When Yuri Kato set out to build her peach-flavored vodka, she had no idea it would take her to Augusta.
Kato wanted to align her business with Georgia’s birthplace of peach culture. After four years of research into the history of Georgia peaches, she found herself in Augusta – once home to Fruitland Nurseries, which was among the largest horticulture sites in the Southeast from 1858 to 1918.
Through her research, Kato discovered that Belgian horticulturist and nursery owner Prosper Julius Alphonso Berckmans, dubbed the “father of peach culture,” put Georgia peaches on the map in the late 1800s and served as a central agricultural figure across the South. The nursery grounds now serve as Augusta National Golf Club.
Kato said her goal is to promote Berckmans’ history through her Fruitland Augusta Georgia Peach Vodka and Georgia Peach Tea, both of which are made with Georgia peaches and use Berckmans’ image as an emblem.
“I think every corner of the business has to have a consistent message, and for us, it’s about Georgia peaches and Mr. Berckmans,” she said.
Having launched in August and now partnered with United Distributors, Fruitland Augusta is served in restaurants, bars and golf clubs across the state. Georgia package stores also sell the 750 ml bottles.
Locally, the line is carried at Finch and Fifth, French Market Grille, Carolina Ale House, The Country Club Dance Hall & Saloon, Metro Coffee House, Whiskey Bar, Soy Noodle, 1102, The Bee’s Knees, Kawa, White Horse Wine and Spirits, Beverage Outlets and Toast.
Kato digitized images from an original Fruitland Nurseries catalogue, dated 1898, to use on the product. She said she purchased the catalogue from a Masters memorabilia collector in Stone Mountain, Ga., for an undisclosed amount.
Kato said she’s not looking to expand outside of Georgia soon and instead hopes to attract more people into the state to try or buy the vodka. She erected a billboard on Washington Road across from Augusta National and has put pamphlets in visitor information centers.
“The first year is about gaining distribution in Georgia,” she said. “If we’re really able to take care of our customers here in Georgia, I think the volume will come later. So many startups don’t survive because they expand too fast with such a limited budget.”
Kato has spent about two decades working in the distilled spirits industry. She has worked at CNN as a contributor, written a Japanese cocktail book, established a consulting agency working with brands including Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine and WhistlePig Rye Whiskey, and served as a spokeswoman for Suntory’s Japanese Whiskey.
Kato is working with the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau for opportunities to build a local craft distillery within the next couple of years.
“They are becoming very, very popular,” said bureau President and CEO Barry White. “As people travel, they want to eat local. They want to taste local. And, we want to be sure if we have an opportunity, to take advantage of that and offer that locally-branded product and experience.”
Currently, the 70-proof Fruitland Augusta vodka is bottled in Kentucky, and those operations will soon move to Florida. Though there are 16 permitted distilleries in Georgia, none can handle her volume, Kato said.
“That’s a lot of freight cost,” she said. “We can keep that money out here in Augusta and circulate it, and that’s what we hope to do.”
Augusta’s zoning ordinance requires a distillery be in light or heavy industrial areas because of any safety risks such activity could
pose to residents, said Augusta Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson.
“When you start talking about distilling alcohol, it gets to be really tricky with regards to location of population in the vicinity,” she said. “You have to break down what it is. A distillery is a manufacturing operation.”
Wilson said she could see the possibility of putting a distillery in a “transitional” area, between a less dense business and industrial zone, but would never recommend that one be approved for downtown.
On a national scale, the distillery market has grown from 109 facilities in 2008 to about 425 in 2013, and is on a pace that doubles every three years, according to the American Distilling Institute.
Georgia’s distillery growth has been somewhat stunted compared with other states because operators are not allowed to sell directly to customers visiting their facilities. However, state distillers are pushing for legislation changes.