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Getting in the Spirit

What's the real deal with Idaho-made vodkas?


In the clinking of cocktail glasses, there are countless latent stories. Be it the crack of an oyster shell and the glug of Grey Goose on a sailboat off the coast of Martha's Vineyard or the heavy-armed slosh of raised Stolichnaya shots inside a snow-buried Siberian cabin, the business of booze is the business of story-making. Drink the elixir and be transported.

Recently, a handful of Idaho-made craft vodkas have started appearing on cocktail menus and "buy local" shelves at liquor stores. Their labels advertise ingredients like "Idaho russet potatoes" and tout properties like "four-column distillation" and "crystal-and-charcoal" filtration. Idaho's state spud and scenic mountainous landscape—like white linen-clad yacht parties and snowy Russian nights—are now part of liquor-branding iconography.

While this narrative marketing strategy is present in every industry, nowhere is it more successful than in the branding of vodkas. Unlike other liquors, prized for their complex flavor profiles and vintages, good vodkas are supposed to be innocuous and water-like—colorless, odorless and tasteless. Even the word "vodka" is the diminutive form of the Russian word for water, "voda." So what separates the Grey Gooses from the rotguts? Is it ingredients, number of times distilled and fancy filtrations processes? Or just excellent marketing?

Myth and marketing aside, how much of the hype is actually valid? After touring a couple of Idaho vodka distilleries, talking to some Idaho vodka experts and hosting a highly technical BW Idaho vodka tasting, we found some intoxicating answers.

A Tall Drink of Voda

According to the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary, liquor sales for the state totaled more than $128 million in 2008, with $26.5 million coming from Boise alone. Of the 9.8 million bottles of hooch hawked in the state, around 2.5 million of those were vodka—approximately 25.9 percent of the total, according to the ISLD. Though the state's most popular vodka last year was the firewater Kamchatka, selling 102,000 of the 1.75 liter bottles, the most sought-after flavored vodka was the Idaho-made 44º North huckleberry vodka, selling close to 48,000 bottles.

"Our most popular vodka by far is this 44º North [huckleberry]. It flies off the shelves," said Liquor Store employee Bri Grunig, as she headed back to restock the empty 44º North display at the branch on Vista Avenue near Targee Street.

An infused liquor popular in martinis and shots, 44º North has dominated the flavored-vodka scene in Idaho since its launch in 2004. But one thing many drinkers don't know is that while 44º North vodka is indeed distilled in Idaho—in the East Idaho town of Rigby—it is not an Idaho company.

"It's probably a little disingenuous to say that 44º North is a 100 percent Idaho product," explained Bill Applegate, product manager at the ISLD. "It's produced in Idaho, hopefully using Idaho products and Idaho labor, but the reality is that the brand is owned by an out-of-state company."

The 44º North brand is owned by WyattZier LLC based out of Bedford, N.H., a company that has also launched Zygo, the successful energy vodka, and Shango Rum. WyattZier contracts with Distilled Resources Inc. (DRinc) in Rigby to produce its neutral grain spirits, which are then blended and bottled in Rigby into 44º North's three brands—Huckleberry, Magic Valley Wheat and Rainier Cherry.

"When we started our business, Idaho basically came first because we were looking for a place where we could produce small batches of extremely high-quality spirits," explained Ken Wyatt, co-owner of Wyatt-Zier LLC. "So, actually we went to Distilled Resources first. Once we recognized that we had a great producing company to work with, the brainstorm just hit. Why not trumpet or herald the stuff that's coming out of Idaho in terms of the great agricultural tradition of the state. Obviously, that led us to the state fruit, which is huckleberry."

Even though the company is headquartered out of state, Wyatt explained that Idaho is 44º North's largest market, followed closely by Florida and New York. And with the recent releases of their Magic Valley Wheat unflavored vodka and Rainier Cherry vodka, 44º North is maintaining its commitment to showcasing Idaho's "agricultural tradition."

"Our clients don't own warehouses, they are just businesses. They are brand builders," explained Gray Ottley, owner of DRinc.

And a handful of companies like Wyatt-Zier have found that the Idaho brand sells. All of the Idaho-made vodkas you'll find on state liquor store shelves—except for Bardenay and Koenig—are distilled by DRinc at their plant in Rigby for companies based in other states. After the vodkas are bottled, they're shipped directly from the plant to various liquor distributors throughout the United States, including the ISLD warehouse in Boise. DRinc distills 17 different products, which include the 44º North line, Zygo, Blue Ice American Vodka, Teton Glacier Potato Vodka, Square One Organic Rye and Cucumber vodkas, Orange V Vodka, Zodiac Vodka and a handful of others.

