Flying Pepper Captures the Taste of Piedmont in a Bottle
Nothing inspires creativity quite like the growing demand of dedicated consumers and a nearly depleted inventory.
Pittsboro’s Fair Game Beverage Co. found itself in that very situation last fall when Chris Jude’s distilling expertise and Kevin Bobal’s ability to sell the brand proved almost devastatingly successful. Since the small-batch craft spirits and fortified wines they produce take 10 to 14 months to age, they had a real problem on their hands.
Just as Jude had the idea of making the distinctly flavored No’Lasses Rum with North Carolina-grown sorghum instead of sugarcane, he considered some of his other favorite local ingredients for a solution. He settled quickly on the Tobago pepper, a low-heat, smoky, and fruity variety common to the Piedmont, but rare elsewhere.
“Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofuels introduced me to it maybe eight years ago. I’ve been growing it in my garden, and I’ve used it at home to make simple vodka infusions,” Jude says. “It’s quick and it’s very good.”
The result was Flying Pepper, a smart entry in the crowded flavored-vodka market. Its target audience is not so much those who delight over options like cotton candy or whipped cream vodka, but as the segment that seeks out naturally flavored sips. It also smartly distinguishes itself from burn-your-face-off heat of other pepper-infused choices.
Determined to get his hands on as many Tobago peppers as he could, Jude stalked farmers markets and bought as many as Jones, Graham’s Peregrine Farm, and Hillsborough’s Ever Laughter Farm could supply. “This particular strain seems to be grown only by small farmers,” Jude says. “It’s not very available commercially. I know because I looked everywhere.”
Careful to not waste his stockpile, Jude invested about a month of experimentation to convert his home brew to a commercial recipe that everyone agreed was just right. Fair Game contracted with TOPO Organic Spirits of Chapel Hill to use its award-winning organic wheat vodka in the final product.
While nips were shared early with top local bartenders and chefs to create buzz, the first bottles of Flying Pepper appeared just in time for holiday sales and celebrations. Among the early tasters was Jay Pierce, emcee at Abundance North Carolina’s PepperFest on October 2.
“I’m not a big fan of flavored vodkas or really spicy things, but I love this vodka,” says Pierce, chef at Greensboro’s Marshall Free House. “This is so different. It’s unlike any other spirit I’ve had.”
While a no-brainer addition to the Bloody Mary, mix masters throughout our area have created inventive cocktails using Flying Pepper. Jude believes one of the best was concocted by Craig Rudewicz using his Raleigh-made Crude Bitters Cucumber Shrub (see recipe where?).
“Flying Pepper is the perfect complement to light summer drinks,” says Rudewicz, who also favors it as a year-round choice. “It’s a balance of sweet and citrusy pepper that’s very refreshing.”
Fair Game produced about 150 cases of Flying Pepper last year and has been unable to fill orders for weeks. Few stores in the ABC system had it in stock this summer, but they should be replenished this month. With dedicated local growers, as well as a few South Florida farms under contract to grow the pepper exclusively for their use, Jude says they aim to produce as much as 750 cases this year.
Increased production will make Flying Pepper Fair Game’s first product to be sold out of state.” It should go well in metro markets up and down the East Coast — New York, DC, Atlanta, and maybe Miami. It has a lot of sexy curb appeal,” says Bobal, noting that Fair Game took a different approach to creating an eye-popping label with a grinning Tobago pepper that looks a bit like the naughty kid brother of a Mayan god. “People love the branding,” Bobal says, “and once they have the opportunity to taste it, it’s game over.”
A pepper by any other name would not be as sweet
As suggested by its name, the Tobago has roots in the Caribbean, where many hot peppers are grown to meet local demand for spicy food. Unlike those that rate high on the Scoville scale — its lookalike cousin, the habanero, clocks in at 350,000 - the Tobago rates a puny 500.
“It is rare and growers in the USA are not familiar with the pepper,” says Monica Ozores-Hampton, a vegetable specialist at the University of Florida. “The low heat and tasty flavors set the pepper apart from the rest.”
Fair Game Distiller, Chris Jude, connected with Ozores-Hampton after unsuccessfully trying to source Tobago peppers from growers and importers across the country. While others suggested he substitute the more readily available aji dulce peppers, Ozores-Hampton agreed that the Tobago’s uniquely smoky-sweet flavor profile simply could not be matched. She connected Jude with a few South Florida growers who will produce a winter supply while local fields go dormant, ensuring that Fair Game will not run out of Flying Pepper in the future.
“Everyone who sampled this vodka had the same reaction as ours. It’s so dang delicious, they were blown away,” says Kevin Bobal, Fair Game’s enthusiastic sales manager. “These peppers are absolutely delicious. When you pop one in your mouth raw it’s got this lingering sweetness that reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum.”
Jude agrees. “You could put five or six of these on a salad and not offend anyone’s heat tolerance,” he says. “It’s completely different than anything out there in the pepper-infused vodka category.”