Understanding Vodka – Part I: Polish Tradition

First off, let me start by saying that this week's effort to understand vodka is not an attempt to reach out to whisky drinkers to help them crossover into an appreciation of this great white spirit. There are few whisky analogies in this article because vodka is not whisky. I'm writing these articles in an attempt to increase my own understanding (and therefore appreciation) of vodka because I like to drink and I like to know why others like to drink, too. Therefore, if you're totally bored with vodka and have no interest in learning more about it, you'll need to find another blog to read this week because I'm not drinking anything else besides vodka until Sunday, therefore I won't be discussing anything else besides vodka until Sunday.

That being said, let's get to it!

If you're going to start a conversation about vodka (which I am attempting to do), it makes sense to start with Poland. I know many people consider Russia to be the motherland of vodka distillation, but vodka as we know it has been produced in Poland for more than 600 years and it's believed that vodka originated there (it's a scholarly argument that's open for debate, so I won't definitively say anything here). I will quote a Wikipedia site, however, so that you can have something to chew on:

Scholars debate the beginnings of vodka and it is a problematic and contentious issue due to little historical material available on the subject of the origins of the drink. According to some sources, first production of vodka took place in the area of today's Russia in the late 9th century; however, some argue that it may have happened even earlier in Poland in the 8th century. According to the Gin and Vodka Association (GVA),the first distillery was documented over three hundred years later at Khlynovsk as reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174. For many centuries, beverages differed significantly compared to the vodka of today, as the spirit at that time had a different flavor, color and smell, and was originally used as medicine. It contained little alcohol, an estimated maximum of about 14%, as only this amount can be attained by natural fermentation. The still allowing for distillation – the "burning of wine" – was invented in the 8th century.

There is evidence of large-scale distillation in Poland by the end of the 1500s. It wasn't anything modern or advanced like we have today, but it was happening and rye was the grain of choice. According to the same Wikipedia article, Jakub Kazimierz Haur, in his book Skład albo skarbiec znakomitych sekretów ekonomii ziemiańskiej (A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693), gave detailed recipes for making vodka from rye. At Polmos Zyrardów distillery, west of Warsaw, they've been producing vodka since 1910 using only Dańkowskie Złote, a strain of rye that has been cultivated and farmed for centuries within the soil. Polmos Zyrardów is where Belvedere vodka is made today and it is distilled only from this locally sourced grain. The distillery has a pretty detailed history as well. I could tell you about it, but I would only be paraphrasing the information I've recently received from LVMH, so why not just let them tell you? I hit LVMH up for a TON of information today, basically grilling them on anything I could think of. The following is the result of those queries:

Belvedere Vodka hails from the small town of Żyrardów in the Mazovian plains of central Poland, 45km west of Warsaw at the Polmos Żyrardów distillery. The quiet lane which leads to the distillery runs parallel to the tracks of the original 1845 Warsaw‐Vienna railway. Pronounced, ‘Chu‐Rar‐Doff’, Żyrardów was a key industrial town at the time the railway was constructed, so was connected with its own station. With its fairy tale architecture, this cute little station still stands on the opposite side of the tracks just minutes before you reach the distillery.

The past industrial importance of Żyrardów owed much to Philippe Henri de Girard, a French engineer who invented a linen spinning machine. He patented frames for dry‐ and wet‐spinning of flax in Paris in 1810. Girard was responding to Napoleon I’s offer of a one million franc reward for such an invention as he sought to stop English cotton fabrics entering continental Europe. Napoleon reneged, so Girard sought his fortune in England and in 1815 also patented his invention in London where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. His move coincided with the Battle of Waterloo, so as registration of the patents under a French name would have been problematic, he used the very English sounding pseudonym, Horace Hall.