Triple stampies, No-erasies

DRinc is a full service beverage grade custom alcohol distillery, which means it offers production, blending and bottling for clients who either have their own alcohol brand concepts or want to develop branding for a recipe already concocted by master distiller Bill Scott in the DRinc labs. This means that DRinc doesn't sell any of its own brands.

"We're what I call a farmed-bottle company," said Ottley. "We're the largest distiller of beverage alcohol west of the Mississippi. We don't own brands—we don't own the Blue Ice's or the 44º North Huckleberry's—that's our business model and it's very successful."

In an industry drunk on image, DRinc cuts through the lingo with some straight-talk and a little humor. Besides defining the company as "makers of the world's only super-duper, triple stampies, no-erasies ultra premium luxury vodka," DRinc's Web site goes to great lengths to debunk some of the common myths that cloud the distillation process.

"We're about truth in advertising and pretty much saying it the way it is," explained Ottley. "There is a lot of one-upmanship in the vodka business, like, 'If the last one was nine times distilled, ours is 10 times distilled.' Or, 'Five times filtered through crystal.' Really that means nothing to me. From a manufacturing point of view and quality control point of view, that doesn't do anything."

So what does matter in the vodka distillation process? Overall, the answer seems to be quality ingredients and quality equipment.

Hey, suga', ferment here often?

Vodka can be distilled from anything that can be broken down into a sugar—wheat, corn, rye, sugar beets, potatoes, grapes. Though a good number of vodkas produced in Idaho, naturally, are made from potatoes, potato vodkas comprise only 3 percent of the worldwide market.

"Most vodka is made out of grain—corn, wheat, rye. They yield much better, per pound of wheat, and for the cost of it, you can make a lot more money that way," explained Andy Koenig, distiller and co-owner of the Koenig Distillery in Sunnyslope, south of Caldwell. "Grain vodka is great to mix with because you don't taste any of the impurities or anything. With potatoes, you get that nice, rich, oily, kind of sweetness."

Out at the Koenig Distillery, veiled in a just-budding forest of peach, plum, apricot and cherry trees, the Koenig brothers are vocal potato proponents. Though it would be easy to source their potatoes at a nearby Oregon-border farm, the Koenigs truck in tubers from East Idaho so they can slap the prized Idaho Potato Commission seal on their bottle.

Andy Koenig can see the eaux-de-vie for the trees. - TARA MORGAN
  • Tara Morgan
  • Andy Koenig can see the eaux-de-vie for the trees.

The spud, though, can be a tricky beast to ferment. At more than 70 percent water, it can take around 9 pounds of potatoes to make a single bottle of vodka. Also, using potatoes as a base can be labor intensive because they are finicky to ferment, often requiring the addition of enzymes to turn the starch into sugar. That is why Bardenay Distillery, which claims to be the first restaurant distillery in the country post-Prohibition, goes straight to the sticky sweet source to make its spirits. Bardenay has three locations—downtown Boise, Eagle and Coeur d'Alene—where they make vodka, gin and rum all from the same base: 100 percent cane sugar.

"A lot of bigger companies ... use products that they have to ferment back down to a usable sugar. We actually use sugar from the get-go, so we kind of skip that process," said Josh Malone, one of Bardenay's three distillers, as he stood next to a fermenting tank at the sun-drenched Eagle restaurant and distillery. "Plus, the fermentation of products like that in a restaurant or bar would be infeasible because if you've ever smelled fermenting potatoes, they don't smell very good."

But regardless of whether the base begins as a sugar, or must be cooked to break down starch chains and release the sugar, they all go through the same fermentation process. Yeast and water are added to the base mash in a fermentation tank, where it sits for varying amounts of time until it forms an approximately 16 percent alcohol "distiller's beer"—the highest alcohol concentration that can be achieved through fermentation alone. To reach a higher booze level, the murky feed must then be run through a still until an almost-pure, 190-proof ethanol has been separated out.

Still, it's confusing

But how does a still wring alcohol out of the distiller's beer? Basic chemistry. While water has a boiling point of 100 degrees Celsius, ethanol evaporates at 78.3 degrees Celsius, which allows the booze to separate and rise through various porous plates in the still column while the water remains in liquid form at the bottom. Any water that does evaporate with the liquor hits the cool column top and re-condenses. The alcohol vapor then floats out of the column into a condenser, where it is stored.

Since Bardenay uses a pot still—a copper device with a bulbous bottom that looks like something from a Jules Verne novel—the distillation process has to be repeated multiple times for the liquor to purify and reach around 190 proof, or 95 to 96 percent alcohol. While Bardenay advocates the time-tested, small batch pot still method—running the alcohol through the still eight times before it's bottled by distiller Ashley Scott at the Coeur d'Alene location—many in the industry are weary of over-distillation.

"Anytime you start distilling a lot of times, the alcohol gets a little harshness to it," said Koenig. "It's very traumatic to distill anything, so if you can distill nice and lightly and coax it through there, then you get a better, smoother product. Ours gets distilled twice."

The Koening Distillery uses a specialty German-made double copper pot still with dual 50-plate columns to distill its spirits, which include a collection of old-world fruit brandies, or eaux-de-vie, in addition to the award-winning potato vodka. With a mixed pot and column still, the vapor zig-zags up and down through the two columns until it reaches the condenser, where it is collected and then run back through the process one more time.

"First, is the primary distillation, or the raw distillation, then it's stored in a stainless steel tank. When we gather enough up, we use the other still to rectify it," explained Koenig. "When it comes out of the first still, it's very impure and hazy and not clean. It has a lot of mineral flavors. [The second] still cleans it."

DRinc has gotten rid of multiple distillations all together with its industrial four-column, stainless steel set up, which includes a special Hydro-Pulse 8100B purge column.

"We operate just a column still, which is the Ferrari of the industry," explained Ottley.

Essentially, a column still is a continuous distillation method in which the alcohol vapor winds its way through the various columns and arrives at the end as nearly pure ethanol in a single run. Stainless steel column stills, like the ones used at DRinc, are often favored because they are able to efficiently remove all impurities in the alcohol, without imparting flavors like copper stills often do.

"It gives you an amazing amount of control in how you can literally design an alcohol. You can take flavors out, you can put them back in. It's not just about dropping the impurities, it's also just as much about creating a recipe," said Ottley.

Flavor of love

While Ottley acknowledged that some of his clients ask him to filter their products multiple times after distillation through carbon—or even fancy-pants crystals—"for marketing purposes only," he explained that if the product is superiorly crafted, multiple filtrations are overkill.

"I wouldn't want somebody to tell me that their product wasn't filtered at all; on the other hand, I wouldn't want them to tell me it was 10 times filtered," said Ottley.

Koenig and Bardenay also filter their product only lightly before bottling. Another step that takes place after distillation and filtration is the addition of flavorings. While DRinc concocts a wide variety of flavored spirits, Bardenay and Koenig are also grabbing a chunk of the exploding flavored-vodka market. Bardenay makes lemon vodka in addition to its popular gin—which is essentially juniper-flavored vodka—while Koenig has a new huckleberry vodka just hitting shelves.

One of Bardenay's distillers, Josh Malone, holds still for a photo. - TARA MORGAN
  • Tara Morgan
  • One of Bardenay's distillers, Josh Malone, holds still for a photo.

"Most flavored vodkas, honestly, use vodka and then flavor them with artificial flavorings. But we wanted to go outside of that, so we buy real Idaho huckleberries that they pick up in the forest," said Koenig. "Then they get soaked in the potato vodka for about three months and then we redistill that."

Hit the bottle

After each of these Idaho-made vodkas are fermented, distilled, filtered, possibly flavored and then bottled, they still have a way to stumble before they make it into your martini.

"Most of the Northwest states—Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming—are what they call controlled states. The state owns the distribution and most of the retail of distilled spirits. So in Idaho, we ship it to the state warehouse in Boise," explains Ottley.

In a sprawling building off Interstate 84 and Gowen Road in Boise, the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary houses all of the canned heat over 16-percent alcohol for the state of Idaho. Each bottle of booze must have taxes levied on it before it can be sold to consumers in Idaho.

"In some licensed states, or open states, there's a distributor and there are retailers. In controlled states like Idaho, we serve both of those roles—we buy product from manufacturers and we sell it through our retail chain. One hundred percent of the profits we make at the end of the day go back to public programs or to the cities and counties," said ISLD project manager Applegate.

Bardenay, for example, has to sell all of its distilled spirits to the state, then buy them back, before any fancy cocktails can be crafted with their own booze in their own bar.

Glass class

But once an Idaho vodka joins its peers on the mirrored tiers at local bars, it's no longer about state taxes or filtration and distillation—it's about image.

