Credit: Photograph by Tim Carman

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The guy at the end of the bar at Equinox, in an effort to strike up conversation, asks if I’ve ordered the Dirty CEO, a dirty vodka martini named for a certain Enron executive. I acknowledge that I have and then ask the dude if he’s ever tried Cirrus vodka, the spirit at the center of my specialty cocktail.

To my surprise, he says he has but confesses that he doesn’t care much for the potato-based spirit produced in Richmond. He prefers those heavier-bodied premium vodkas distilled from grain mashes. Overhearing our conversation, the bartender suggests that Chip Griffin—the name of my new friend at the bar—try Cirrus straight up. The barkeep pours us both a finger from a bottle behind the bar.

Griffin sniffs the spirit and proposes that it smells like “rubbing alcohol,” which I have to give him. But when I take a sip and express my delight in the creamy, vanilla taste of the vodka, Griffin beats a retreat. “It tastes better than I remember,” he allows. But several days later when I e-mail him about our conversation, Griffin is back on his familiar turf, standing by his grain vodkas. Cirrus, he writes, “still isn’t the kind of vodka I would generally prefer to drink.”

This is the lopsided landscape on which Paul McCann has decided to stake a claim with his Cirrus brand. While vodka dominates the U.S. spirits market, accounting for nearly a quarter of all sales, Americans’ boozy affinity is for those clear, unflavored brands that strictly adhere to the U.S. government’s definition of vodka: “neutral spirits, so distilled….as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” You can no doubt name the most popular ones: Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One, Belvedere, Stoli, Smirnoff, and the rest. They’re the bottles sitting like cut-crystal vases on shelves in practically every high-end bar and restaurant.

Cirrus pretty much takes a pass on the whole odorless and tasteless game. McCann has no interest in distilling away the individual characteristics of his fermented potato mash to make it “just like all the other vodkas,” he says. “We wanted to retain a little bit of the nose and character of the spirit.”

Folks who claim to understand the ridiculously subtle nuances among vodkas have already voiced their opinions on McCann’s handiwork. In 2005, Cirrus earned silver medals in two different spirits competitions; in February of the following year, Cirrus performed even better—it took home a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. You know the weird thing about the victories? The product wasn’t even available to consumers yet.

If you listen to people in the alcohol industry, they will tell you that vodka is a breeze to make, if not get on the market. As Joe Riley, wine manager of Ace Beverage, points out, vodkas are the easiest of the four major distilled spirits to produce. “You don’t need a whole bunch of exotic botanicals like gin, and you don’t need extended wood aging like scotch or bourbon,” Riley says. “I’m constantly amazed at how many vodka brands that are out there, these little regional things that pop up all the time.”

And yet: Few U.S. vodka producers actually make their own spirits. They instead turn to distilleries in the Midwest and other parts of the country to produce it for them. Most of these producers are, in essence, speculators; an estimated 260 new vodka brands have entered the market since 2001, and each of their producers no doubt hopes to hit the jackpot like Grey Goose did in 2004. That’s when the brand, just seven years old, sold out to Bacardi for $2 billion.

McCann is keenly aware that many of his peers are more interested in making cash than making a craft vodka. His motivations are different, he says. He likes to tell a story to illustrate: He and a friend were having drinks at a bar and fretting about the vodka options. “Why are the vodkas we drink all imported?” McCann recalls asking. He found it odd that American vodkas have lost out to these foreigners for shelf space; McCann figured he might be the man to help fix that.

If anyone has the background to run a distillery, it’s McCann, and it has nothing to do with the Irish-German blood coursing through his veins. McCann is a scientist by training, with degrees in biology and environmental health and industrial hygiene. He knows chemistry, and he knows manufacturing. McCann, in fact, designed the towering, two-story copper-pot still that sits in a concrete warehouse just south of downtown Richmond, his hometown.

Anyone who thinks making vodka is easy should spend a day with McCann. He’s the only full-time employee at Cirrus (though when McCann expands production, his truck-driving brother, Ray, will become the second). McCann does it all at the warehouse: He orders the starch-heavy russet potatoes (sometimes from Virginia but sometimes from New York, Maine, New Jersey, Idaho, or Nebraska depending on the season); he warms the spuds over a period of days and then pulverizes them in a hammer-mill machine; he cooks the potato pulp-and-water mixture in large kettles and transfers the mash, often by hand, to 300-gallon fermenting tanks; after the mash ferments for two-and-a-half days, McCann pumps the mixture to the still, where he oversees three different distillations.

