More Letters From the Mailbox

David -- You used to get larger allocations of American whiskies in the past, but lately I've noticed that all limited edition items are being raffled to your insider whiskey email list. Is it just that demand has increased for these products, or are you getting fewer bottles? If you are getting fewer, is that because you're not buying as much from these companies as you once were?

Wow! Not only are those are great questions, they're great questions that I would love to answer in a very public sphere so that others can understand the situation that's going on. It is definitely the case that we're getting smaller limited edition whiskey allocations than we were in the past, yet ironically enough we're probably buying more from Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and other companies than ever in our company's history. The problem isn't that we're doing less business. Here is the problem and it's a multi-faceted one:

1) There is the exact same amount of extra-mature, limited edition whiskey this year (i.e. Pappy, Stagg) as there was last year, despite the fact that demand for these whiskies is higher than it's ever been. The available stock of items like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle, and Parker's Heritage is based on production forecasts from the late 1990s. For example, the available amount of Pappy 15 year is based on whatever Buffalo Trace decided to put aside in 1998 -- and, believe me, Bourbon wasn't that big of a deal back in 1998. Production didn't increase until sales began increasing and that was around 2007 -- meaning we won't see an increase in 10 year old stocks until 2017, and 15 year old stocks until 2022.

2) Since the consumer interest in whiskey has spiked dramatically over the past few years there have been a number of new accounts opened across California -- bars, restaurants, and retailers -- that are catering to this new whiskey-loving consumer.

3) The numerous accounts that already existed, but were never serious customers -- bars, restaurants, and retailers -- have also decided that, even though they were never interested in high-end whiskey before, they're now interested as well. Their customers have been asking for new, exciting whiskies and they now want to cater to these customers.

4) If you're the Sazerac rep in charge of California allocations, you've got the exact same amount of Pappy as you had last year. Let's say it's 500 bottles of each expression. Whereas seven years ago maybe only thirty accounts wanted in on those 500 bottles, now you've got more than 1,000 calling you for their cut. I talked to one of my reps the other day who told he doesn't even have enough product to cover the Bay Area's demand, let alone all the new growth in Sacramento and the Central Valley.

5) With all of the new bars, restaurants, and retailers interested in their share of limited whiskey allocations, it's drastically cut into the amount of whiskey that we get.

Were you interested in the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength whiskey? Well I only got three bottles and they're gone. THREE bottles. Were you interested in one of the new St. George Single Malt Lot 13 whiskies? I only got twelve bottles total. I've had more than 100 people call me about this whiskey in the last 24 hours.

Like the reps that work for these companies, I'm being forced to deal with smaller allocations of limited edition whiskies for a larger number of interested customers. Like the reps that have to decide who gets to have Pappy and who doesn't, I have to decide which of our customers get Pappy and which do not. If we simply release these whiskies on a first-come, first-served basis then we risk selling off our most-prized possessions to customers who might simply be cherry-picking and flipping. If we release the bottles on the internet during the day, then we unfairly penalize the guys who don't work at a computer. If we release the bottles in-store only, then we penalize the guys who don't live locally. No matter what we do, we're always upsetting someone.

It's no fun, believe me. With demand where it is right now, and supply getting tighter, I've never witnessed so much hysteria around the spirits department. And, yes, it is getting worse.

-David Driscoll


Understanding Vodka – Part IV: American "Craft"

In 2006, when the new "premium" vodka craze was in full swing, the Wall Street Journal released an article titled "The Emperor's New Vodka," a rather sarcastic swipe at the idea of vodka being a luxury good. This was right at the beginning of the pre-prohibition cocktail movement (you can tell because the author uses the term, "alcohol delivery device," which was very popular among anti-vodka folks back then) and author Eric Felton began that piece with a rather haughty statement, ripe with pedantic architecture references:

I'm not surprised by the growth of vodka in general -- as an alcohol delivery device in mixed drinks, it has the advantage of a relative absence of flavor. But I find myself puzzled as to why vodka has become a luxury good -- puzzled in the same way Tom Wolfe was by the tyranny of Bauhaus architecture in the 1960s. Like a Mies van der Rohe glass box, vodka is austere and unornamented. Mr. Wolfe scratched his head at how "Mies pitches worker housing up thirty-eight stories, and capitalists use it as corporate headquarters." And now the socialist worker's tipple has been pitched up to $38 a bottle and capitalists use it as a marker of status.