"Marketing and status, or imagined status [are why people choose vodkas]," explained Michael Bowers, a bartender at the Modern Hotel Bar. "Grey Goose, over the past three months, we've done 425 pours, and the next closest competitor is Absolut at 151. Most of those, or a significant number, are in a greyhound or a vodka tonic or soda, where [the brand] really doesn't matter. I think that in itself indicates why people are drinking it because it's certainly not for the taste."

Bowers went on to explain, "Booze is so social and it's an indicator. It's like clothes. People wear clothes to indicate things about themselves to the people who see them. And people drink things to indicate something about themselves or what they aspire to be to the people who watch them drink. That's why Grey Goose sells like it does."

But for the locovores, consuming Idaho-made spirits is equally a social indicator.

Sipping a vodka cranberry, Neurolux employee Shannon Lewis explained that her tastes vary on her mood. Sometimes it's well, sometimes straight Ketel One, and when she wants to down something refreshing and local, she goes with 44º North.

"I think 44º North is a good one and I'm super happy it comes from Idaho. It makes a difference to me [if it's local]," said Lewis. "44º North I buy because it's from Idaho and I think that's pretty great."

Andy Koenig hopes that people like Lewis will be drawn to his new huckleberry vodka for the same reasons they choose 44º North.

"I think people are going to start moving to these craft distilled products, kind of like they do in Europe where everybody has their little localized drink," said Koenig. "[Our vodka] goes from our distillery to Boise, and if people drink it downtown, it hasn't gone very far."

One guy you'll find drinking Koenig downtown is Bowers—but for the unique taste, not image or overt concerns for local economy.

"With the whole local movement, there's only so much you can do ... it's not so simple that local is the best way to go in all regards," he said.

With the large quantities of raw materials needed to distill relatively small amounts of hooch, he explained that fixating on buying local when it comes to liquor is really just, ahem, small potatoes.

"Liquor's just wasteful if you're concerned about food. Period. There's no way of getting around it. It's wasteful. But I love it."

Feel it in the gills

In order to find out exactly what all this Idaho vodka fuss was about, BW hosted our own staff vodka tasting. Though certified vodka experts we are not, longtime lushes we certainly are. On a recent Friday afternoon, 14 of us swirled, sniffed, sipped and gasped as we blind taste tested five Idaho-made vodkas. Though opinions were widely varied, these are the results—in the order that we tasted them—transcribed from their increasingly illegible scrawls:

Blue Ice

Nose: "strong fragrance," "citrus," "rubbing alcohol," "open"

Burn: "on throat and tip of tongue," "warming, not sharp," "sharp, slow lingering burn"

Mouth Feel: "smooth," "creamy," "nice long finish," "lip tingle," "velvety"

Description: "not bad, I'd drink a martini of this," "very palatable"

Rank: 3


Nose: "aggressive," "sake smell, don't like," "earthy," "yeast, sake," "tequila," "potato farm-y"

Burn: "smoother," "no," "non-slight," "none"

Mouth Feel: "feels thicker," "rounder, fuller," "much more creamy," "not a long finish, but a touch of sweet on the body"

Description: "I like the flavor," "tastes like isopropyl smells," "no like," "not the best"

Rank: 5

44º North

Nose: "light floral," "medicinal," "sweeter," "sha pow!"

Burn: "back of the mouth action," "strong burn," 'higher burn"

Mouth Feel: "ow," "very smooth and light up front," "like a spritzer"

Description: "really light taste," "sweet, innocuous," "burn lasts," "I enjoy the friendliness of this vodka, nice job"

Rank: 1


Nose: "little to no smell," "mild fruit," "nearly no scent," "zing! (I am scared)," "extra, extra good"

Burn: "fumes exit nostrils—in a good way," "hells yes," "lots o burn up front," "solid burn"

Mouth Feel: "earth and fire (no wind)," "full mouth," "sides of tongue feel numb," "tingle bells," "full mouth lingers"

Description: "little tiny citric flavor," "alcohol aftertaste," "rubbing alcohol with a twist of lime," "made vodka face," "would like a mixer, please"

Rank: 4

Teton Glacier

Nose: "light," "yikes," "hair spray," "sharp," "mild," "subtle smell"

Burn: "not as much," "very strong," "so, so," "little"

Mouth Feel: "OK," "vapor in back of throat," "nice," "tingle"

Description: "long and lingering," "tastes most like vodka," "I am into it, tastes like a quality vodka," "ugh, I quit"

Rank: 2