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City and State

Justin Fox Burks

City and State

City and State is a shop full of things that demand to be touched. Waxed canvas bags and creamy porcelain bowls; Navajo blankets and end grain butcher blocks. Founder Lisa Toro says she planned it that way.

"We've gone so far into digital, but we need the tactile," says Toro. "When you're online, you've got four senses that you're not using."

Toro ought to know. In 2007, she co-founded Rocket Fuel, a Memphis-based web development and design firm. For almost their whole professional lives, she and Luis Toro, her husband and business partner, have been sitting in front of computers.

While we talk, Toro makes me a cup of coffee. City and State is half café, half dry-goods store. She's using the pour-over method, which involves carefully weighing your ingredients and brewing by hand over a period of five minutes.

Folgers, it ain't. But when she serves me a cup ($4) — presented on a silver tray with a pretty glass carafe — I suddenly don't mind the wait. The coffee, a Colombian Tres Santos from Intelligentsia, is fragrant and well balanced. It's naturally sweet, and if you squint, it kind of tastes like cranberries.

"I think we're living through a shift in consumerism," says Toro, blowing on her coffee to cool it. "Increasingly, it's about craftsmanship. It's about knowing who made this - where, with what, and how."

City and State represents a new direction for the digitally inclined Toros. Both the name and logo are meant to evoke a frontier trading post, a place you go to get things you otherwise couldn't. That lines up pretty well with City and State's mission: to take artisan goods that are local to other cities and give them visibility here.

On the food side, that includes things like paleo chocolate bars from Hu Kitchen in New York and hand-crafted nut butters from Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina. There are also local offerings like Memphis-based Shotwell Candy and Paper & Clay ceramics.

Although City and State plans to launch an e-commerce site next month, I recommend that you visit the store. The aesthetic is appealingly Instagrammable: spare and modern, littered with interesting trinkets, warmed by natural light. And anyway, you've got five senses — why not use them?

click to enlarge Pyramid Vodka: robust and smooth - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Pyramid Vodka: robust and smooth

Most people conceive of craft brewing and distilling as passion projects. They think of beer nerds in garages, boiling malt in smelly kettles. So it's interesting that brothers Alexander and Winston Folk, scions of Folk's Folly and founders of Pyramid Vodka, say they never set out to make booze.

They set out to start a business.

"We wanted to create jobs," says Winston. "We wanted to do something that would bring young people back to the city and get them excited about living in Memphis."

What drew them to vodka was the way it features fresh, local ingredients — things like field corn from Wilson, Arkansas, and fresh water from the Memphis Sand Aquifer. Because vodka is not barrel-aged or otherwise flavored, it allows the sweetness of the corn to come through in the finished product.

Last week, the Folks cut the ribbon on their production facility in North Memphis. In an emotional speech, Alexander acknowledged that getting here has been a long and difficult journey.

But the fledgling distillery is off to a promising start. Since its launch in November, Pyramid has gone from two full-time employees to five. It is currently carried by about 75 liquor stores and 100 bars and restaurants, including the Pyramid Vodka Studio in FedExForum.

The Folks credit their success to fresh ingredients and a craft distilling technique they learned from "an old moonshiner in Walnut, Mississippi." The corn for Pyramid vodka is ground and fermented in-house. It is then distilled 51 times and filtered through at least 24 feet of activated charcoal.

You've heard of farm to table? Well, this is grain to glass. Pyramid turns out just 160 cases a week, and there's a person involved in every step. In a moving demonstration, Winston showed the assembled crowd how a bottle gets labeled: A human being pulls a sticker off a sheet and carefully applies it.

So how does it taste? Really good, actually. Robust and smooth, with a hint of vanilla in the nose and a nice, clean finish. The kind of vodka that you could drink straight or with a splash of soda. Other people seemed to agree.

"In the beginning," said Schuyler Dalton, who attended the ribbon cutting, "I wanted to support Pyramid because they're local. But now I can support them because it tastes good. It tastes really expensive and nice."

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