Ah yes, we all remember Tom Wolfe's famous Bauhaus statements. In fact, I was just talking to my good friend Thomas Pynchon about this the other day. We talk on the phone every now and again, it's no big deal, and this subject usually comes up. All kidding aside, this type of mockery was, and still is, commonplace for those who consider themselves cultured cocktailians. What the article does rightfully mock, however, is the fact that most "artisanal" vodka producers are really just fancy rectifiers. They're not farmers utilizing left over grains, they're not creating an old recipe passed down from previous generations, they're not practicing a cultural tradition, and they're definitely not bringing anything new to the party. So why the designer price tag? Because some brand passes their market-purchased grain neutral spirit through a pot still a few times? Felton definitely makes his point here.

Why do microdistilleries buy GNS and then rectify it? It's cheap! As Felton writes:

The distillation of nearly pure alcohol is a task best-suited to industrial stills, which use tall columns that repeatedly vaporize and condense the spirit in a continuous process of "rectification." Prof. Kris Berglund runs a craft distilling program at Michigan State University. "While it is possible to produce vodka using a still," he writes in his textbook, Artisan Distilling, "it requires repeated redistillation that is both expensive and inefficient with low yield."

This explains why most distilleries don't ferment their own grain and distill their own base material. Yet, if it's cheaper to contract and there's no real difference between market-bought agricultural spirit and your own home-grown moonshine, then why do it? I doubt that Russian Standard and Absolut are in it for the street cred. These businesses are run by capitalists, so they're definitely looking for the cheapest possible way to create their products while maintaining quality. So why do it that way? Why spend money on a farm? Why source everything locally? Why pay for better water? Why even try to communicate that story?

If all grain alcohol is of the same quality then why do some taste like battery acid and some taste clean as water? Why do cheap grain spirits leave my head pounding the following morning, while today I woke up fresh as a daisy and was able to run five miles despite the fact that I was taking "premium" vodka shots long into the previous evening? There is a difference between clean, pure, delicious vodka without congeners and cheap slop, in my opinion. Let's keep going! Why do we distill anything to begin with? Why are there even distilled spirits? Because we like to get drunk, that's why. Why distill vodka from grain? Because farmers couldn't always eat everything they grew. It would go to waste if they didn't find some way of preserving it. What better way to utilize that extra grain than by distilling alcohol? While Felton claims that pot stills are sexy and that a cool back story is even sexier, I'd say the sexiest part of the vodka story for me is the agriculture.

Where is the sexier destination for your money? To a microdistillery that had nothing to do with the first 80% of the vodka-distillation process, or to the actual farmer? I'll let you in on the sexiest, most-romantic, "craft" vodka story I've yet to find with the quality to back it up.

Behold. Sweet potatoes of the California central valley. For one hundred years the Souza family has owned farmland near Atwater – not far from where I grew up in Modesto (we played Atwater High School in all sports). When David Souza took over the reigns of his family's sweet potato business he found himself facing a situation that many farmers throughout history have faced: what should we do with these extra potatoes? How can we make something different and expand upon what we already do? Distillation, baby. After nearly a decade of experimenting with different distillation techniques and various recipes of potato mash (pardon the pun), Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka was finally born.

I haven't had the chance to meet Mr. Souza or visit the distillery, but we have exchanged a few emails. We're one of a handful of retailers who carry the product right now, so he was happy to oblige all of my questions.

How much land is currently devoted to sweet potatoes? How much of that goes into the Corbin vodka?

We have 1000 acres devoted to sweet potatoes, 300 acres devoted to rye which will be the source of one of our whiskeys coming out, as well as 700 acres of almonds. Currently at our start up size we are only using 2-3% of sweet potato production for vodka.

Fermentation tanks at the Souza distilleryWhat can you tell me about fermentation?

We start by grinding the potatoes and cooking them into a sweet potato soup consistency. We use a blend of commercial enzymes to convert starches instead of malt. This way our product is 100% sweet potato based and gluten free. Fermentation times range 5-7 days depending on size of the batch, temperature, and the yeast used. Our wort is an ABV average of 7.5% We have an Arnold Holstein Still with a total of 17 distillation plates. We do one pass through the rectifier and our filtration process averages five days.

