Craft Vodkas aren’t your grandfather’s vodka.
Editor’s note: In the last couple of years, vodka has made a comeback as a go-to spirit. Now, high-end and artisan distillers are both getting in the act and producing some outstanding varieties. RFT’s Wine & Spirits Editor, Julie Pegg, dives into to the subject of Vodka and samples some artisan spirits at Canadian distilleries to bring you the latest.
Vodka is the uber-friendly mixer, the backbone of a tutti-frutti martini, an ideal party swig, and the low-rent booze you can disguise in a water bottle.
And, let’s face it, there is some perilous stuff calling itself vodka out there.
Then there’s vodka. Smooth and sleek, a dignified spirit that hits the runway subtly perfumed and refined, perhaps tasting of sweet grass, herbs or flowers. Premium and ultra-premium vodkas are best sipped neat and slow wearing nothing but a twist of lemon and a few rocks, or in a martini with just a whisper of dry vermouth. Caviar (you can buy the sustainable stuff), lightly smoked trout or gravlax, sliced wafer-thin, or steamed nugget potatoes napped with sour cream are perfect accoutrements.
To fire a can of red bull at these vodkas would be criminal.
From Russia (with love) comes silky seductive Elit by Stolichnaya and the hard-to-come-by small-batch Smirnoff Black. Poland produces Chopin, a beautifully viscous potato vodka. (Chopin also ventured into wheat and rye vodkas). And Cognac’s region not only cultivates ugni blanc grapes for its renowned brandy, but also wheat for the hipster’s Grey Goose Original vodka. And I hear travelers throng duty free shops for stylish, smash-proof bottles of Danish Danzka.
And they are just a few among many.
With regards to commercial vodkas, Smirnoff Red Label leads the pack by far. Clean and neutral Smirnoff’s is solidly made and a good mixer. Pyotr Smirnov, who also came up with the process of charcoal filtering to remove the spirit’s impurities, fathered Smirnoff in Moscow in the late 19th Century. The brand swapped hands several times. Hublein Corporation bought the rights to distill the brand in the U.S. in the 1930’s. and Americans caught on to the “white whisky, no taste, no smell”.
Production of Smirnoff waned in World War II, but recovered fully in the 1950’s. Folks had acquired a taste for a light and lively spirit, and had cottoned on to the cocktail. Vodka’s neutral character stood up to just about any mix. The Bloody Mary earned its place at the brunch table. The Screwdriver and Black (or White) Russian captured the American palate in 1949 and, Smirnoff began to replace gin in many a martini—thanks to Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Artisans on Board
In recent years, tiny small batch distilleries have sprung up throughout Europe and North America. Jumping on the local and organic wagon, many of these mini-manufacturers churn out vodka from farmed grains, corn, potatoes, and even apples.
In Canada, the charming seaside town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is home to Ironworks Distillery. The former forge still retains the smithy’s furnace and some of the original hardware. It also houses its imported German copper pot still. In 2009, I visited as Ironworks launched its line-up of handcrafted spirits, which include rum and eaux de vie as well. Distilled from Annapolis valley apple “cider,” the vodka came off smooth and crisp, with a mere hint of toffee apple.
It would be another four years before I would sample another small-batch vodka.
That was at Forage in Vancouver’s Listel Hotel, another in the pantheon of restaurants touting local/sustainable. (Forage won Vancouver Magazine’s Green award and garnered a bronze for best new restaurant.) Chef Chris Whittaker champions homegrown from bison to birch syrup. B.C. wines are on tap. And there’s local vodka in the house. Bar manager Margaret Baloro figures that just makes good sense.
I am invited to taste three B.C. vodkas and meet the folks that make them.
First up is Schramm Vodka from Pemberton Distillery, a half-hour’s drive north of Whistler. Master Distiller Tyler Schramm turns those famous Pemberton organic potatoes into slow-stilled vodka. It is lush, hinting of pear and a spice and most agreeable with a beet salad.
Next up is Victoria Spirits Left Coast Hemp Vodka. The distillery is located 15 minutes from Victoria on Vancouver Island and Distiller Peter Hunt sources organic seed from his uncle’s hemp farm in Cobble Hill. We are talking homegrown from field to glass. Left Coast is as smooth as velvet, smacks of cereal and sweet grass and is smashing with salmon roe (tobiko). I jot down that it will go pretty much anywhere sake goes, particularly if follows along with sushi and sashimi.
Lastly, we sample Texada Stoned Vodka from Vancouver’s own Long Table Distillery. Influenced by Portland, Oregon’s Distillery District, Charles Tremewen went to work setting up his distillery, which opened its doors in February 2013. Texada Stoned Vodka earns its name from the limestone through which the vodka is filtered. The vodka itself is well rounded with a distinct note of lemongrass on the palate and a touch of fire in the finish. Sipped with cucumber “ice” it is lovely. No tutti-frutti bombs are planned for Tremewen’s arsenal, but he does intend to make a savory vodka infused with tomatoes (local of course) and basil.
More to Explore
I am curious to visit another artisan distillery and soon. When I am next in Toronto, I plan to visit Ontario’s Still Waters Distillery. Still Waters’ website states that Barry Bernstein and Barry Stein, founders and owners, are also “the mashers, distillers, bottle washers and fillers.” You can’t get much closer to spirit making than that.
I suggest you give vodka a little respect. Next time you’re you seated at the bar, ask a purveyor of fine spirits or a top-notch mixologist for a premium or locally-crafted vodka. Sipped simply and not overly concocted, you will discover the answer is clear. Good vodka is worth its weight in gold.– by Julie Pegg, RFT Wine & Spirits Editor, CanadaWine Editor Julie Pegg
If You Go
All distilleries listed below invite guests to tour and taste, but visiting hours may be quite limited. Call ahead first.
Pemberton Distillery www.pembertondistillery.ca
Victoria Sprits www.victoriaspirits.com
Long Table Distillery longtabledistillery.com
Forage Restaurant www.foragevancouver.com
Photos provided by the distilleries.
If you liked this story, you may be interested some of Julie’s other “spirited” stories, including:
And these from other RFT contributors: