Recently while touring a state-of-the-art distillery in St. Petersburg the master distiller approached me and asked in a heavy accent, “So do you know this fellow Tito?”
I knew the name immediately. “Da tovarich, his vodka is becoming quite popular in the States.” He winced somewhat as if stung. Walking away he grumbled, “Your Tito, his vodka drinks too easy.”
Tito Beveridge considers that high praise. In 1997, the former geophysicist opened a small distillery outside of Austin, Texas and began producing Tito’s Handmade Vodka in a pot still of his own design. Soon its satiny body and elegant, slightly sweet finish were wowing aficionados and spirit critics alike, hurtling the brand up the charts with a bullet.
“The Russians I’ve met like feisty, muscular vodkas that scald the larynx going down,” says Beveridge. “The folks I know prefer something a whole lot smoother. So do I. After the B.A.T.F. analyzed our vodka they reported that it was the cleanest, purest spirit they’d ever tested. I’d say that largely answers why Tito’s is so smooth, or ‘drinks too easy’ as our comrade put it.”
Beveridge is one of a growing cadre of American distillers handcrafting world-class vodkas using artisan techniques and micro-distilling technology. Their zeal and passion seem linked to the allure of creating spirits that flirt perilously close to perfection. The concept alone is fascinating.
Founder of Bendistillery in Bend, Oregon, Jim Bendis is a pioneer of micro-distilling and creator of Crater Lake Vodka, a small batch gem alembic distilled using local grain and spring water from the Cascades, and then aged in oak barrels. The slow, laborious process yields a vodka of substance, an exquisite spirit with a wafting fresh fruit bouquet, and a long, luxurious finish. The brand is highly sought after for use in cocktails because of its laudable neutrality and voluptuous body.
Down the road in Rigby, Idaho is Silver Creek Distillery, the facility from which several of these fascinating vodkas hail. The first is Square One Organic Vodka, a featherweight spirit distilled entirely from organic rye and artesian spring water. It’s an invigorating spirit featuring a spicy herbal bouquet, layers of dry, slightly tart flavors that persist throughout the finish. The vodka may well be too good to share with friends.
The most celebrated of the distillery’s threesome is Blue Ice Vodka, a sensational spirit quadruple-distilled entirely from Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes. A treat from start to finish, the lightweight vodka has an enticing herbal and citrus bouquet, and an expansive, subtly sweet set of flavors that persist on the palate an impressively long time.
What could be more uniquely American than distilling vodka from 100% Vermont maple sugar? Talk about an alluring terroir. The Vermont Spirits Distillery handcrafts vodka from the sap from nearby maple trees. To be more precise, they began distilling the complex sugars in the maple sap into world-class small batch vodka. Vermont Gold Vodka is aromatic and palate pleasing, a bona fide treat from start to finish.
Socially conscious enthusiasts will appreciate 360 Vodka for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s exceptionally light, silky smooth, and ideally suited for any vodka-based assignment. Crafted in Weston, Missouri, 360 is four times distilled, five times filtered, and produced using an advanced, environmentally friendly process. Great vodka, great karma.
Another boutique brand earning deserved recognition is handcrafted Cold River Vodka from Freeport, Maine. First bottled in November 2005, the pot-distilled spirit is made from locally grown potatoes and underground spring water. Cold River is a flavor-imbued vodka with a second helping of sweetness on the finish. It’s a superb choice for use in tart and tangy cocktails.
Penn 1681 Rye Vodka from Philadelphia Distilling is an artisanal spirit made entirely from locally grown organic rye in an innovative, four-column continuous still. The distillery is the country’s only craft distiller that employs a continuous still for making vodka. The result is an elegant spirit with a light textured body, a spicy nose and a lingering, slightly tangy finish.
The final three vodkas qualify as fascinating by sheer virtue of their extraordinarily luscious, sun-drenched flavors. Ultra-delicious Domaine Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka is made in Napa Valley by master distiller Miles Karakasevic and his family. The spirit is made micro-distilled from American Midwest grain, spring water, and macerated fresh fruit, a meticulous process taking up to six months. The result is invariably worth the wait. Among the popular franchise of flavors are Blood Orange, Meyer Lemon, Pomegranate and Green Tea.
Rounding out the roster of American greats are the vivacious flavored vodkas of Hangar One. The handiwork of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, Hangar One Vodkas are distilled in small batches from American wheat, and then infused with real fruit, usually rare, exotic species not from around these parts. Among the Hangar One Vodkas are Buddha’s Hand, which is infused with citron, a fragrant citrus fruit grown in Asia, Mandarin Blossom and Kaffir Lime.
In a world fond of its vodka, the chant “USA! USA!” can once again be heard reverberating in bars and restaurants around the globe. Salud!