Water is very important to the flavor of the vodka. Where do you get your water from?

All the water we use comes from the same source. A 300 foot natural spring located on the farm. We do add a percentage of natural spring water into the pot before rectification. Also, all our mash waste and excess water is recycled as cattle feed for a neighboring dairy, or reused in our fields as fertilizer and dust control.

And there you have it! A tale as old as distillation. A farmer who uses excess agricultural product to create a little bit of joy for himself and anyone else looking to buy a bottle. The Souza farm is sustainable and every step of the process is estate controlled. But how does the vodka taste? Clean, fresh, round, and pure – it's definitely on the same qualitative level as the Eastern European products I've been tasting all week.

Felton's WSJ article summarizes the "craft" vodka movement in a manner that might sound familiar to K&L spirit blog readers:

There are plenty of spirits that microdistillers can -- and do -- focus on that mirror the craft-brewers' quest for rich flavor and entertaining variety. Fruit brandy can be made beautifully in pot stills using local cherries, pears, apples or other fruit. And microdistillers have a distinct advantage in producing flavored vodkas: They can steep fresh, ripe and rare fruits in the neutral spirit, while the taste of many mass-market flavored vodkas smacks of industrial additives. But when it comes to straight vodka, there isn't much point.

There's no point in microdistilling vodka because making smaller batches of vodka won't improve on what the big guys can already do? NO SHIT!? It sounds like "craft" whiskey and "craft" vodka are in the same boat. But there's a difference between charging someone thirty bucks for some GNS you bought and rectified and charging someone thirty bucks for your family's sweet potato harvest that you distilled from scratch. Selling someone GNS-rectified "craft" vodka is like telling someone you're an Italian chef and then cooking them dried pasta out of a box with tomato sauce from a jar. Sure, you can put your little spin on it, add some fresh vegetables or cheese, but you're really just polishing up someone else's foundation. If you can make the pasta from scratch using tomatoes from your own garden for the sauce, it's much more impressive.

Does it always taste better to do it from scratch? Not always, and that's my problem with "craft" spirits as a whole. It's not always the better way of doing things. Sometimes I'd rather just eat the box of pasta. However, with the Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka, the quality is there and that's what's important. Quality comes first, then we can focus on the romantic story.

David Souza made his vodka from scratch. And it does taste better, so I'm willing to buy into that. Like a Mies van der Rohe glass box, both the Corbin vodka and the Souza story itself are simple and clear, yet the beauty is in the details.

-David Driscoll


Understanding Vodka – Part III: Scandinavian Design

When I first visited Stockholm in 2004 I was completely taken aback by the clean architecture and stark landscape of the city – glass and metal abound, reflecting both the deep blue waters of Riddarfjärden and the brooding greys of the clouds above. The propensity to use science and technology in conjunction with nature is something I greatly admire and it's a Swedish trait that seems to extend beyond architecture and into distillation as well. Absolut vodka's 2013 Elyx release, for example, utilized stunning packaging, state of the art distillation, and locally-sourced, responsibly-grown wheat from a historic farm more than 600 years old. Most of the furniture in my house is from IKEA, so maybe I'm just unconsciously biased, but it seems like Sweden really understands how to design things in a stylish, yet forward-thinking manner.

The Absolut Elyx was recently awarded the title of "best vodka in the world" at the 2013 San Francisco Spirits Competition. That's a pretty heavy accolade. Having tasted it along side other Polish, Russian, and American vodkas, I don't disagree that it stands out above the crowd. Why is it, however, that the Elyx shines not only brighter than other Absolut products, but also than the most highly-regarded Eastern European vodkas in production? That's what I asked Absolut this week and here's what I found out about their production.

Traditional European vodka distillation has always centered around which grains were readily available. Polish vodka is traditionally rye-based because rye was the dominant grain for the region, as was wheat in Russia. Wheat and barley were the grains of choice in Sweden (explaining the vibrant beer culture in the region). Wheat has been sown in southern Sweden for centuries, specifically winter wheat, which is specifically suited for growing in the Skåne region. Absolut has relationships with approximately 450 farms across the region and in an average year about 300 of these farms will supply the wheat that is used to make Absolut Vodka. The wheat used to make Absolut accounts for around 20% of the total wheat production for the whole region. This is approximately 125,000 tons per year. A selection of wheat is made from a list of seven varieties which is reviewed each year. In 2012 these varieties were Audi, Skalmeje, Olivin, Cubus, Opus, Oakley and Boomer. With the Elyx, however, Absolut decided to source all the winter wheat sourced from a single estate called Råbelöf (located 15 miles from the distillery) that has been growing wheat since the 1400s.

