His process is well-vetted, drawn from trial and error and inspired by years of watching his father make his own liquor while growing up in Poland.
"My father made spirits from apples but he'd age it for brandy in oak barrels," Paczuski said. "We had apple trees — Norwegian ground apples — (and he) would take the downed apples, juice them and ferment them."
Though his father never got the chance to try his vodka, Paczuski launched the company on the fourth anniversary of the day he died.
"I had this vodka idea for almost 10 years and never had any time to work on it," he said over cocktails made with his vodka, served at the Four Seasons East Palo Alto bar in double-walled Rocket Vodka branded steel mule mugs. (Copper mugs conduct heat, he said.)
Paczuski began making vodka with a friend, a Russian engineer at Google, by buying three types of apples — Fuji, Granny Smith and Red Delicious — from the Menlo Park farmers' market. They brought them back to his garage to steep in white painters' buckets with warm water and yeast for three weeks. Then they waited.
In the first bucket, there was what remained of the Granny Smiths, coated in a carpet of green mold. Skeptical but determined, they filtered the mixture and distilled it.
"That one, basically, I think we made penicillin," Paczuski said. "In fact, I got a rash on my thigh (from it)."
The second bucket, filled with Red Delicious apples was also unsuccessful. The fibrous apple variety, though sweet, did not have enough sugar. The resulting liquor was too watery.
The third and final bucket, however, was more encouraging.
From there, Paczuski realized that there was promise in his plan. He realized quickly that he wouldn't be able to continue making vodka in his garage and began looking for a distillery. He narrowed it down to award-winning master distiller Gordon Helm at Dry Diggings Distillery in El Dorado Hills. It's close to Apple Hill, from where Rocket Vodka sources apples and Lake Tahoe, from which the company sources water to make the vodka.
The vodka itself is distilled in small batches. Each bottle contains 68 apples. Rocket Vodka is made from both apple juice and concentrate — a blend of Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples — so there is enough natural sugar to activate the yeast.
Beyond striking the precise balance between natural sugars and apple-to-apple ratios, the trick, Paczuski said, is to "use high-quality ingredients and be true to the process." This creates a spirit that's not only pleasing in cocktails or on the rocks, but also void of any non-natural sugars, he said.
"Younger versions of me, older, female and male, still drink, we just care about what we put into our bodies," Paczuski said. "We also don't binge drink anymore — or at least not as often," he laughed.
Rocket Vodka is now sold in more than 80 bars, clubs, restaurants, resorts, hotels, and retail venues throughout California. Paczuski is also in talks with distributors in Nevada and is even putting out feelers in Norway, all while he juggles the demands of a family and a full-time job in the tech industry.
The taste of Rocket Vodka reminds him of his childhood in Norway, he said, like the scene in the film "Ratatouille" when the food critic is transported to his own childhood through the taste of familiar food.
"I flash back to being in the basement in Poland where my dad had hidden the moonshine," he said.
Sometimes, his father would let him taste a drop on the tip of his pinky finger.
"That taste of that appley spirit, " he said, closing his eyes, "our vodka takes me back to that."
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