And that’s just the process to create the 190-proof ethanol. From there, McCann transfers the pure alcohol to proofing tanks, where he will carefully add spring water to cut the raw ethanol down to 80-proof vodka. Then he bottles the product, seals each 750-milliliter container, and boxes them for shipment. Oh, and McCann does most of the marketing and distribution himself, though that burden has been lessened somewhat with his recent deal with Republic National Distributing Company, which will handle marketing in Virginia and distribution in D.C.

If McCann sounds like a control freak, he is, and frankly he looks it. Wiry, pale, and boyish, the 49-year-old dresses like an Eagle Scout on a camping trip, preferring khaki shorts, a tan Cirrus polo shirt, and sweat-stained hiking boots as he goes about his work in his hotbox of a warehouse. He has heavy bags under each eye, his reddish hair has touches of gray throughout, and sometimes he looks shell-shocked, as if he can’t quite organize all the thoughts in his head.

But even if he’s clocking too many hours, McCann refuses most outside assistance. Aside from a small $10,000 investment from a minority partner, McCann owns Cirrus completely. He’s pumped nearly half-a-million dollars into the business, mostly from his personal finances. But now that Cirrus can be found in 150 ABC stores throughout Virginia, several in D.C. (including Ace Beverage in Wesley Heights and Pearson’s Wine and Spirits in Georgetown), and even some in Memphis, Tenn., revenue is trickling in and being reinvested in the company.

Cirrus’ plan calls for wider distribution along the East Coast, which should occur by late next year, McCann says. A new warehouse, with larger-capacity equipment, is also in the pipeline. “We have every intent to take [Cirrus] national,” McCann says. “It’s just a matter of when.”

But can a potato vodka made in Virginia really compete in a market that favors neutral grain spirits from exotic locales? From a flavor standpoint, the answer seems to be a definitive yes. Aside from the awards, Cirrus has been adopted as the house vodka at the Inn at Little Washington—a stamp of approval that, all by itself, has influenced others to buy McCann’s product, says Ace Beverage’s Riley. Todd and Ellen Gray, the Equinox proprietors who favor all things local, have used Cirrus not only in the Dirty CEO martini but also in several dishes, including the spinach gnocchi with Cirrus vodka cream sauce. “The Cirrus vodka is like homemade bread,” says Ellen Gray. “You just taste a real difference.”

Taste alone, though, will not be enough for Cirrus. Industry experts say McCann needs marketing muscle, too, to make a dent in the minds of vodka drinkers who may already have a hardened preference for a particular brand. The vodka market tends to be sensitive to advertising; think Absolut, the vodka turned into an iconic spirit by means of a multimillion-dollar campaign that essentially hyped the shape of its bottle. Riley says his customers still reference a taste test that the New York Times conducted a couple of years ago in which lowly Smirnoff outperformed many premium and superpremium vodkas. How did these drinkers know about the test? Did they all read the Times?

Smirnoff, Riley says, “took out big full-page ads in the New York Times, and all of a sudden their…sales went way up.” To this day, Smirnoff still advertises on that taste test, including pricey TV commercials.

But at least one person believes that Cirrus could carve out a niche in the market without investing millions in advertising. Paul Ward, a business consultant who focuses on customer and market strategies, believes the vodka has the ability to compete with the big boys, particularly if McCann adopts strategies that the major distillers would likely never embrace. “If you can create buzz and you can do it inexpensively using the Web,” he says, “you potentially have a market clout in terms of influencing people that, dollar for dollar, far exceeds what the big companies do, because they’re doing everything from the top down.”

McCann is definitely a from-the-bottom-up guy. The question is how far up will Cirrus go? Riley wonders aloud if Cirrus may be the next Marker’s Mark. “Maker’s Mark, if I remember correctly, used to be a very small, limited kind of bourbon,” Riley says. “But now, I mean, shoot, I think you can probably get Maker’s Mark in any liquor market in the country.”