A distiller as unique as her spirits, Caitlin Prueitt was the Willamette Valley’s first woman distillery owner and one of only five in the nation when she launched Vivacity Fine Spirits in December 2011.
Fifteen years earlier, she might not have believed it. After high school, “I went to community college for a year because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “Then I was bartending in California and there were older bartenders who were 40 at the time. I told myself I didn’t want to be tending bar at 40, and that was one of my motivations for looking into college. And sure enough, after graduating I was that bartender up until a few years ago.”
A non-traditional student at Oregon State – she was 30 when she graduated in 2000 – Caitlin originally was interested in studying nutrition so she could use that knowledge to create diets for chronically or terminally ill people in order to alleviate their symptoms. But after discovering food science and fermentation, the rest, as they say, is history.
She completed an internship at a brewery in Germany, worked at wineries in California and spent five years at Oregon State as a hops research chemist before deciding to take the plunge and look into what it would take to open a distillery. She and her husband, Chris Neumann, took classes in California and Michigan, networked, looked into logistics and financing, talked with local artists about designing their iconic labels and filled out a mountain of paperwork. They then began crafting vodka in 2010 in a 2,400-square-foot facility in Lewisburg, on the edge of Corvallis.
They maximize everything – even their sense of humor. With all equipment on wheels or palette jacks, the couple moves things around their pint-size distillery like a real-life game of Mahjong. Then there’s the floor-to-ceiling brass still from Kentucky called Jules Verne. And Mork and Mindy and Heckle and Jeckle fermentation and proofing tanks. And little T. S. Eliot, the tiny still. And, of course, the sayings on each bottle, such as “If you can’t be good, be careful” and the fitting phrase “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
But don’t let the whimsical nature of this little distillery fool you – these are serious spirits. In addition to being sippable – “With a well-crafted spirit, you should be able to sip,” Chris says – they are sourced responsibly and true to Oregon’s pioneering spirit.
For instance, Native Gin bursts with the best flavors of the state. And it was a gamble, Caitlin says. They already offered a gin, but wanted to try something new and more botanical. The result was a hit; Native Gin is a bestseller.
The Turkish Coffee Liqueur, too, is unique, incorporating local coffee and exotic spices. They were looking for a cold-weather spirit and planned to use hazelnuts in the product before Caitlin tasted a Bend distillery’s hazelnut espresso vodka. “Caitlin was loath to appear we were copying someone else,” Chris says. “Because if you make something someone else is already doing well, why bother?”
Vodka | corn based, filtered 30 times, first product, launched December 2011. Label designed by local designer, who also designed labels for both gins.
Bankers’ Gin, Native Gin | Banker’s is a classic London dry with six ingredients, named in honor of the banker who awarded their original loan. Native gin is 17 ingredients, nine native, all locally sourced but cardamom. Native is a botanical gin and a self-described calculated risk that makes the perfect G&T. Both are corn based.
Turkish Coffee Liqueur | Vodka based, coffee infused from beans sourced from Corvallis’ Oregon Coffee and Tea. Hints of cardamom, raw sugar and cinnamon. Label designed by Western Oregon University art student.
Traditional Rum | Aged in bourbon barrels, made with raw sugar and molasses. Looked at traditional rum houses, which use a dunder pit, unlike most modern distilleries. Smooth, strong, raw ingredients and a unique blend. Ages in bourbon and oak barrels one to two years. Label designed by local art teacher.
- Caitlin and Chris operate Vivacity out of a 2,400 sq. feet facility in Lewisburg, Ore.
- The couple can produce four bottles at a time, which are hand labeled.
- Vivacity crafts 1,500 cases each year.
- Vodka and Native Gin are bestsellers.
- Vivacity spirits are in one-third of liquor stores in the state and in most all liquor stores in Portland.
- Vivacity employs two full-time staff and three part-time staff.
- Vivacity is open every Saturday for tasting.
- Brandy will be released in January 2017. It’s currently in four wine and port barrels.
- The distillery originally was called Veracity, but was changed because of a copyright issue to Vivacity, which Caitlin prefers because it means “high spirits.”
- Caitlin is a New York native who moved to San Diego at 18.
- Caitlin’s sister, Sara, received her master’s degree at Oregon State in 1998.
- Unofficial motto: “A good martini goes a long way to ease the day.”
Caitlin’s favorite Vivacity cocktail
“This depends on the time of year and my mood! Summer gin and tonics enhanced with goodies from the garden (rhubarb syrup, muddled strawberries and basil, etc.). Hot milk with the Turkish Coffee Liqueur in winter. The rum on ice in the fall or winter – add a squeeze of lime for summer.”
Advice for current students and recent graduates
“First, relax. Don’t rush, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Most good things don’t come quickly, and you have all the time in the world. Having said that, don’t rest on your laurels either.
If you’re looking at being in business for yourself, really work the business plan. I had previously thought the business plan as wasting time because most people don’t look at the whole thing. But different people (banks, lawyers, government, etc.) look at different aspects. Most importantly, it is a living document that should change as you learn more and ask more questions. It is an overview of the project that should answer any specific questions. Having well-thought-out answers in one document shows organization and forethought.”