Tim Kyle wanted a business that would allow him to earn a living, raise kids and stay in the area where his family has lived for more than three generations.
The 44-year-old former carpenter and salesman finally came up with something that no one else in Kansas, perhaps even the nation, produces.
Making vodka out of milo, which some of his fans describe as “awesome water.”
His “Ornery Brother” brand is clear, smooth, slightly sweet with a burning kick and a hint of anise in the aftertaste.
The first batch of vodka was made in September. He is now finishing his fourth. A batch averages about 100 12-pack fifths of vodka that are for sale in about 100 liquor stores throughout Kansas.
His is one of nine micro-distilleries now making liquor in the state, thanks to a change in Kansas law that allowed for more micro-breweries and micro-distilleries.
Six of the distilleries are in eastern Kansas. Wheat State Distilling in Wichita makes vodka, whiskey and other spirits out of wheat. The only other western Kansas distillery is Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City.
There also are now more than 40 microbreweries making beer in Kansas.
“Everyone is getting more adventurous in what they are willing to sample,” said Chuck Magerl who opened Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence in 1989, becoming the first legal brewery in Kansas in more than a century. “There are a lot of distilled spirits using different botanicals and herbs, creating varieties of flavors.”
Kyle knew he wanted a micro distillery, “but I wasn’t planning on making the most difficult liquor on the planet.”
Most vodka is made from corn, rice, rye or wheat. Some use potatoes.
“I have this innate idea, if you are making what everybody else is making, why? They are already making it,” he said. “You think you are going to be that much better? Really? I wanted to do something that was fairly unique.”
Kyle’s original plan was to make vodka from wheat grown on his dad’s 160-acre farm on the northeast side of Greensburg.
But a grain science professor from Kansas State University suggested using milo. Kyle took it from there.
Winds of change
In May of 2007 when much of Kyle’s hometown – Greensburg – was destroyed by a tornado, he and his wife were working in northwest Arkansas. He was a salesman for new home construction. The next year, their first son was born.
“That was also when the economy tanked,” Kyle said.
Kyle needed to find a new job. But more than anything, he said, he wanted to return home to the Kiowa and Edwards county area where he grew up.
“My hometown had just recently been destroyed,” he said. “I had a strong desire to be back with my family. It took a lot of convincing to get my wife on board with it. I told her I would help her start a coffee shop, and we could go there for awhile. I just didn’t want to sit around being on unemployment in Arkansas when a third of the workforce was in the same position as me.”
The couple, at first, opened the Green Bean Coffee Shop in Greensburg.
Then, Kyle said, came his desire to try a micro-distillery.
He began looking around Greensburg for a building to rent. But the tornado had destroyed most of the buildings. He looked to Kinsley, 27 miles north of Greensburg.
An old concrete building
In the heart of downtown Kinsley is a turn-of-the-century bank building that had been vacant for more than two decades.
Edwards County Economic Director Linette Miller remembers the day she showed Kyle the 1905 Kinsley bank building – Indiana white limestone with broken skylights. Snow and mist fell through the skylights onto them as they talked.
Miller remembers Kyle needed a building strong enough to support his stills. The roof was fine but the building was open to the air.
“He needed a building that he could rent,” Miller said. “He wasn’t able to build a facility but he was able to work out a deal with the owner to do repairs in exchange for rent.”
Opening the distillery in downtown Kinsley was the best option for the town, Miller said.
In the past five years, two buildings on Main Street had been torn down, she said.
“It creates a hole,” Miller said, “and we sure didn’t want to see another building go down.”
Although the building wasn’t heated, it had the three elements Kyle needed most – running water, space for his vodka stills and room for his bags of milo flour.
He spent six years researching how to make vodka and two years finding the right equipment.
Milo, Kyle said, was the perfect ingredient.
Sorghum, or milo, is one of the top produced crops in Kansas. He buys the flour from ADM Milling in Dodge City.
It takes roughly two to three weeks to make a batch of vodka, nine days to ferment. Enzymes are then added to convert the grain to sugar. And then, it is distilled.
He touts his vodka as gluten free and GMO-free. No sugar is added.
“The more research I did, the more I fell in love with the idea of milo vodka,” Kyle said. “Milo is a wonderful, under-utilized cereal grain .... Sorghum grain was like God meant it to grow here. It loves the types of soil we have here.
“Now, I’m not going to change the world or save the environment by making booze out of sorghum grain. The point is, this is something I can believe in.”
He’s invested about $75,000 in equipment. He knows he might have a stronger market if he located in a major city.
But, he’s home.
“This is where I am from, where I was raised and where I feel the most connected,” he said.
And if all goes well, Kyle is hopeful he can make milo vodka a requested drink everywhere.