Joseph Moton was on a friend's boat in Lake Michigan's "playpen," the infamous area near Ohio Street Beach where people tie their boats together to party, when he realized that "PlayPen" might make a good name for a business.
“I was just in awe that nobody is using this for anything,” Moton says. “I was just like, ‘Well, if you're going to use it for something, it's probably got to be liquor.'”
Moton, who has long worked in the hospitality industry, decided after a bit of research that vodka could be that liquor, and took the idea to his older brother, Ted Robinson, while celebrating the Fourth of July in 2020 at their mom’s house in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Robinson, who works in health care client management by day, was on board for the new venture.
“The whole idea behind it was a representation of good times, having fun, spending time with family, with friends,” Robinson said. “It also helped that vodka is my go-to drink.”
Just a few weeks after that conversation, they incorporated PlayPen Vodka. By November of that same year, they were able to taste their first batch. They work with a master distiller in Melrose Park, and they distill, bottle, package and ship from that location. Everything they make, down to the corn that is distilled into vodka, is produced in Illinois.
Moton and Robinson say that they’re likely Illinois's first and only 100-percent Black-owned spirit company that’s entirely made in the state, although they add that the Illinois Liquor Control Commission doesn't keep demographics or statistics on ownership.
“When we found that out, it's an accomplishment, but it's kind of one of those things that you're like, we wish there were more,” Moton said. “We're excited to be one of the first to do it, but we welcome others to get involved and to produce liquor as well.”
Robinson emphasizes that the science behind PlayPen’s vodka is what makes the company unique. Making vodka combines a base—such as potatoes, corn, or wheat—with water and yeast. That mixture, called mash, is then heated to convert the sugar into alcohol. After fermentation, the product is distilled, during which time the alcohol is heated and evaporates, and then recondenses into a liquid to create stronger, purer alcohol. While many vodkas are distilled around 200 degrees, PlayPen is cooked using a process called vacuum distillation, where a pump removes air out of the still, allowing the liquid to vaporize at a lower temperature.
“We cook around 50 to 60 degrees,” Moton says. “We believe that helps us keep some stuff that should be there, and get rid of some stuff that should not be there. And it makes for a cleaner, smoother taste.” PlayPen is also filtered six times, according to Moton.
So what’s it like working with your brother? Both Moton and Robinson laugh. Since Moton is ten years younger, Robinson has always been protective. Robinson says that, though he’s been in “older brother mode” his whole life, he trusts Moton’s expertise.
“I couldn't be more fortunate that I'm working with him… because we can call each other at any time of night,” Robinson says. “I've been looking for an entrepreneurial path for years, just not really settling in on anything, and part of that was being able to align myself with the right partnership to do that. So this was, for me, just a win-win situation.”
That family relationship makes it easier to communicate, even if they disagree on something, Moton says.
“People say it's difficult to work with family,” Moton says. “I've tried to get involved with a lot of startups, and this is probably the smoothest, easiest, [most] well-driven machine.”
To the brothers, vodka is a versatile drink that embodies fun.
“Vodka is like a whiteboard. You can paint whatever you want,” Moton—who favors a vodka soda or martini—says.
“You literally can create any sort of experience or drink that you actually dream of,” Robinson says. A blue lemonade—vodka, lemonade, and blue curaçao—is his ideal summer drink.
“I make them in the winter too, because it takes my mind back to a warmer place. You know how the winters are here,” Robinson says.
When Lake Michigan’s playpen isn’t frozen over, the brothers want their growing vodka company to reflect Chicago summers.
“It's all about an experience of enjoying the summer in Chicago, drinking and enjoying family, friends, or whoever may be on a boat tied up to you,” Moton says.