Farmer turns leftover sweet potatoes into award-winning vodka

October 29, 2013
By Bill Krueger

Jimmy Burch grows a lot of sweet potatoes in Eastern North Carolina, so he’s always looking for new ways to put them to use.

But even he’s been surprised at how well they’ve done in their latest incarnation — as the starting point for an award-winning vodka that is about to be sold throughout most of the country.

“It’s done good,” says Burch, an NC State alumnus who is one of the owners of Covington Gourmet Vodka and the source of its sweet potatoes, Burch Farms. “In North Carolina, it’s in all the ABC stores right now. We just hired a broker and we’re fixing to go into 32 states. We’ve only been on the market for eight months, so we’re happy.”

burch vodka

Jimmy Burch, left, with a business associate

The process that led to Covington Gourmet Vodka started about five years ago, when Burch worked with food scientists at NC State to develop a puree from sweet potatoes left in the field after the harvest. Burch initially sold the puree to The Boston Beer Company — the maker of Samuel Adams beer — but then decided to see if he might be able to make alcohol out of it.

As it turned out, the sweet potato puree was “just absolutely fantastic for vodka,” Burch says. Researchers at the University of Michigan told Burch it was “absolutely the best vodka they’ve ever tasted in their lives.”

So Covington Gourmet Vodka — named for a variety of sweet potato developed at NC State — was born. In its first year, the self-proclaimed “Best Yam Vodka on Earth” won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

“We were tickled to death over that,” Burch says. “Everybody says it’s smooth as silk.”

In addition to being in ABC stores, Burch says Covington can be found in places like Biltmore House, the Angus Barn restaurant and PNC Arena. While Burch is pleased with the initial response to his vodka, he recognizes that he is not a threat to the established giants in the vodka industry.

“Grey Goose, they ain’t waking up at night worrying about us,” he says. “This is just a nice addition to the farm, some value-added products.”

burch farm

Jimmy Burch in one of his sweet potato fields.

Covington Gourmet Vodka is one of dozens of vendors – including  restaurants, farms, breweries, wineries and bakeries – participating in  the Red & White Food and Beverage Festival during the week of homecoming. All of the vendors have NC State connections, with alumni as owners or managers. The festival is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at The State Club in the Park Alumni Center. Visit the festival website to register and see a full list of vendors participating.

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