Over the years, I've served my friends so many bizarre alcoholic tinctures that merely listing them gives me a kind of secondhand buzz. I've stirred swimming pool quantities of a venerable Colonial-era drink called fish house punch (lemons, white wine, Cognac, peach brandy, two kinds of rum). On a balcony in Aspen, I poured what I called bourbon rickeys (Maker's Mark, lime juice, club soda) for a pair of chefs who renamed the drink the Pete Wells and served it at their restaurantwhich, coincidentally I hope, is now defunct. I've done things with Chartreuse and crème de cacao and cherry brandy (usually involving paper umbrellas) that would make most men blush. And I did all of it without benefit of vodka.
In other words, I am a freak. Vodka is by far the most popular spirit in America; with its heavyweight sales, it clobbers gin, cleans bourbon's clock and leaves rum gasping on the ropes. Vodka takes top billing on cocktail lists around the country. Bartenders build drinks around it for the same reason that people in the '80s built their wardrobes around black: It goes with just about everything. Vodka, by decree of the United States government, is a "neutral spirit...without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." The legal definition doesn't quite fit; anyone who's tasted a few brands side by side knows that they can be markedly different in a quiet way. Still, the relatively neutral flavor is why people love vodka. It's easy to like, easy to mix, easy to drink. As for myself, I've never had time for anything that, once it starts to show a little personality, gets in trouble with the government.
Recently, though, I discovered a new class of vodkas that have changed my mind. They're made in pot stills, an ancient technique that somehow has engendered some very modern vodkas. Titans of the beverage trade like Ketel One and Absolut are in the pot-still game, along with some guy down in Texas named Tito, and they're turning out vodkas that just seem to have a little more going on. Two independent California vodka producers, Hangar One and Charbay, along with the Polish makers of Belvedere, use pot stills to make flavored vodkas that capture the taste of fresh fruit. Spirits carefully handcrafted on a small scale, all these vodkas embody the qualities I search out in cheeses and wines and olive oils. They have aroma and taste; some have color; all have character. I don't know how they get around the Feds, but I do know a little bit about how they're made. If you'll just allow me to explain the process briefly, I'll also tell you why I think the trend toward pot distillation is the most exciting thing to come along since Absolut shook up the scene in 1986 with Peppar, the first mass-market flavored vodka.
From Bathtub Booze to Billion-Dollar Industry
What a still does is pull the alcohol out of any fermented liquid and pool it in one potent batch. People have been doing this for at least a thousand years by setting a pot of beer or wine on top of a fire; alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it quickly bubbles into vapor. The device that does this, called a pot still, is usually made of copper and looks like a giant, shiny pumpkin with a long stem that ends in a corkscrew. The boozy steam gets funneled through the stem; this cools the alcohol enough so that when it drips out the end it's liquid again. That clear, potent distillate can be purified even more by a second trip through the still, or a third.
One problem with pot stills is that the quality of their output varies dramatically, depending on who's watching the machinery. The pot stills operated by the tough old Scots of Islay eke out some of the most delicious whisky on the planet; pot stills overseen by Chicago gangsters in the '20s issued forth a searingly pungent bathtub gin that regularly blinded its consumers. Why such a disparity? The liquid that trickles out at the beginning of a still run, and again at the end, typically tastes like hell. A large part of the distiller's art is knowing when they've reached the tasty middle, the part that's worth keeping. But even that has to be relearned every day, because no two batches are quite the same, affected as they are by variations in yeast, in weather conditions and in the raw material itself. (Contrary to popular belief, most vodkas are made from grain, not potatoes.)
The other problem with pot stills is that they're slow. This drawback was addressed in 1831 by an Irishman named Aeneas Coffey, who patented a revolutionary new still. By stringing a series of mini stills together in one giant column, Coffey's machine eliminated the need for second and third trips, and the need for the tough old Scot as well. The column still automatically spits out a highly purified alcoholmost of the flavor, whether nasty or nice, gets left behindand does it far faster than the pot still, with less margin for error. This technological advance is the reason the spirits industry grew from a craftsman's pursuit to a vast global business.
Column-distilled spirits can be very fine. Nearly every single gin on the market comes out of a column still, as do most vodkas, and these spirits earn their staggering popularity because they're pure and clean-tasting, with no funky off flavors. Humanity has been quenching its thirst in higher style thanks to Aeneas Coffey. But industrial products eventually inspire a craving for their opposite. The column-still guys poured billions of dollars and untold amounts of creative energy into setting their vodka brands apart by means of high-style bottles and quasi-mystical marketing campaigns, until finally some rebels sensed that the time had come to execute a smart about-face and march off in a different direction.
The first vodka sold in the United States made from pot stills was Ketel Onethough the brand had a head start: The Nolet family had been using pot stills for three centuries. Joannes Nolet developed the recipe for Ketel One vodka in 1691 in Schiedam, Holland, using a copper ketel (as in kettle, or pot) he made himself; 10 generations later, in 1992, his descendant Carolus Nolet, Sr., brought the stuff across the Atlantic. Within two years, Americans were drinking this Dutch spirit so enthusiastically that the Nolets had to build several replicas of their venerable kettles to keep up with demand.
