Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Artisan Vodka



I am a cocktails man rather than a beer or wine-enthusiast, and my drink of choice has long been the Cape Cod (vodka and cranberry---particularly with a smooth vodka component such as Grey Goose or Ketel One). I was pleased to recently learn of the existence of a locally-made premium vodka called "Touch".

Touch Vodka is made using the ancient technology of the pot still. Mass-market spirits are produced in a fractionating column still (as is gasoline, basically), which is fast and economically scalable and produces a high-proof result, but the cost of the efficient separation is that flavors ("congeners") are burned out. Vodka is traditionally distilled to very high proofs (190-194) in a column still, producing what is basically pure alcohol (below 190 you have a whisky), and then filtered to make it consumable by human beings.

With a pot still, in contrast, you get incomplete separation, a much more variable and time-intensive process, and a need to go through multiple iterations of distillation. The process starts in a pumpkin-shaped pot, traditionally made of copper: because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water does, the alcohol steam rises from the fermented liquid in the pot and is funneled through a "worm". The worm cools the alcohol back to liquid form and it drips into a container. The first round is typically very weak, so the process is repeated until the desired end product is obtained. The incomplete separation and retention of the congeners allows for the creation of a particularly flavorful product. However, this requires a great deal of operator skill and judgment, hence the artisanal nature of the work. I believe that Ketel One was the first vodka producer to offer a pot still vodka in the US, and pot distillation is generally regarded by critics as the mark of a distinguished choice.

We'll get into more detail on a somewhat conceptually similar---albeit darker---process in a future post, when we discuss the gas centrifuge cascade used to create enriched (weapons-grade) uranium for nuclear bombs.

Touch Vodka is made from a champagne yeast infused with wildflower honey from Florida pine forests and the Everglades, and distilled (over in the old pirate haven of Tampa) in pots similar to those used by the bootleggers during Prohibition. Controls of the process allow it to be produced without recourse to filtering at the end; unfiltered vodkas are traditionally just blindness-inducing monstrosities because the pre-filtered proof state is so high, but Touch is pot distilled straight to 80 proof and does not require that "step-down transformer" step of terminal filtration. It is a very flavorful and elegant vodka, up there with other artisan spirits such as the Tito's Handmade Vodka created by an Austin geophysicist. The bottle is rather pretty, too, complete with hand-applied paper roses (in other words, it looks good as a gift).

The stuff is hard to get, though: locally, it is sold at a few hip restaurants, such as HUE in downtown Orlando, and there are some boutique fine-spirit shops around that carry it. If you like exotic vodka, it is worth the search.

2 comments:

  1. Vodka is one thing I never "got". I'll have to try this, as the other vodkas I've had are pretty much neutral spirits and therefore not worth paying a lot for, nor do they lend themselves to sipping, unlike the silly commercials featuring men in tuxedos.

    In the spirit of the boozing tradition, please allow me to present my favorite recipe:

    www.beachbumberry.com/how-to-make-a-mai-tai/

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  2. That's a classy, classic drink, Sinnerman.

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