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That Good Old Jersey Spirit

Local distillery creates craft-made vodka with secret family recipe

“There’s no absolutes in life – only vodka.” -Mick Jagger

Tucked right off of Route 40 in quaint Richland, NJ, the Lazy Eye distillery opened its doors to the public in 2014.  However, the Lazy Eye product itself has been in the making for over 15 years. According to Carol and Nick Kafkalas -- vodka creators and proprietors extraordinaire  -- the idea started when they took a trip years ago to visit family in Greece. There they sampled the old country’s homemade drinks and realized that was a taste and a drink they wanted to recreate back in the U.S. 

The Kafkalases also wanted to control exactly what went into the bottle to perfect the taste. Carol explains, “The truth is distillation has been a big part our families for many years. Distilling is in our blood.”

So, genetically speaking, Carol and Nick Kafkalas possess ingredients and knowledge that have helped them create a new craft-made vodka bottled under the name of Lazy Eye. Some parts of this recipe, they are willing to share with the public. Other parts, stay a “secret” that only the Kafkalases and their two sons know. They are a tight-knit, loving family -- they share a Greek heritage for distilling spirits, they appreciate the Atlantic City and prohibition-era history behind their product and, luckily for us, they are willing to share the fruits of their labors at the Lazy Eye Distillery.

What makes Lazy Eye vodka so unique? Unlike many of its cousins, Lazy Eye is not made from potatoes Again, fueled by their Greek roots, Lazy Eye is made from grapes that not only give the vodka a unique, smooth taste, but also makes the product gluten-free for those with allergies/dietary issues to wheat or potatoes. Carol jokes, “We’re Greek, and we do everything with grapes  -– even our vodka.”

Jersey Ice Water

Whether it’s the grape-based mash or the Lazy Eye secret to distilling, the Kafkalas’ vodka has become a hit.  From the first sip, it’s an incredibly clear, smooth, and distinct taste that gently goes down with a sweet and unique warmth. After opening the distillery less than three years ago, Lazy Eye is being offered in dozens of liquor stores and restaurants, as well as at the distillery location itself.

Carol is grateful for businesses – local as well as customers hailing from north Jersey to Washington, DC -- that believed in Lazy Eye from its beginnings and gave them the opportunity to grow their products. “Having liquor stores, restaurants, and bars purchase a product that has been created by you is truly humbling. We are proud to be in every business, big or small. We are grateful for some landmark establishments that offer our products, such as Resorts International and Steve & Cookies restaurant in Margate.”

In fact, Lazy Eye experienced a nerve wracking debut at Steve & Cookies. About one week after opening their distillery, Cookie Till, owner and chef, agreed to sample Lazy Eye as a potential spirit for her restaurant. Carol looks back at the meeting with a smile, “George, a veteran bartender at Steve & Cookies, told us to pour some for him, stuck only his finger in the vodka, and tasted it off his finger. We had no idea what he was about to say. He smiled, and told us it was very good. We exhaled. This encounter gave us the confidence to pursue other restaurants and bars.” 

In addition to serving the locally-made spirit, Steve & Cookies offers a delicious cocktail, created by George, made with Lazy Eye vodka called Jersey Ice Water.  Customers can imbibe while getting some Lazy Eye background history from an elixir master – yes, George the Bartender!

The Grand Tour and a Grand Taste

In addition to being able to buy the product onsite, Lazy Eye offers distillery tours and tastings (a must do). The tour usually begins with Nicholas Kafkalas, youngest son and history buff, sharing his knowledge about Prohibition days, à la Boardwalk Empire, that took place in Atlantic and Cape May counties in the 1920s and 30s.  During the tour, Nicholas explains that Lazy Eye is currently the only vodka distillery in New 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 right on the road that was built during the times when bootleggers, as well as beach-going (and thirsty) tourists needed better access to Atlantic City.

After the tour, customers usually walk away with a bottle (or two) they purchased, along with a smile on their face and the smooth taste lingering. Mark Biel, of Northfield, became a devoted Lazy Eye fan from the beginning. “We were so impressed with the taste – so smooth it’s best to drink on ice with no mixers,” revealed Biel. “Why ruin a good thing!  It’s New Jersey produced, and we don’t think there’s a better vodka on the market.”

Seeing Double

After successfully opening the Richland facility, the Kafkalas family decided to open another location in Wildwood.  Unlike its sister site in Richland, the Wildwood location does minimal distilling; just enough for its own tours and tastings. In addition, the Wildwood site caters to individual groups, as well as bus tours in the summer months. They also offer a “Night at the Distillery” where a group of friends can have a private tour and party, closed to the public. 

The Richland facility, the main production site, distills and bottles to supply retail customers. If you are in a tasting mood, the Richland location is open throughout the year on Saturdays for tours and tastings. Regardless of where you decide to take a tour, you can count on at least one Kafkalas family member to welcome you making you instantly feel like you are part of their Lazy Eye family.  

Award Winning and Good to the Last Drop

When Lazy Eye opened, the family’s mantra was to “make high-quality grape-based spirits in small pot stills.” Two years later, the Kafkalases feel they have honored that mantra while simultaneously growing their business.

In addition to quality vodka, Lazy Eye also makes a Greek spirit known as Rakii (with or without anise); the only Rakii made in the United States. Last fall, around the time of Lazy Eye’s second birthday, the Kafkalases walked away with four medals at the New York International Spirits Competition, including a gold medal for its signature vodka. Considering over six hundred spirits from around the world competed, Lazy Eye proudly feels their product is “one of the best vodkas in the world and made right here in South Jersey.”

The Next Bottle
What’s next for Lazy Eye?  First and foremost, they plan to continue to focus on their goals as a business and as a family. As far as business is concerned, they want to grow one bottle at a time, literally, with hopes of expanding their client base to include New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.  

Carol sums it up, “Our continued goal is to make high-quality spirits and for our family to treat every one of our patrons like they are new members of the family. We have so many goals, but the biggest goal is for us to be at the family dinner table one night and be able to say; the four of us who built this business at this very table and started distilling in that shed in the back yard, now have a product that is being enjoyed by people in every corner of the country. Wouldn’t that be something?”

"We put hard work into every bottle and it is literally made right here by hand in Atlantic and Cape May County. When someone comes into our distillery, we become friends with them. We talk about our lives, experiences, living in South Jersey. We care for our patrons and they care for us. So when they go to a liquor store and they have the choice between a bottle of vodka that was made a thousand miles away in a futuristic assembly line or a bottle of vodka that was made by a family of four who they know personally, the choice is easy."

Carol Kafkalas, Owner, Lazy Eye Distillery