Tucked right off Route 40 in quaint Richland, NJ, the distillery opened its doors in late 2014. However, the Lazy Eye product has been in the making for over 14 years. According to the Kafkalas family, the idea started when they took a trip in 2001 to visit family in Greece. During their visit, they sampled the homemade drinks and realized that was a taste that they wanted to recreate back in the US. Carol and Nick are not only vodka drinkers, but a couple who wanted to control the ingredients and the fermentation methods that went into making each bottle. Carol explains, “The truth is distillation has been a big part our families for many years. Distilling is in our blood.”
After the couple returned from Greece, they began experimenting in their basement making up small batches and “tweaking” the recipe to achieve the exact taste and color they were shooting for, all the while thinking “how cool it would be to bottle our own product.”
Since they love to entertain, the Kafkalases often invited friends over for parties and let them sample their basement experiment concoctions. They listened to what friends had to offer about the taste and texture—too dry, too sweet, and other suggestions until the final result, to quote Goldilocks, was “just right” and ready to be bottled and sold professionally.
When you ask the any of the four Kafkalas family members where the name for their vodka originated from, you will get only a partial answer. Apparently, Anthony—Carol and Nick’s oldest son—came up with the name one day at the dinner table. But, that’s all the information they will spill. It’s a family secret that only adds to the mystique of the product. In general, the Kafkalases show team “spirit” (pun intended) in all that they do. Full-time jobs in addition to starting and running the distillery, marketing the product and welcoming guests at the distillery are a family affair.
Whether it’s the carefully selected grape for the mash, the time it takes to ferment, or the Lazy Eye secret to distilling, the Kafkalases’ vodka is becoming a hit. From the first sip it is an incredibly clear, smooth, and distinct taste that gently goes down with a sweet and unique warmth. After opening their distillery only four months ago, six South Jersey liquor stores and restaurants sell Lazy Eye in addition to the Richland location itself.
So what makes this vodka unique? Unlike many of its cousins, Lazy Eye is not made from potatoes. Again, fueled by the Kafkalases’ Greek ancestry, Lazy Eye is made from grapes, which gives the vodka a unique, smooth taste. Carol jokes, “We’re Greek, and we do everything with grapes.” And, since Lazy Eye vodka is not made from grains, it is gluten-free for those who enjoy vodka but have allergies/dietary issues.
In addition to being able to buy the product on site, Lazy Eye offers tours of the distillery and tastings (usually on Saturdays). The tour typically begins with Nicholas Kafkalas, the youngest son and history buff, sharing his knowledge about Prohibition days and the bootlegging intrigue (à la Boardwalk Empire) that took place in Atlantic and Cape May counties in the 1920s. During the tour, Nicholas explains that Lazy Eye is currently the only vodka distillery in New Jersey and takes pride in emulating a business (albeit illegal) that once was all over South Jersey. The tour as well as the pictures on the wall tell the story of how booze, the making of and the drinking of, during Prohibition helped to “put Atlantic City on the map.” Ironically, Lazy Eye is located on the very road that was built during the times when bootleggers as well as beach-going (and thirsty) tourists needed better access in and out of AC.
In addition to the history, the tour includes viewing the fermentation room, distilling room (where each of the small pot stills is named after a Kafkalas family member) and finally the bottling room. The tour ends with tastings of Lazy Eye products where guests are free to chat with the family about the vodka and Atlantic City history.
Tom Sheridan, a vodka connoisseur, was excited to hear about the distillery so close to his Ventnor, NJ home and signed up for a tour. After sampling Lazy Eye, Sheridan explained, “What piqued my curiosity about Lazy Eye was that it is made from grapes. I had never heard of vodka made that way. Since it is craft distilled, I knew it must be special—a fine vodka that’s just a tad sweet and a little different than all the others in a subtle way.”
The Lazy Eye bottle, elegant, clean and honest, seems like the perfect vessel to hold the Kafkalases’ micro-batch product. In addition to its “Proudly Made in Atlantic County” vodka, Lazy Eye Distillery plans to introduce a gin in the early spring as well as a raki product—another grape-based spirit of Greek heritage. The family also is looking into opening another distillery in Wildwood in the near future.
Sip by sip, the Kafkalases are spreading the word about their vodka. As a local family, they prefer to do the marketing of the product themselves. Carol and Nick agree how important it is to “keep the destiny of our product in our own hands. After all, we are a family from this area in New Jersey and we are selling to friends. It’s humbling when someone tells us how much they enjoy our product.”
Yasou (To your health)!