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

David Driscoll