It's important to stress here that, unlike most American vodka distilleries, Absolut is handling every step of the process themselves. They grow their own wheat, mill it and mash it, perform their own fermentation, and perform each distillation personally. Very, very few vodka companies can claim this level of ownership over the production process. They're more than willing to share information about this process as well. Take a look at what they told me:

From the moment the grain arrives at the distillery it undergoes constant quality checks and even when it is milled, the flour is checked to ensure it is of the correct particle size. The wheat is thoroughly checked to ensure it meets the required standards for Absolut, this includes:

– Check on water content (no more than 14%).

– Other particles (no more than 0.3%) specific density.

– Mold traces.

– Starch content (<69%).

– Bacterial and mold toxins.

– Heavy metals.

– Test conducted to ensure no pesticides, dioxins or arsenic are present.

As a further precaution, the wheat is also emptied into a large cleaning facility which sieves the wheat and vacuums up any dust particles before being placed in a large storage silo outside of the main distillery building. The wheat is then blown via an underground passage and then up to a hopper on the roof of the distillery. The wheat then passes down to the mill inside the distillery where it is milled to a maximum size of 1.5mm. The flour from the mill falls down to a sizing machine where any particles larger than 1.5mm are returned to the mill and ground to a finer size.

 The flour is ground to this specific size to ensure that 100% of the starch is available to be converted into sugars during the mashing process. The mashing process uses enzymes to convert the large starch molecules in the flour into simple sugars, which can be fermented by the yeast. The milled wheat is then mixed with water from the distillery’s own well and is pumped into the first of three stainless steel mashing tanks. This water is from the same source as the water used to dilute the vodka. However it has only been sand filtered to remove iron and still contains other minerals.

In the first tank the water and flour mixture (mash) has a liquefaction enzyme added to break the starch granules into longer chain polysaccharides and heated to 95 degrees Celsius to help the process and pasteurize the mash. It passes continuously through the 3 tanks constantly being heated and cooled. As the mash enters the fermentation tank more water is added and a second saccharification enzyme; this converts the long chain polysaccharides molecules into simple sugars and also cools the mash to 35 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which the yeast can survive. The heat recovered from the fermentation process is recycled to help drive the heating during the mashing process.

Nöbbelöv, Absolut's distillery, has 10 massive stainless steel fermentation tanks, each with a capacity of 600,000 liters. The tanks are made from stainless steel as this helps ensure the strict hygiene standards are met during cleaning and maintenance. The yeast is a specific strain, only used to make Absolut. It is supplied as dried yeast, blended with water and then gets added to the tanks where it spends the first 8 hours or so growing and multiplying. After approximately eight hours the yeast starts working on the sugars in the mash, converting them into alcohol and giving off carbon dioxide. After 48 hours the fermented mash has an alcohol content of about 10% abv.

Wow! That's a lot of technical talk! I've never really asked anyone about how wheat is milled and fermented before being distilled, so it's great to finally get some insight into the process. Also, take a look at what a grain distillery looks like. There's a reason Scotland only has a few of these in operation and why most distilleries don't produce grain whisky – they're gigantic!. Driving by Girvan is no different – efficient grain distilleries have huge column stills that look like factories. Now that we understand the process of Absolut in general, we still need to know what makes the Elyx different from the standard Absolut. We already know that the Elyx is made from single estate wheat, but how does the production differ?

I talked to Chris Patino, the director of brand education for the company, for some clarification. He told me that the first difference is the copper. If you're unfamiliar with copper's role in distillation, most pot stills are made out of copper because it helps pull the sulphurous notes out from the spirit (it's also why some people drop old copper pennies in their wine if too much sulphur was used in the bottling). The initial distillation for the Elyx is done at Nöbbelöv, where the vapors of all Absolut vodka are run through a bed of copper during this process. That copper, however, is not changed throughout the day as new batches are introduced into the still. Every time a fresh batch of Elyx is distilled, however, the copper is also fresh. The first run of Elyx brings it from a 10% wheat wort up to about 50% ABV.

