Vodka

I'd like that with a twist: highlighting two unique Canadian vodkas by Jason Hambrey

A flyer from the Dairy Distillery in Almonte, ON.

A flyer from the Dairy Distillery in Almonte, ON.

I don’t write much about vodka, largely because I don’t value the style much. If the goal is to distill most, or all, of the flavour out of a distillate then there is no need for careful flavour development before distillation - perhaps my favourite part of spirits. Plus, as a mixer, I don’t value much a spirit which gets lost completely, other than the alcoholic hit, when mixed.

However, this is a post about vodka - two in fact, which i find interesting. The interest is mostly not the flavour - it is related to the story and impact of the production. The first is an earthy vodka made from potatoes in the only protected potato growing region in North America (the Pemberton Valley in British Columbia) and a the second buttery vodka is made from unusable milk by-products in the small and lovable town of Almonte, Ontario.

Tyler Schramm, the head distiller at Pemberton Distillery in British Columbia is a bit of an anomaly. He is passionate about distilling...potatoes! He became interested in distilling these once his brother bought a potato farm twenty years ago. He got his masters degree in potato distillation at Heriott-Watt university in Edinburgh. Can you imagine being a student interested in making potato vodka at the education epicentre of Scotch distillation?

Schramm completed his degree and returned to Pemberton valley, an area that is agriculturally protected so that “Pemberton Potatoes” can be preserved. Most potatoes grown in Pemberton are “seed potatoes” which are cut up and sent all over north america to grow into table potatoes. Each strain of potato grown there (standard ones like yukon gold, russet, german butter) has to be checked every few years to make sure it remains a pure strain and hasn’t hybridized: it is important that each strain remain pure. Unlike many agricultural products which have increased in value, potatoes haven’t. Schramm wanted to highlight the Pemberton Potato. Inspired by the Polish potato vodkas, Pemberton Distillery started distilling vodka from potatoes - from potatoes which can’t be sold from the farmer they source from. At first it was a heavier, double-distilled product with a big earthy character but, given that customers craved something lighter, the vodka is now triple distilled to provide a lighter character but one which still has good character and earthiness. Some heavier vodka drinkers loved the original stuff, so it is released at times in small batches. As the palate is growing largely towards bigger flavours, more people are becoming interested in the original style - perhaps Pemberton was ahead of its time with its original style.

Distilling potatoes is not as easy as distilling grain. They don’t store very well (compared to grain) and change as they are stored as the starches degrade to sugars. They are about 90 percent water, with only 10 percent starch to ferment to alcohol. Schramm learned that distilling a combination of varieties results in a more balanced production process, so currently four types are used. The process is similar to making a whisky - you need to cook the potatoes (as with corn), add an enzyme, and ferment away. Each bottle of Schramm Vodka takes 15 pounds of potatoes to make. The potato gin made at Pemberton takes 18 pounds of potatoes per bottle!

The gin is good, and the vodka has nice earthy undertones that come out nicely in cocktails. But the best part here the most is the story - a distillery nodding to their environment and making something unique. Also, they are peating their own whisky with Pemberton malt and a home-made malter. As far as i know, they were the first distillery in Canada to use Canadian peat (2014).

Speaking of unique, the Dairy Distillery has it. Located in a small Ontario town, the distillery makes “Vodkow” out of milk permeate. Milk permeate is a milk by-product, essentially lactose and water once all the cream, cheese, and other milk products have been extracted. This milk permeate is not the same product as whey, as all the proteins contained in whey have been extracted. It’s a useless product to the dairy industry and is difficult to dispose - it cannot be dumped into the drain because it is full of sugar (lactose). So, usually the milk permeate is put into lagoons where the liquid cam evaporate off.

Omid McDonald had a brilliant idea - why not ferment the permeate and distill all the flavour out to make a “vodka”? It isn’t technically a vodka as it isn’t made from grain or potatoes, but it tastes like one. (Note that Canada is currently revisiting Vodka regulations). The Dairy Distillery, opened this year, gets permeate pumped directly from delivery trucks into fermenters where a special strain of yeast is used which can directly break down lactose into alcohol. In that way, it’s a very different process from grain which needs to be milled and mashed with solid by-products. Part of the production is done in partnership with the university of ottawa which helps manage the fermentation. Once it is double distilled to 96 percent ABV, and diluted to the bottling strength of 40 percent it is a clean, creamy vodka which isn’t reminiscent of milk at all. The liquid which doesn’t make it through the still is now safe to dispose of and can be dumped down the drain. The vodka goes into a milk bottle to be sold (soon to be at the LCBO). What a great idea to make a good product out of a waste by-product!

My reviews are posted separately.

Review: Schramm Organic Potato Vodka (Pemberton Distillery) by Jason Hambrey

Schramm+Vodka.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
100% Potato Spirit
Distillery Pemberton Distillery (Pemberton, BC)

Oddly enough, though I had tasted Pemberton single malt,, which is coming along - I didn’t really take a second glance at the distillery until I happened upon a small blurb on them in the wonderful book, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, which delves into the plants, herbs, spices, flowers, and grains that are used to produce alcohol. In Pemberton Valley in British Columbia, lots of potatoes are grown - and this product is a result of that. But, much care here is taken.

