Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Problem With Artisan Vodka.

Yes, I'm a whiskey guy, but that is not my sole interest.

I look at the spirits industry as a whole. Right now, vodka is huge. There are about 100-times more vodkas than there are distilleries, but that's another story. Vodka sales in the U.S. are growing at more than 7% per year. All across the United States, small distilleries are springing up. Almost all of them sell vodka.

It is the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB for short), not me, that decides what you can call spirits products if you want to sell them in the United States. It says vodka is a neutral spirit made from any material, distilled above 95% ABV, then "treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." All the TTB is saying there is that said treatments may only enhance neutrality, not diminish it. They can remove aroma, taste, or color, they can't add it.

According to the TTB, vodka is a subset of neutral spirits or alcohol.

The TTB definition certainly does not describe the spirit called vodka in the 18th century and before, but unless the TTB changes its definition, that is what vodka is in the United States and there is no way around it.

Distillers can make something that doesn't comply with the TTB description of vodka, they can make something more like the way vodka was made before the invention of the column still, they can make anything they want, they just can't call it vodka.

Phil Prichard would like to make rum from Tennessee sorghum. He can make all the spirit from Tennessee sorghum that he wants, he just can't call it rum. Nation-of-laws and all that. We may wish the laws were different, but we play the hand we're dealt.

In India, they make a spirit from sugar cane that they call whiskey. They are unhappy that the United States, the European Union, and most other markets won't accept that product as whiskey.

By the TTB definition, all vodka should taste alike, but we know it doesn't. It doesn't because human senses are incredibly sensitive and can detect flavor elements in parts per billion. Some people believe the best of vodka is revealed when the spirit is distilled at the highest proof technology allows, then heavily filtered. Other people have different ideas.

I am a spirits enthusiast and here is what I would like from someone who calls him- or herself a craft distiller or artisan distiller. Make something original. Make it as well as it can be made. Tell me the truth about it.


Anonymous said...

I love this. Real vodka is anything but flavorless, overdistilleed, over filtered neutral spirits. That's American, not authentic. Mid-westerners are learning to appreciate full flavor vodka from a small microdistillery called Middle West Spirits in Ohio. They are pushing the boundaries and trying to expand the pallet for something traditional. Oyo Vodka they call it. Think its a control state, so got to buy it when you drive through... or have someone ship it to you.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The problem with this claim is that vodka must be neutral by law. To call it 'vodka' the spirit must "be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color."