Think do-it-yourself distilling and most people flash to illegal backyard stills cranking out high-octane booze in Mason jars.
But boutique distiller Lee Palleschi's one-man operation is the complete opposite. His fully licensed Modesto distillery is producing handcrafted ultrapremium vodka inside a former cold-storage building in the old Tri Valley Growers complex in Modesto.
The first batch of Cold House vodka came out this month and Galletto Ristorante, Dewz Restaurant and Che'Root Cigar Lounge are serving the locally produced spirit.
Palleschi, 45, a graduate of Modesto High who started his career as a machinist, never imagined four years ago that he'd be producing high-end spirits. But then he struck up a conversation with a man about producing fuel alcohol, or ethanol. The process seemed so simple, he decided to find out more.
"I started learning and read a whole bookshelf full of books," he said.
When Palleschi was a kid, his father made wine and beer. But Palleschi's involvement was usually just to help
crush the grapes. He tried it on his own when he grew up. As he studied the alcohol distilling process, his interest shifted from fuel to spirits.
Soon he was contacting distilleries in the Bay Area and across the state, visiting and asking advice. While home distilling is illegal, the public can learn about the process and experiment at distilleries and schools such as the American Distilling Institute in Hayward. Palleschi started taking classes and what was a hobby soon became more — even as he was working as a facilities manager at an area food plant.
"When you find something interesting and start learning more and more about it, before you realize it, it's what you do," he said. "For the last four years, I've spent my weekends, nights, vacations just doing this."
After about a year and a half of trial and error, he produced his first good drinkable batch of vodka. Palleschi, who describes himself as a casual drinker who usually sips beer or whiskey socially, says it was the process of distilling that fascinated him. Two years ago, he decided to get serious about turning it into a business.
Palleschi made a five-year plan. Initially he hoped to find investors, but the timing in mid-2008 when the recession was raging made that impossible. So Palleschi and his wife plunged some $30,000 of their money into starting his company, Valley Spirits LLD.
Finding the money was one thing, completing the paperwork was another. Palleschi spent 9½ months filling out all the required federal, state and local forms and paying fees.
His desk is littered with permits and licenses to prove that while Valley Spirits may be small, it is legitimate.
Mostly empty warehouse
His 2,500-square-foot warehouse is mostly empty. In one corner sits the 55-gallon still, which Palleschi built himself. The equipment is simple; besides the still, components include a bottle cleaner, carbon filter tank, bottle filler and a hot plate to melt the wax to seal the bottles.
"We have just enough equipment to make for a lot of manual labor for us," he said. "I could not be any smaller."
Distilling a batch takes about 3½ weeks. The process mixes raw 200-proof alcohol with purified water, which is sent through the still twice for distilling and then filtered and bottled.
Palleschi — with some help from his wife, Isabel — does everything by hand down to filling, sealing and pasting the labels on each bottle. He even built his company's Web site.
"We wear all the hats," he said. "And when I'm done doing that, I knock on doors and become a salesman."
After his first 101-bottle batch was finished May 1, he started going door to door to area restaurants. Galletto, Dewz, Che'Root and Torii Japanese Steakhouse were among the first of his sales.
To showcase his product, Palleschi offers tastings where he proudly puts his vodka up against more well-known high-end brands.
"I offer my competitors' product as samples and talk about what quality vodka is supposed to be — flavorless, odorless and smooth," he said. "I challenge anyone to set a glass of Belvedere and a glass of Cold House next to each other and try them."
Che'Root owner Gina Rossi bought a dozen bottles after a tasting at the lounge over the weekend.
"We had a good turnout and people enjoyed it at the tasting. I always like to support small local people trying to get something off the ground," she said. "And I liked the vodka. I got all positive comments about it."
Palleschi just finished his second 227-bottle batch of Cold House. He can sell his product to restaurants, bars and retailers. Bottles sell for $24 each. But Palleschi is not allowed to sell directly to consumers.
Next week, he plans to start distilling his first batch of gin, which he hopes to have bottled by July. Then it is on to whiskey, which will have to age in barrels for three to four years.
He plans to start teaching classes at the institute and offer classes to the public at his Modesto distillery.
He said his family — wife and two children, ages 12 and 15 — are supportive of his endeavor. He left his job a week and a half ago and is focusing on his distillery full time.
"I'm not going to become a millionaire off of this, but I'd like to be able to make a living," he said. "I just fell into this. But then I realized this was something I could do and found out how fun it was. And that was it."
Find out more about Cold House Vodka and Valley Spirits at www.drinkvalleyspirits.com.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.