Tyler Schramm, the head distiller, has a master’s degree in distilling potatoes. He tried a variety of single-varietal distillations, before finally landing on a blend of five different types of potatoes. This has less to do with the differences in flavor between the varietals (which he says are insignificant) and more to do with starch content and environmental stewardship: embracing the distiller’s traditional role of using food scraps not usable for consumption to use. Each bottle of vodka requires fifteen pounds of potatoes, and these potatoes are misshapen or oddly sized that the farmer would not be able to sell.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2019

The nose is very clean, slightly sweet, and lightly earthy. Damp, rooty earth, light pepper, and dried figs. The palate is slightly sweet, viscous, with a very clean flavour and a touch of zestiness and white pepper. On the finish, the earthiness remains, which is what I like about this vodka. A nice sweetness in the middle, too.

Once chilled, the viscosity increases, the sharpness disappears, the sweetness is slightly diminished but the earthiness remains. I am glad for this – this is the (good) signature of the vodka and I am glad it doesn’t fade with a drop in temperature. This is fantastic for cocktails! I think any vodka cocktails which could use a bit of earthiness (think vegetable cocktails) or ones which need a bit of heaviness to balance out the drink will get a nice contribution from this.

The character is light (as it should be for a vodka), but this is a vodka with character which I like. Some may like to sip this - it is a bit of a heavier vodka, but I think all the subtleties lead to a rather intriguing mixer. Time to open up the cocktail book!

Assessment: Recommended.


Review: Vodkow by Jason Hambrey

Vodkow.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
100% Milk Permeate
Distillery Dairy Distillery (Almonte, ON)

This “vodka” is made from milk permeate, a dairy by-product which is left over once the cream and milk products have all been extracted. This milk permeate is essentially just lactose and water, it doesn’t even contain the proteins found in whey. The dairy industry cannot easily dispose of it, since sugar (lactose) cannot just be flushed down the drain. However, the Dairy Distillery puts it to good use - fermenting away the lactose with specialized yeast, distilling all the flavor away to get a clean product. The remaining byproduct left in the still can be then just dumped down the drain, safe for the environment. Terrific!


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2019

A very clean, slightly sweet nose with a touch of clove. The palate is viscous, with a sweet middle and a slight drying spiciness on the end. The finish is pleasantly sweet and buttery. It doesn’t remind me of milk at all, other than perhaps the buttery characteristic of the spirit. What a great endeavor!

Chilled, it has a light and buttery, creamy character.

Assessment: Recommended. Worth a try, for the story at least!


Review: Last Mountain Dill Pickle Vodka by Jason Hambrey

Photo courtesy of  Last Mountain Distillery .

Photo courtesy of Last Mountain Distillery.

ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
Last Mounta Vodka infused with Cucumbers, Dill, and Jalapeno
Distiller Last Mountain (Lumsden, Saskatchewan)

Every distiller these days is infusing this and that into various cocktails – and one of the most unique is Last Mountain, which adds dill, cucumbers, and jalapenos to their vodka. They could have infused pickles, but they didn't want to make a briny spirit. An odd combination (indeed) – and if you taste it straight, it is just what you might expect – alcoholic, spicy dill pickle. However, context is needed – it is purpose build essentially for a single cocktail, the Caesar cocktail – developed in Calgary and still primarily consumed in Canada. It was invented in 1969 by Walter Chell to celebrate the opening of a new Italian restaurant, made by combining tomato and clam juice with vodka.

It is an incredible cocktail, often so crammed with garnishes that you have to dig out the actual cocktail! This is no coincidence – the cocktail pairs so well with so many different garnishes (a spicy rim, celery, olives, pickles, black pepper, lime). It is a garnish party. I like full flavored, spicy caesars: I use 3 oz clamato, 1.5 oz dill pickle vodka, 3 dashes worchestershire sauce, 10 dashes Frank’s red hot (I love spicy!) – over lots of ice, with a rim of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. I garnish with freshly ground black pepper, a celery stalk (trim to size and let sit in water for 20 mins to crisp up beforehand). I garnish with as many of the following as I have on hand: dill pickles, olives, lime, dill. Celery is a must, and is one of the absolute best cocktail/garnish pairings. It’s great – almost more of a cocktail meal than a cocktail. It’s perfect for weekend late mornings. It is different – vegetal and savory rather than the typical fruity and citrusy or spicy and earthy cocktails. The clam adds some lovely seaside mineral notes, too.

But, now to Last Mountain – in Saskatchewan a lot of people will add dill pickle juice to their caesars, and Last Mountain decided to circumvent this step. I’d heard of this dill pickle vodka (the best selling saskatchewan made spirit), and I resisted writing about it until I have actually tried it – now I have, and must recommend it.

It adds further depth to the cocktail with a bit of added spice from the jalapeno and the dill and cucumber, but here is my favorite part: I find it shifts the balance of the cocktail such that you can add more hot sauce. Moreover, the jalapeno comes through and adds to the spice. I absolutely love spicy caeasars, so if I can make it more spicy, I’m all for it. If you can get it, start working on your caesars...