A trio of local entrepreneurs partnered with former Viking linebacker Chad Greenway to create, promote and supply native Minnesota vodka to Prior Lake restaurants and beyond.
Gray Duck Vodka is made with Minnesota-grown corn, which initially attracted big box retailer Total Wine, according to partners Mark Cotter, Jamie Quesnel and Jerry Schulz. Since its inception, the Benson-distilled vodka is supplied to and served at 276 stores and restaurants the state. Cotter, Quesnel, Schulz and Greenway own the product equally.
The name celebrates that Minnesotan spin on the traditional childhood game, Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, said Quesnel, a Lakeville resident.
In 2017, Vikings tight-end Kyle Rudolph famously faked out Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller for a 13-yard touchdown and celebrated with a round of what the longtime Ohioan called Duck, Duck, Goose. The entire state of Minnesota quickly corrected him on social media.
Jerry Schulz, from Illinois, said the celebration was also his introduction to the Gray Duck term.
“If there was already a Grey Goose Vodka, why don’t we have our own Gray Duck Vodka?” he said.
Unable to dispel the idea, Schulz brought it up to Quesnel and Cotter in January 2018. They credited their product’s rapid success in part to Greenway, who later promoted the vodka on-air during a Paul Allen Vikings podcast.
Retail reps liked the idea of a vodka with state pride, the partners said. In addition to its Minnesota-grown ingredient, the vodka bottle features the state highlighted on a U.S. map visible on the inner label.
“It’s a testament to the concept,” Cotter said. “The second part is Chad. He’s a household name, he has a great reputation and people stand behind him. And people love to support local farmers. People can connect to it through those three things.”
Cotter, who lives in Prior Lake but grew up in Illinois, connected to Greenway through a friend from his home state.
“We finally broke him,” Cotter joked.
“He grew up in South Dakota on a family farm,” Quesnel said. “So when he retired, this was an easy way for him to help give back to the farming community. That was a big kicker for him.”
Originally distilling in Brooklyn Park before moving to Benson, the company runs its vodka through a carbon filter that removes impurities and makes it smooth on the way down.
When Greenway and Allen discussed the vodka during the Vikings’ training camp, “that kind of lit the candle,” Quesnel said. “All these other liquor stores started to hear about it and made orders right away.”
The company partners with Charlie’s on Prior and Lord Fletcher’s, and Cotter, Quesnel and Schulz hope to keep spreading around Prior lake. Charlie’s will serve Gray Duck cocktails at Lakefront Music Festival July 12 and 13, the first time Lakefront will have on-site liquor.
Gray Duck struck its partnership with Charlie’s over the winter. Randy Ehlers, vice president of operations at Charlie’s parent company Water Street Restaurant Group, said Gray Duck is a Minnesota business and thus preferable to larger national brands.
“No complaints,” Ehlers said with a laugh, adding his conversation with Gray Duck began with planning for Lakefront.
“We brainstormed some cocktails and came up with some really good ones, namely the Duck ‘n’ Shandy. They’ve been some great partners.”
The Duck ‘n’ Shandy is one of Charlie’s on Prior’s original cocktails made with Gray Duck Vodka; a bit of lavender simple syrup gives it a Minnesota-themed purple layer at its base.
Ehlers added Gray Duck can stand alongside national brands Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
“We’ve done some side-by-side taste tests,” he said. “We like Tito’s. They’re a great brand. But we’d like to move those Tito’s drinkers over to a local brand.”