From there, that raw Elyx spirit is transported to the old Absolut distillery that is still fully operational. Apparently, Nöbbelöv is shut down for a few weeks out of the year for cleaning and inspection and during that time the "old distillery," as it is literally referred to, as becomes the hub. The still at the "old distillery" was controlled in 1920 by the Swedish government who monopolized distillation at that time. Much like the grape farmers in Armagnac, the wheat, potato, and barley farmers could bring their excess grains to the "old distillery" and use the government still to produce their own spirit, paying the proper fees and taxation during the process. These spirits were called brännvin (burnt wine), of which vodka was considered the highest quality. The old still at the "old distillery" is five stories high, made entirely of copper, and is completely manual. It requires three or four guys to operate a series of cranks and pullies and the power is generated from an old steam belt. The rest is gravity!

The old still at the old distillery is where the rectification for Elyx is done. Because of the limited capacity of the old still, Absolut Elyx is distilled in batches, which are then blended together to create the final product. The result is a creamy spirit with a distilled water-like purity that stands among some of the best vodkas I've ever tasted. The package is also incredible, with its 1960s art-deco look allowing me to make believe I'm Roger Sterling with the bottle on my desk. The overall product is exactly what I think of when I think of my visit to Stockholm – a clean, beautiful, striking experience that's modernly-designed, yet conscious of nature and history.

Is it the best vodka in the world? Maybe. But I've still got more work to do.

-David Driscoll


Understanding Vodka – Part II: Russian Heritage

There cannot be not enough snacks,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no silly jokes,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no ugly women,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There cannot be too much vodka,
There can only be not enough vodka.

-Russian saying

Whether or not vodka distillation originated in Russia, there's no denying the fact that vodka is inseparable from the dynamic country's history and culture. St. Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kiev, was quoted as saying in the late 10th century, "Drinking is Russia's delight," and it's widely believed that this is the reason he chose Christianity over Islam in the year 987. It's also believed that Vladimir's countrymen learned the art of vodka distillation from Tartar invaders and began real vodka production around that time. Regardless of the accuracy of these claims, today's reality is pretty clear: Russians drink a shit load of vodka – nearly 14 liters per person if you include every man, woman and child in that statistic. Yet we know that small children aren't drinking 14 liters a year so you can up that number for most Russian adults. My question is: what do Russians understand about vodka drinking that Americans don't? Is it simply tradition or is there a connoisseurship we're lacking on this side of the world?

One thing that separates the Russian tradition of vodka from our modern western one is the manner in which it is enjoyed. There's no mixing it with fruit juice, soda, or ice – just straight down the hatch, maybe from a cold bottle in the freezer. My wife is a big vodka drinker. She told me why last night – "Because I don't have to worry about any of that food pairing bullshit like I do with wine. Vodka goes with everything." Very true. Believe it or not, this philosophy is also part of Russian tradition. According to the History of Russian Vodka:

Russians love vodka for the same reason that the French love wine: it is a social drink that goes extremely well with food. A typical Russian meal is very structured, and vodka plays an important role. Russian starters, or zakusky, include pickles, salted fish and other such savoury bites designed to accompany the first shots of vodka. As one proceeds through the rest of the meal, the food helps to neutralize a large proportion of the alcohol, allowing one to push on through till dawn if necessary.

Is that not an amazing characterization of vodka? I must have read that paragraph ten times to make sure it said exactly what I thought it said. Basically, Russians like vodka because they like to drink and vodka makes drinking very easy. It's smooth, cold, easy to pair with food, and it's just about plain fun. Drinking for the sake of drinking, not just to appreciate flavor. Sometimes I feel like whisky fans believe the alcohol has nothing to do with the enjoyment, as if they're not in it for the high of being slightly (or heavily) intoxicated. The alcohol has everything to do with it. The goal is to get your buzz on and to maybe enjoy some amazing flavor in the meantime. With vodka, you throw all of the pretense of single malt or Bourbon right out the window. Russian culture says simply, "We're here to drink and socialize and have a good time." Vodka is a key ingredient in that formula.