In 1825, Girard was hired by the Polish government to help develop its textile industry. Backed by the Bank of Poland, in 1831, he established a factory in Marymont near Warsaw. Two years later he moved to the village of Ruda Guzowska in the Mazovian plain (Nizina Mazowiecka, or Plains of Łowicko‐Blonska) where the Łubieńscy family owned vast tracts of land ideally suited to growing the flax that linen is spun from. Two brothers from this family built Fabryka Wyrobów Lnianych, the largest linen factory in Europe, and hired Girard as their technical director.

In 1857, the factory was bought by Karl August Dietrich and Karl Hielle, two German entrepreneurs who expanded the factory and built an industrial town around it. The main square was opposite the factory gates and bordered by civic buildings such as the town hall, library, school, nursery and the imposing Holy Mother of Consolation Parish Church. Around this central hub, lines of terraced housing for the weavers and labourers were constructed. The huge factory, civic buildings and the houses were all built from locally made red bricks.

By 1900, what was a small village had turned into a large industrial town of 30,000 people. The rapid growth and affluence of Ruda Guzowska and its connection to the Warsaw‐Vienna railway attracted bakers, brewers and other trades. Ruda Guzowska also became a popular place for displaced Jews to settle, including two Russian brothers called Pine, who in May 1910 opened their distillery, now Polmos Żyrardów – renamed in honour of Girard after the Polish spelling of his name – on the edge of town. Żyrardów is now a uniquely preserved 19th century industrial town with efforts underway to attain UNESCO World Heritage status. The town retains a reputation for its fabric and the Linen Fabrics Żyrardów Company continues to operate in the grounds of the former linen factory. The old linen factory still dominates the centre of town and is being redeveloped as an apartment building. Today, however, Żyrardów is better known for making vodka. Belvedere’s strip stamp honours this history by reflecting the colour of the flax flower, the plant from which linen is spun.

That's a pretty cool story, right? But what does that have to do with how the vodka is made or how good it tastes? Don't worry, I've dug up the specifics. What I want to make clear before I explain the process is that I've never been to a distillery that actually distills its own vodka. I've been to distilleries that rectify vodka, meaning that they purchase inexpensive neutral grain spirit and redistill it to purify it further (which is what many American vodka producers do), but I've never seen anyone actually start the process by fermenting their own rye, wheat, or corn and make vodka out of it. It's not a process that most modern distilleries can handle because it's quite an agricultural process. Think about the grain whisky component of Scotch: how many grain distilleries are there? Not many, and there's a reason why: it's much cheaper to do it on a large scale. Belvedere does not ferment their own rye either.

The "agricultural" distillation, the initial fermentation and first distillation, takes place at ten agricultural distilleries who work in partnership with Polmos Żyrardów. These farms plant the grain in September and start harvesting the Dańkowskie Gold and Diamond rye in late July the following year, finishing around a month later. They then store the grain for distillation over the following eleven months of the year. According to Belvedere, by the end of the communist era (1989) there were some 900 working agricultural distilleries in Poland but now only some sixty survive, but those left are far more technically advanced and produce more alcohol than the 900 inefficient state‐run distilleries did.

To quote my information from Belvedere further:

After harvesting, the Dankowskie Gold rye is simmered in a vessel, which is basically a vast pressure cooker, to form a mash resembling a thick porridge. Amylase and diastase enzymes are added to aid the breakdown of starches into sugars and so speed the fermentation. Distillers’ yeast is added and the resulting fermentation produces a beer‐like wort at 7‐8% alcohol/volume. This is distilled in a column still to produce raw rye spirit at 92% alcohol/volume which is shipped to Polmos Żyrardów. Organoleptic and chemical analysis of samples submitted by these agricultural distillers enables Polmos Żyrardów to ensure they receive raw spirit of the highest quality.

So as you can see, the production of vodka is more about taking high-proof grain spirit and rectifying it. Whereas many distilleries I've visited simply purchase their NGS from the general market, sometimes knowing little about its origin, Belvedere (and many Polish vodkas for that matter) works closely with both the farmers and the agricultural distilleries from which they contract.

What makes the rye so important if it's being distilled so many times?

