“Tim, your vodka is quite possibly a felony,” a close friend and Sea Cliff native said to Tim Kelly five years ago after tasting his surprisingly delicious recipe for a sugarcane based spirit.
In the early days of his pursuit, he was naïve about regulations and as it turned out making a distilled product at home could possibly be considered a felony. He Googled the word “felony” and after seeing the phonetic spelling, it stuck.
Kelly, owner and master distiller of felene vodka, was experimenting with distilling, in pursuit of a better tasting vodka. He quickly legalized his business.
“It was a humorous beginning,” said Kelly of Glen Cove.
Hanging up his financial services career one day following a lecture he had been giving on the college circuit, Kelly hopped in the car and set out to visit about two dozen distilleries across the country.
“I ended up in Austin, Texas, when I finally decided that I was going to start making vodka,” Kelly said. “I had a column still fabricated in Colorado, of all places; little did I know I would end up back here.”
His first still was a 16-gallon reflux still, considered a small recipe sized still.
“When I started visiting these distilleries, I was asking them why they were making their products out of the typical vodka ingredients (corn, wheat, potato),” Kelly said. “If you have tasted vodka, it’s not something that’s very flavorful unless it’s flavored. It’s also very difficult to make.”
You have to convert the starch of the potato, wheat or corn in those ingredients to fermentable sugar in order to begin the process.
“It just seemed odd to me that you would go to all that trouble and not just use the purest and most natural source of sugar that you can find, which is sugarcane,” Kelly said. “The answer that I got unanimously was always, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’”
Kelly set out to make a vodka from sugarcane. He kept refining the process and searching for the purest form of sugarcane. “We source an organic sugarcane, a sustainable product and non-GMO, from Brazil and Louisiana.”
“It just yielded such a wonderful outcome,” Kelly said. “It was different than any other vodka I had tasted; I drank vodka because it was so versatile and you could mix a lot of wonderful things with it but I never loved it because it was so astringent.”
Once his product was trademarked in 2016, Kelly began the brand with a contract distiller here in New York to make his sugarcane vodka on his behalf.
Shortly after the product established itself, Kelly knew embracing organic sugarcane was the direction he wanted to go and he set out to better the spirit and grow the brand. He sought a place of operation that resonated with the process, deciding to move the business to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, known for its quality water source.
Kelly is a natural in his distilling career.
“My family had been in the retail liquor business in New York for more than 30 years,” Kelly said.
The family had several shops in Brooklyn and the Bronx and one locally on Jericho Turnpike and Oyster Bay Road called Low Cost Liquors.
“When my father took that over I was pretty young at the time,” Kelly recalled. “I started out stocking the shelves and carrying packages to customers’ cars. As I got older, I helped out at the counter and with orders.”
Following his studies at Nassau Community College, Kelly transferred to Boston College. He worked at a liquor store on Boylston Street. After college he left retail while pursuing a media career. In the early-1990s he created an industry magazine for Bloomberg, Bloomberg Personal magazine.
“In my days with Mike Bloomberg, he said to me, ‘Kelly, show me a business that’s been done for a long time and the new guy will come and do it better every time.’ and I think he was quoted in Forbes as saying that too. It’s always resonated with me.”
Kelly, one of 11 children, raised in Levittown and subsequentially moved north to Glen Cove while in high school. He attended North Shore High School and graduated in 1981.
Kelly comes from humble beginnings, always ambitious; the proof is in the wild, growing success of felene vodka.
“I had a fascination with the science of distilling and fermentation,” Kelly said. “I make the vodka myself; I am the master distiller; I do all the mixing, all the filtration; every bottle has my hand on it.”
Kelly, along with his regional manager and publicist, Kim Laderer, also of the North Shore, have grown their distribution to more than 150 stores, bars and restaurants throughout Colorado and New York in just a couple of years.
“We are continuing to self-distribute, but the business is growing rapidly,” Kelly said. “And vodka is competitive.”
Kelly and his team have had local colleagues cheering for their success since felene’s beginning. Kelly said, despite his background in his family’s business, he has had to learn a lot because many things have changed in the industry over the years.
“The folks at Bottle Buys, the Herman family, and Bobby at Fine Wine and Spirits in Glen Head, I just can’t say enough—not only have they taken our product in, but they have given us amazing guidance,” Kelly said. “They have been great with helping us understand the marketplace. They don’t have to do that; they have so many other products they could choose from, and for that I am grateful.”
Visit www.felenevodka.com to learn more about the product.