Marat Mamedov is not a big fan of beets. In fact, it's fair to say he strongly dislikes them. But his disdain hasn't stopped the rookie distiller from converting pounds upon pounds of stratifying bloodred root vegetables into what might be the most distinct hooch made in the Philadelphia region.
Pop the cork on a pint of "B," one of a handful of early products made by Mamedov's Lansdale distillery, Boardroom Spirits, and take a deep whiff. "Earthy, unique, and bold" are the diplomatically selected descriptors on the label, but anyone with a functioning nose might go with more colorful language to describe this brandy-inspired spirit. Pungent. Funky. Cilia-singeing. A transporting aroma, in the Proustian sense, that drops you in the dirt of a beet farm at the peak of harvest, ankle-deep in veiny leaves.
"When you crack open the bottle and smell that," says a smiling Mamedov, "you know it's beet."
An eau de vie that requires 16 pounds of fresh beets to distill a single liter, the 100 percent vegetable-based B is emblematic of a few things where Boardroom is concerned. Designed to be sipped neat or worked into dirty martini or Bloody Mary variations, it's a nod to the company's Armenian Hungarian heritage, two European cultures with noted brandy traditions. But it also represents the nearly year-old distillery's deep investment in transparency - it wants its process to be as clear as the liquid coming off the still.
Mamedov is one of the three founders of Boardroom, with his wife, Zsuzsa Palotas, and older brother, Vlad. They all come from corporate backgrounds; Mamedov and Palotas met while employed as consultants with Deloitte, and Vlad did IT and infrastructure work for such firms as Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
None of the three is American-born. Palotas is originally from Hungary. The ethnically Armenian Mamedov family came to the States as war refugees by way of Moscow and Baku, Azerbaijan, from which they were driven in 1989 by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijani.
They settled in Doylestown, where their father took manufacturing and food-industry jobs and their mother worked in day spas, eventually opening her own. They put their sons through Drexel, which the brothers credit with readying them for the competitive business world (that inspired the Boardroom name). Before too long, though, the work began to wear on them.
"We enjoyed what we were doing, but at the same time, we wanted to create something tangible," says Mamedov. Adept at reading big-picture trends, they identified small-scale craft spirits as a promising growth area, especially considering Pennsylvania's friendly climate for new distilleries. (Available since 2012, the PLCB's limited-distillery license is an accessible "in" for start-ups.)
Their elevator pitch: a line of unadulterated liquors, distilled and bottled locally, using local raw ingredients whenever possible. The partners secured a 3,400-square-foot space in Lansdale; ideal coordinates, as the Montgomery County address offered close access to Allentown, Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania farm country, from which they hoped to source most of their material.
The team's plan was ready. One problem: None of Boardroom's founders had the skills required to distill.
Through overseas connections, they found help in the form of Attila Kovács, a Transylvanian master distiller in Budapest; and Hagyo, a full-service manufacturer of stills headquartered in the Hungarian city of Miskolc. Kovács began developing recipes for the distillery in 2014, ahead of Boardroom's late 2015 debut.
Hagyo's systems are advanced enough that anyone in the world can monitor and modify the distillation process remotely in real time, even from laptops and smartphones. That allowed Kovács to lord over Boardroom's early runs, starting with its vodka, distilled from a non-GMO corn base. This flagship has since been spun off into Boardroom's "Fresh" line of vodkas - flavored naturally, with no additional sugars, dyes, or additives. So far, it has produced variations with cranberry and citrus that are far less sweet than much of the treacly stuff on the shelf. (Boardroom is being accepted into the State Store system; bottles are currently available for purchase at the distillery and it's poured at such bars as Martha and Harvest.)
"The cranberry you taste is tart, because that's what a real cranberry tastes like," Mamedov says of Boardroom's rationale.
Though Kovács, who's visited Boardroom once so far on a temporary work visa, was integral to the distillery's launch, the partners knew they needed expert boots on the ground, as well. ("Automation is never going to replace the nose of the actual distiller," Mamedov says.) Distiller Tim Mokes, a former brewer and baker, has taken on that role in Lansdale, developing Boardroom's unorthodox gin and overseeing the aging of its single-malt whiskey and rum, which will be ready for drinkers . . . eventually.
They joke that their barrel room, stacked to the ceiling with oak casks, is the "most depressing" part of the facility, because they won't be able to reap its full benefits for months, and, in some cases, years. Simply unavoidable for a fledgling distillery.
In the meantime, they'll focus their energies on private-label requests - they're developing a lemongrass-Sichuan peppercorn vodka for Han Dynasty - as well as projects like B, the first in what they hope will be an extensive line inspired by pálinka, a fruit brandy commonly distilled in the Hungarian home. Vlad Mamedov has secured 15 tons of apples from Boyertown's Frecon Farms to make "A," an apple-based eau de vie; "C," produced with nothing but carrots, is also in the pipeline.
"We want to bring some of this stuff from the Old World to the U.S. market," says Mamedov, who envisions a robust periodic table of single-lettered liquors down the line. Most of the alphabet will be covered. "I don't know what we're going to do for X," he admits. What they do know: They're on the right track. "We wanted to really invest in being different," he says. "[And] we're going to do everything naturally, even if it kills us."
Makes one cocktail
2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce Boardroom Beet "B" specialty spirit
1 ounce beet kvass (see note)
1/2 ounce Bloody Mary mix (Graziano's brand preferred)
1. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
2. Strain into a chilled martini glass.
3. Garnish with a pickled beet and serve.
Note: Kvass is a nonalcoholic European drink made from fermented bread and sold in specialty stores. If unavailable, the pickling juice from pickled beets can be substituted.
- From Boardroom Spirits