If you're a skeptic like me, you'll wonder what exactly makes this Dańkowskie rye so important if the final result is going to be a neutral spirit anyway. There are actually two forms of this grain: gold and diamond, and they work differently in distillation. Maybe even more important is the way they affect the ultimate flavor of the vodka. Here are the details:

Dankowskie Gold Rye - A unique strain of winter rye cross cultivated over 100 years and only grown in the Mazovian plans of western Poland. This grain is cherished for its usually high starch content (around 65% vs. the standard 50‐55% for generic rye) which makes it perfect for distillation. Winter rye is any breed of rye planted in the fall (late August/early September) to provide ground cover for the winter. It actually grows during any warmer days of the winter, when sunlight temporarily brings the plant to above freezing, even while there is still general snow cover. This means that rye is climatically the perfect grain for the colder climates of Poland eastern Ukraine.

Rye is a rich and complex and grain which has a wide range of flavour characteristics depending on
fermentation and severity of distillation. It is not uncommon to find aromas of butterscotch, fudge or
toffee, and flavours of toasted rye bread, cream or white and black pepper within a high quality rye
vodka. The skill lies in the distillers ability to draw out the positive characteristics of the grain. In terms of the raw material hierarchy, rye tops the list due to its comparative scarcity when compared to other grains, and Dankowskie Gold rye is only grown successfully in Poland making this the most a highly prized Polish grain.

Dankowskie Diamond Rye (used in the Belvedere Unfiltered only) - First registered in 2008, Dankowskie Diamond Rye is a rare, baker’s grade rye that only grows on a hand full of Polish farms. The grain has a a low starch content and distinctive characteristics not normally associated with rye grain. Through Polmos Żyrardów's Raw Spirit Programme, Dankowskie Diamond Rye’s potential as a distilled grain has been unlocked. Working closely with select agricultural partners and the University of Lodz, Dankowskie Diamond has been carefully grown and fermented and distilled in order to maximise the unique characteristics of the grain. For this reason, the decision was also taken to leave the Vodka unfiltered, to preserve the exceptionally viscous mouth feel and soft, delicate flavours coming solely from the grain.

Belvedere's vodka flavor wheel - just like whisky!

When you taste Belvedere, or even other Polish rye vodkas, next to a wheat or potato vodka, there is indeed a difference in both the flavor and the mouthfeel. I was actually shocked to find that Belvedere created a flavor wheel, much like the ones you find with whisky, to explain what one is tasting (very helpful, by the way). I found that in a blind tasting next to other non-rye, non-Polish vodkas, my wife and I chose both the Belvedere and Potocki vodkas as our favorites. They were both clean, soft, creamy, and pure as they finished. Coincidence?

What makes the water so important?

If a grain is being distilled until it is technically neutral in flavor, then the water used to proof down the spirit will play a big role in the ultimate purity of that flavor. Here is the information on Belvedere's water procedures:

Polmos Żyrardów has its own two artesian wells from which it sources all the water used in the distilling process. These wells are constantly monitored by security systems and not shared or used for any other purpose other than the production of Belvedere Vodka. The artesian well‐water passes through an eleven‐step purification system which includes reverse osmosis to remove all dissolved salts, such as sodium, chloride, calcium carbonate and calcium sulphate. The aim is to produce pure, tasteless water, which will not affect the flavour of the finished vodka and will act as a blank canvass for the Dankowskie Gold or Diamond Rye to be expressed. Without this pure, soft water the elegance of the vodka would be reduced and it is therefore integral to the flavour delivery and mouthfeel of Belvedere.

Water represents 60% of a bottle of Belvedere, the quality and consistency must be assured. This is why the land we draw the water from is owned and protected and the water source itself is not mechanically aided. This ensures the water delivered to the distillery in an entirely closed, acid resistant stainless steel pipes is as unadulterated as possible. A premium water source is only part of the equation when it comes to producing a premium spirit, particularly for vodka. A water that is pure, soft and unadulterated that is used to emphasize a premium distillate suggests that the spirit in question is something worth emphasizing.

