varied. These properties altered the vodka’s taste when paired with potatoes and yeast.
Certified water and farm-grown potatoes sourced in South Carolina achieve SGV’s raw potato undertones. Continued refinement extracts the essence of the potatoes to produce pure, earthy elements void of strong alcoholic points. Swanger recalls,
“I went through literally 20 or more renditions of water and potato mineral combinations until I found a refined, additive, and gluten-free vodka recipe. Potato vodka is the most expensive to make, but at the end of the day, it is the cleanest, purest vodka out there. It has fewer calories, causes less allergens, and does not have the negative effects of corn and grain vodka.”
The thought of adding a blade of actual Sweetgrass to each bottle is multifaceted. Sweetgrass shares the properties of Poland’s native vernal grass (also known as buffalo or vanilla grass) but lacks the coumarin found in its European cousin. According to Polish legend, bison grass can cure ailments and bring good luck to those who drink it. Locally, Sweetgrass symbolizes the industry and perseverance of the Gullah Geechee community. It pays homage to South Carolina’s roots as a predominantly agricultural state.
SGV’s recipe for ultra-smooth vodka garnered three 2021 Master Awards in Global Master categories: micro-distillery, smoothest, and organic. Winning the 2022 Global Master’s Award for Best Domestic Vodka created space for the family-owned enterprise to seek a partner. Swanger campaigned for a hands-on national presence to bring the brand to a broader audience. He focused on finding someone whose ethos aligned with his vision. This search led to a friendship between two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Jeremy Renner and Swanger.
“Jeremy understands the purity and craftsmanship of our vodka intrinsically,” said Jarrod Swanger. “We are so grateful to share ownership of our brand with someone who resonates with our passion and vision to create the best vodka on the planet.”
In 2023, Renner announced his decision to become one of SGV’s co-owners. He shares,
“I’m so grateful for the progress I’ve made since the start of this year, which allowed me to move forward with my interest in Sweet Grass Vodka. Their mission is rooted in community and shared experience, which is why the second I tried it, I knew I wanted to become a part of it.”
SGV is distributed throughout the Southeast. It can also be purchased online and shipped nationwide.
In Charleston, an operational bottling facility adjoins their flagship Lounge. Located in The Refinery building at 1640 Meeting Street, the Lounge, managed by Lindsey Drummond, is an elevated tasting room for spirits and small bites. Curated and prepared by Chef Danny Calcagni, the menu includes modern, upscale lite bites with a Southern flair, artful cocktails, craft beer, and wine by the glass or bottle. Mint green stucco hand-painted and plastered walls, artistically designed tile flooring that accompanies the free-standing pot still, exposed painted pipes, wood floors, copper, and woven light fixtures frame the flexible leather seating, tables, and bar areas. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 4 pm – 11 pm, the Lounge serves Brunch on Sunday and is available for special events.
The location, ambiance, fresh food, and beverage selection complete SGV’s mission to produce the best vodka and create a shared customer experience. To highlight this vision, Renner and SGV have embarked on a bottle-signing tour to bring the Sweet Grass brand across the country and create a memorable occasion for fans and consumers alike.
SGV’s hallmark spirit begins with distilling South Carolina-sourced water and potatoes that extract the natural nutrients and minerals of the raw potatoes to dictate the clean, smooth, refined flavor. Garnished with a blade of Sweetgrass, it welcomes an unscripted, unique experience that embodies a sense of the Lowcountry’s evolving cultural landscape without compromising traditional authenticity. The premium vodka delivers an uncompromising taste of South Carolinian soil in every bottle. AM