Beaverton man parlays college experiment into successful flavored, craft vodka line

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A bottle of Wild Roots infused vodka at the Beaverton Liquor Store.Many young men and women learn as much about beer and liquor during their college years as they do about engineering, law or accounting.

Few, however, parlay that knowledge into much more than hazy memories of house parties, football games and concerts.

Chris Joseph is an exception to the rule.

The 24-year-old channeled his experimentation with liquor and berries into a spirited career move. The Beaverton resident launched his Wild Roots Vodka business last summer at the Beaverton Farmers Market.

Through administrative offices in Beaverton and its distillery in Bend, the two flavors of Wild Roots — raspberry and Oregon marion berry — appear on an increasing number of restaurant and bar shelves in the greater Portland area. All liquor stores in Beaverton, Aloha and Hillsboro carry Joseph’s label, which is distributed in a little more than half the stores in Oregon.

Joseph is looking for a Beaverton-area facility to use for bottling and labeling the liquor, and hopes to have that permitted and established in a couple of months. Beginning on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Wild Roots returns as a regular merchant at the Beaverton Winter Farmers Market on Southwest Hall Boulevard between Third and Fifth streets.

“It’s a great source to bring to our target market consumers,” Joseph says of the market. “That’s pretty much our target audience. By letting them taste it and build a connection with consumers, it’s paid off very well for us.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chris Joseph of Wild Roots Vodka with his top-shelf, infused vodka at the Beaverton Liquor Store. He plans on moving much of the production from Bend back to Beaverton.

A Beaverton-area resident for 12 years, Joseph and business partner Daniel Ball came upon their vodka-infused dream business — innocently enough — through a surplus of juicy berries while students at Portland State University.

“(Daniel) took a shot at his own business, selling berries at farmers markets,” Joseph

recalls. “One evening, he threw a bunch of the leftover berries — I think he made pie and other things — into some vodka. So we made some vodka with berries for a couple people. They liked it, and we made some more. We got to the point where we decided to commercialize it.”

Joseph credits his girlfriend, Alexandria Wildgen, a dedicated vodka connoisseur, with providing a voice of encouragement.

“She really pushed us on to start a liquor company,” he says of the fellow PSU graduate who now serves as Wild Roots’ president of events and marketing. “She will only drink vodka. She was our demographic, in a way.”

As one might imagine with two neophyte distillers, recipe experimentation often proved a mixed bag.

“Just to check the alcohol content, it melted the cup,” Joseph recalls of tinkering in Ball’s kitchen. “That could’ve burned a hole right through me. It was a lot of trial and error.”

Attempting to make larger batches themselves required too much equipment they didn’t have or could afford, so Joseph and Ball, a Bend native, reached out to Bendistillery in Central Oregon. Founded in 1996, the craft distillery creates a variety of vodka, gin, rye and other spirits under the “Crater Lake” label.

“We knocked on their door,” Joseph said of the so-far fruitful collaboration. “We use their facilities. We make a different kind of vodka from them, but we use their expertise.”

Exploring various ways of financing Wild Roots, Joseph and Ball ultimately decided to retain their own identity.

“We went to a couple conferences and had several offers. They said, ‘How much ownership do you want to give up?’”

With a loan from Joseph’s father, they kept Wild Roots’ independence intact.

“When we first brought it to (dad) in a blank bottle, he didn’t think too much of it,” he says of the prototype product. “But he believed in us and saw the hard work and efforts. He really invested in the people behind it — me, Daniel and Ally.”

If their recent successes at the Beaverton Farmers Market are any indication, the fruity zing of Wild Roots may be on its way to competing with other regional and national brands that surround it on local store shelves.

“Last summer, we sold out in two months and didn’t spend a dollar on marketing,” Joseph notes. “We’d sell out at the Farmers Market in the first couple hours, send people to the liquor stores and that would sell out as well. Everyone ran out.”

Despite signs of success, Joseph sees himself and Ball less as vodka wizards than just a couple of industrious guys selling a uniquely Northwestern product — right down to the water and the berries.

“In a way, people can look at us as fools, seeing that people who have never done it before can go out and start a liquor business,” he admits. “There’s a lot of foolishness involved. The market is so saturated, the odds aren’t really in our favor. But we make a product that stands behind Northwestern values.

“We really try to resemble and emulate the natural flavor of Oregon,” he adds. “It’s the actual experience, I’d say.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chris Joseph of Wild Roots Vodka is moving some of his production from Bend to Beaverton.

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