I found that to be a great explanation. There's no hiding the fact that water makes up "60%" of the bottle, so it's an incredibly important ingredient. On the flip side, this is a statistic that is usually used to mock vodka as a spirit worthy of connoisseurship. It all depends on your point of view, I guess. Although if you travel to Scotland and visit the distilleries, you'll hear a lot of talk about the importance of Scottish water there as well.

What is the rectification process?

I was impressed by how clearly LVMH discussed the rectifcation process as well – the means by which the vodka is purified through further distillations. Most interesting is the fact that the spirit is dilluted with Polish water before it's distilled again. Check out this piece of info:

After a stringent chemical and organylipical analysis, the raw rye spirit from the agricultural distilleries is brought into Polmos Zyrardów and diluted to 45% alcohol/volume using the purified water. It is then distilled and rectified using a three‐column process with a capacity of 23,000 litres per day. Firstly a 250,000 litre pre‐distillation column removes acids, esters and aldehydes. A second rectification column removes the remaining fusel oils and produces a spirit at 96.5% alcohol/volume. Finally, a third purifying column removes any remaining off notes or odours from the spirit: hence the claim that Belvedere is “quadruple distilled”, once at the agricultural distillery followed by the three‐column process at Polmos Żyrardów. The pure spirit is stored in tanks for a minimum of two days to allow the spirit to rest before being hydrated to bottling strength with the distillery’s own purified artesian well water. This marrying process takes place slowly over several days. The vodka then undergoes filtration through activated charcoal and cellulose particle filers prior to bottling. The whole Belvedere production process is designed to produce a very pure spirit that still retains character: Belvedere is distilled and filtered just enough to retain all the character of Dańkowskie Gold or Diamond Rye.

One thing about Polish vodka that makes it interesting is that it is one of the most regulated types of spirit in existence. As a distiller, you can't legally buy cheaper rye from Russia or China, import it in, and make Polish vodka. All of the base materials (either rye, wheat, or potatoes) must be Polish, the water must come from Poland, and the product must of course be distilled in Poland. European law also recognizes Polish vodka as having its own geographical appellation, further stating that it may not have further additives besides water (this does not count for "flavored" vodka, of course, which is its own category). Belvedere is just one of several outstanding Polish vodkas we carry at K&L. Potocki and Chopin (made from potatoes) are also quite good. But, of course, they've been making vodka in Poland for centuries, so you'd expect that right?

There is a tradition of drinking and distilling vodka in Eastern Europe and it definitely shows when you compare their products next to vodkas from American and elsewhere. Maybe it's because they take it more seriously? Maybe it's because they're not rolling their eyes and holding their breath as they make each batch, knowing that it's just a way to make money while they're waiting for their whiskey to age?

We'll see! More vodka information coming later.

-David Driscoll


Vodka Appreciation

I spent last night at a high-end vodka tasting in San Francisco, choosing to break my normally strict policy about not attending industry dinners or tasting events. I find that I rarely learn more about a brand or product at a large gala than I do in the privacy of the K&L tasting bar, so it's never been a tough decision for me. Yesterday's tasting, however, was something that really piqued my curiosity, so I made an exception. I get a kick out of understanding things that others shrug off, and an even bigger kick out of pointing out to spirit-loving hipsters about why their anti-vodka stance is just as trendy and clichéd as their hatred for all things trendy and clichéd. That's part of what's fueling my recent fascination with vodka appreciation. That and the fact that the world consumes more than four times the amount of vodka than it does whisky. According to the Economist, "Russians alone downed nearly 2 billion litres of the stuff in 2012, equivalent to 14 litres for every man, woman and child. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Russians are among the biggest drinkers in the world, according to the most recent World Health Organisation data.)"