What the Nolets have been doing for centuries, Tito Beveridge couldn't exactly figure out on his first try. A geologist and geophysicist living in Austin, Texas, Beveridge got burned out on the petroleum business and thought it would be fun to own a microdistillery. He couldn't afford a still, so, he says, he "MacGyvered" one out of scrap coppernot as easy as it seemed at first, he learned, but the real challenges didn't arrive until he got the thing fired up. "I made some really scary stuff in the beginning," Beveridge says. "It took a couple years before I got to the point where I thought, 'Oh, man, I might even try this one.'" Beveridge knew the result he was looking for: "What I like is when you're not thinking about the alcohol," he says, "when you taste sweetness and a tart finish. So then you think, 'Oh, that was nice. Let's do that again.'" He must have succeeded, because that's almost exactly how I feel every time I drink Tito's Handmade Vodka.
If there were any doubts that pot stills are a movement, they dissolved earlier this year when Absolut joined the party. Absolut has shaped virtually every trend in vodka over the past 20 years, from high-concept advertising to experiments in flavoring to the brilliant idea of using bottle shape as a brand logo. Absolut says its newest offering, Level, has been achieved "by a proprietary combination of continuous [meaning column-stilled] and batch [pot-stilled] distillation." When a company the size of Absolut starts throwing around the word proprietary, it means that nosy writers are not, repeat, not, going to learn anything interesting about the recipe. The only thing the company seems willing to reveal is that the production process involves introducing some extra character, through the addition of some pot-stilled vodka, to a smooth base of column-distilled spirit.
Ketel One, Tito's and Level are all classic unflavored vodkas, but that's only half the story. Vodka comes in almost as many flavors as ice cream: There's raspberry, vanilla, coffee, chocolate, cranberry, pepper, you name it. There are three ways to flavor vodka. You can infuse it with fruit or spices, which is a fun thing to do at home but useless for commercial purposes, since over time the color and flavors will break down. Then there's what you might call the Eyedropper Method: adding tiny amounts of flavoring, either natural or artificial. This is, in essence, how most flavored vodkas on the market are made, which means they're only as good as their additives. The third way is the most labor-intensive: You infuse neutral spirits, then you run the infusion through a pot still. When it works, it gives you a drink that combines the fresh, true taste of infusions with the stability of the Eyedropper Method.
Where the thorough, multiple distillations of a column still would strip out the new flavors, the gentler pot still can give them clarity, focus and structure. This is the effect Miles and Marko Karakasevic of Napa Valley's Charbay were after when, in 1998, they introduced the first American vodkas made with actual fruit. They ground up blood oranges and Meyer lemons, macerated them in grain alcohol and then ran the liquids through their copper pot still. What came out were vodkas that delivered a full-frontal blast of citrus. In 2002, another California distiller, Jörg Rupf of St. George Spirits, followed the same route and reached a different destination. Working with infusions of kaffir limes, Buddha's hand citron and mandarin blossoms, Rupf created Hangar One vodkas, which are as delicate as their ingredients are esoteric. Hangar One also puts out an unflavored vodka with a dose of Viognier grape distillate, giving it some of the aromatic qualities of a great grappa. It's the clearest illustration of how much personality you can squeeze through a pot still. So far, the Feds haven't even blinked.
Earlier this year, a third player joined Charbay and Hangar One in producing citrus-flavored vodkas with a pot still: The Polish firm behind Belvedere teamed up with a French liqueur artisan, Elie-Arnaud Denoix. The Poles truck their vodka to Southwest France; Denoix tosses in a combination of oranges and limes (for Belvedere Pomarańcza) or lemons and limes (Belvedere Cytrus) and cooks the infusion in his copper still; then he sends it back to Poland to be bottled. By the time it reaches my corner liquor store, it's traveled more than I have all year.
Getting Into the Party Spirit
After seeing the craftsmanship and care that went into these pot-stilled spirits, I figured that the least I could do was throw my first-ever vodka party. The two cocktails I made were repurposed versions of some of my old gin-based standbys. Gin and grapefruit juice in a glass with a salted rim give you a Greyhound; I squeezed pink grapefruit, swapped in vodka and topped it off with tonic water for the showier Saluki. I've always loved the Lanesborough hotel's Breakfast Martini for its secret ingredient (orange marmalade). I had in my fridge some apricot preserves I'd put up last summer, so I thought I'd use them in my version of that London original. Because the drink is not too sweet and because it polished off my jar of jam, my wife named it the Dry Toast. To keep things simple I used unflavored vodka in both cocktails, but I heartily approve of experiments with citrusy spirits (a Saluki with Charbay's Ruby Red Grapefruit sounds nice to me, and so does a Dry Toast with Hangar One's Buddha's Hand Citron). For guests who wanted to take a more hard-nosed investigative approach to the pot-still movement, I passed around shots of chilled vodka with spirals of lime zest.
Alex Freij, the owner of the Manhattan restaurants industry(food) and Diner 24, helped me out by whipping up some hors d'oeuvres. Fish and citrus being natural allies, the smoked salmon in his crêpe roll-ups got along very well with the drinks, as did the smoked trout on endive leaf scoops. My favorite Freij contribution were the Parmesan-dusted meatballs; tiny and toothpick-ready, they reminded me of the Swedish meatballs passed around at grown-up cocktail parties when I was a kid. Come to think of it, being shooed away from those soirees made me view them as all the more glamorous, which may explain why I started throwing cocktail parties with such a vengeance as soon as I was old enough to walk into a liquor store on my own.
The guests at my party seemed to have a good time. But it was the host who enjoyed himself the most. I'd gone still-crazy after all these years.
Pete Wells, a former editor at F&W, is a senior editor at Details and the winner of a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Writing on Spirits, Wine and Beer.