I can't prove it and I don't know if there's any science to back it up, but the feeling of intoxication I get from vodka is drastically different from any other spirit I normally consume. It's more energetic and less lethargic. It makes me want to get up and go rather than sit down and sleep. I also tend to feel less groggy the following day. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not. Could it be that the cleaner and more filtered the alcohol, the cleaner and more enjoyable the buzz? Let's not get too far off topic here.

Since I brought up science, let's talk about science. In the late 19th century a Siberian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev created his own periodic table (at the same time as Meyer) and something called Periodic Law (he's a pretty important dude). He also spent a year and a half searching for the ideal weight ratio of alcohol and water and finally did discover it to be 40% ABV (he published this finding in a dissertation called, not surprisingly, On Combining Alcohol and Water). This standard was used to craft the perfect vodka for Alexander III's government, creating what was the purest vodka possible. It's this standard that inspired Roustam Tariko to create Russian Standard vodka in 1998 – one of the most traditional Russian vodkas in production and one of the most faithful to the true Russian heritage.

Roustam Tariko is worth about 1.1 billion dollars according to today's assessments, but he wasn't born into it. While studying in the university in Moscow he worked as a part time street cleaner. Not surprisingly, his first foray into the business world was a small cleaning company he established with two friends. As his eye for business continued to develop, Tariko built upon his success. He imported various goods and sold them domestically, but he longed to create his own product that would "embody the vibrant spirit of Russia." Tariko reportedly wondered why Russia, holding on to the biggest vodka market in the world, did not produce its own domestic premium vodka brand. That's when Tariko decided to invest a ton of money into making it happen.

Tariko wasn't interested in merely sourcing wheat for his traditional Russian vodka, he decided to purchase his own fields in Russia's Black Steppes – known for having some of the highest quality grain in the entire world. With this new ownership, Russian Standard instantly became one of the first vodkas that actually controlled its product from seed to bottle. Sparing no expense, Tariko decided to source his water from Lake Ladoga – the largest lake in Europe known for its clean glacial water, some of the softest on earth. The largest vodka-drinking country in the world responded with glee – Tariko's vodka was a huge success. In 2005, Russian Standard graduated into a gigantic, state-of-the-art, $60 million facility where they focused on science and technology to help further purify the spirit. 114 foot high column stills with rectification plates all the way up! Most importantly, like its Polish cousin, Russian Standard is produced in Russia, from Russian wheat, and proofed with Russian water.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the Russian Standard Gold – made from a proprietary blend of Russian winter wheat and Siberian golden root (ginseng). There's a creamier, slightly more herbaceous note that I really enjoy. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that Russian Standard is now exporting Green Mark vodka to the United States (for $12 a bottle and, yes, we now have it in stock). Zelvonova Marka is the number three selling vodka in the world, despite the fact that it's never been sold in America. The Brand’s history began in 1920 in Russia when, under the Ministry of Agriculture, the Glavspirttrest agency was created. Between 1920 and 1950 this agency conducted very strict quality control and was responsible for the sale of alcohol in the Russia. Glavspirttrest became a synonym for quality vodka, as all vodka in the country had to meet certain high quality standards. Only vodka that successfully passed all steps of strict quality control received an approval of ‘Glavspirttrest – the coveted “Green Mark” seal of excellence.

I think the Green Mark tastes fantastic on its own when super cold right out of the freezer. The texture is round, creamy, and there's a bit of richness on the back end. For the price, I can't imagine anything competing with this on the American market. Russian Standard Gold is wonderfully clean, smooth, and pure in a way that makes it a dangerous threat straight from the bottle. Its weight separates it from the standard Russian Standard, which is very good, but not nearly as tasty as the Gold. I'm currently sipping on both side-by-side as I finish up this post. I'm pairing it with Round Table Pizza and it's performing wonderfully alongside the Vegetarian Delight. We're watching Orange Is The New Black with some friends and having a blast. We've already finished both samples of Green Mark and Russian Standard, so we're moving on to the liter bottle of Jewel of Russia – another delicously clean and creamy expression.

I need to put the computer down now, however, because my buzz is kicking in. My stomach is fortified and I'm ready to stay up all night if necessary. It's time to embrace my small piece of Russian heritage. My great-great-grandfather from Neuburg, Odessa would be proud.

-David Driscoll


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