There is such a thing as quality vodka. Despite the fact that most vodka is neutral in flavor, there are differences in the way they taste and in how they are perceived on the palate. They differ in weight. They differ in purity. They differ in distillation methods. They differ in base materials. Water plays a big role. Filtration plays a big role. Yet, vodka has played the same role for educated spirits drinkers that white zinfandel long played for educated wine drinkers – it epitomized unsophistication, and no one wants to appear like they're unsophisticated in the food and wine world. But much like quality rosé has shed its association with jugs of Carlo Rossi here in California, I think it's time we start separating the wheat vodkas from the chaff. There are reasons that vodka continues to sell strongly all over the world (at both high and low prices) and there are plenty of people out there who appreciate it. How can I (or anyone, for that matter) consider myself a true student of booze if I'm completely writing off the most popular and widely consumed spirit on the planet? Sounds pretty foolish, right?

When I sat at that tasting last night and I went through the various glasses, I was quite surprised at how un-neutral many of the vodkas appeared on the nose. Some smelled like lime, others like lime with PineSol (that was Ciroc). Some were hot and spicy, while others soft and supple. Many people in the audience reacted positively or negatively to these qualities. I was proud of myself for being able to pick out the Absolut Elyx from the bunch, meaning that I recognized a flavor and profile that was distinct from other vodkas, and I was surprised by how different it was from other brands like Grey Goose, Ketel One, and Belvedere. I'm a bit embarrassed by my lack of vodka knowledge, about the fact that I don't know much about fermentation, distillation, or how filtration affects flavor. I know people laugh at these aspects of production because there's not much flavor when it comes to vodka, but in my opinion these slights are misguided. There's something going on with vodka and millions of vodka drinkers prove that everyday.

Perhaps the best part about vodka is the lack of pretense. Because there's so much nuance and so little boutique culture, there's little snobbery within the aficianado community – that being said, there's a ton of snobbery from the anti-vodka aficianado community to make up for it. But this extreme gulf is what intrigues me right now. I'm searching for enlightenment. Maybe vodka appreciation is the most advanced form of spirits appreciation, rather than the least. Maybe it takes the most sophisticated palate to figure out what quality is! Can one even approach vodka like one approaches other spirits? How does one determine quality? What makes one better from another? I'm going to find out. I'm personally going to drink nothing but vodka for the next week and write about what I learn.

And, of course, I'll share everything with you here.

-David Driscoll


Shanken News Feed

I don't normally read the industry news, but I get things forwarded to me from time to time. This struck me as an appropriate thing to share based on recent conversations about "craft" spirits and how the term is being co-opted and exploited. I'm just copying and pasting the news from my email on to the blog:

Terlato Wines has launched an artisan spirits division, forming long-term partnership agreements with two super-premium craft spirits brands—Langley’s No. 8 gin and Tigre Blanc vodka. Langley’s is copper-pot distilled at the Langley Distillery in Birmingham, England, while Tigre Blanc is produced in the Cognac region from 100% French wheat.

“The spirits business is evolving,” said Terlato Wines CEO Bill Terlato. “It’s starting to look a lot like the wine business, with mixologists, craft bartenders and consumers embracing a new category of small-production, hand-crafted, super-premium brands. Today’s consumers are actively looking for new brands and categories to discover and share, and their preference for luxury wines and craft spirits is growing well above the category.”

Terlato’s Artisan Spirits portfolio will have a dedicated sales and marketing team, and while it’s kicking off with Langely’s and Tigre Blanc, the company plans to add a host of other high-end spirits offerings from around the globe. Terlato says its spirits lineup will eventually include Scotch, Cognac, Tequila and rum entries, among others.

Basically, if you don't have an "artisan, hand-crafted" spirits division and you're a major player in the booze industry, you're missing out on serious sales!

-David Driscoll


Special K&L/Campeon Dinner with Lou Palatella

Do you see the above setting? This is a picture I took of Lou Palatella sitting at lunch with the employees of El Viejito distillery after we made a deal to create our own blanco tequila exclusively for K&L. This is how we ate all our meals in Guadalajara: a big family-style table, lots of bottles of tequila on the table which were passed around like wine, and a variety of sodas and mixers to make drinks. It was awesome.

Lou and I were so caught up in the idea of tequila bottle service at dinner that we decided we needed to throw our own dinner party as soon as the K&L tequila was ready. Now that it's in stock and ready to go, it's time to have that special dinner. On September 4th in San Mateo, you'll have the chance to come drink our new K&L Exclusive Campeon Blanco tequila as it was meant to be drunk: with a gigantic table full of delicious, authentic Mexican cuisine. You'll sit at a big table and listen to former San Francisco 49er Lou Palatella tell you crazy stories about the gridiron, the liquor business, and life in general. Trust me - this is one party you'll not want to miss. Three courses of food, all the blanco tequila you can drink, and a good time out. Sixty bucks. Hot deal. Only 40 seats available.

El Sinaloense is located on Palm Ave in San Mateo right near the Hayward Park Caltrain stop which is very convenient when you've been drinking all night with a football legend.

Campeon Tequila Dinner @ El Sinaloense, Wednesday Sept 4th 7:30 PM $60 - When Lou Palatella and I went down to Guadalajara to visit the El Viejito distillery and produce our new collaborative blanco tequila, we had dinner with all of the distillery's staff one night after working out the deal. In downtown Guadalajara City we sat at a large dinner table, ordered family style dishes of meat and seafood, while passing bottles of tequila around the table almost like one would a bottle of wine. Also on the table were various mixers (Coke, Squirt, tonic water) and buckets of ice to assist in the process. Both Lou and I, notorious wine drinkers, immediately fell in love with the practice. Why couldn't a bottle of tequila function like a bottle of wine? We're ready to try that idea out here in the Bay Area now, which is why we're inviting you to come celebrate the release of the new K&L Exclusive Campeon Blanco Tequila by joining us for a three-course family style dinner at San Mateo's El Sinaloense. Mario's amazing staff will be serving appetizers of ceviche with assorted nacho plates, a choice of steak, fish, or assorted grilled seafood for dinner, and a full dessert plate with various pastries and sweets. On each table will be multiple bottles of the new K&L Campeon Blanco which can be poured and mixed to your liking. Best of all, the man himself, former San Francisco 49er and Campeon owner Lou Palatella will be in the building to help us celebrate and, believe me, no one can party like this 80 year old superstar. Come join us!

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2013 Continues!

Big news today: three very mature casks of Islay whisky will be part of this year's K&L bumper crop. David OG negotiated the deal and he is fierce. I'm totally pumped.

And we've got another cask to offer on a pre-order basis as well. We sneaked this one into the newsletter. Did you catch it?

1998 Arran 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 PRE-ORDER - Our first attempt to visit the lone distillery on Scotland's Isle of Arran was disastrous - a gigantic blizzard blew through the south of Scotland, completely shutting down the available ferry system and knocking out power for the entire island. Despite our desire to finally see one of the true up-and-comers of the Scotch industry, we were simply out of luck this year. That didn't mean we couldn't taste through casks, however. Luckily for us, the Arran rep was stationed at Glasgow when the storm hit and had samples pulled in anticipation of our appointment. We met up with her shortly after the storm and immediately fell in love with an ex-sherry hogshead that was as complex and delicious as anything we had ever tasted from the young distillery. The nose is all golden grains, brandied fruit, and malty goodness. The palate has a short burst of bright fruit before settling down into faint sherry and sweet barley. At cask strength the alcohol makes these flavors even more powerful, but water doesn't hinder them in any way. Arran is easily the MIP of the malt industry - the most improved player. Recent releases have been top notch, especially for a producer that began in 1996. We have no doubt that this wonderful cask will make believers out of K&L customers as well. The richness of the finish lingers on forever, reminding for minutes how legit this whisky is. Of course, we knew that going in. That's why we were willing to brave the blizzard.

-David Driscoll