Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Indiana vodka: bringing it all back home

Given that, on paper, vodka is just alcohol and water, the continuing release of new brands—each claiming to be the vodka you’ve always wanted—could reasonably strike you as little more than marketing exercises. They tend to focus on authenticity, honesty, heritage and “purity” rather than coming out and saying “Hey, this tastes really good.” Perhaps they’re just afraid that to the typical punter they all just taste like, you know, vodka.

I’ve not spent much time tasting vodkas (unlike DBS who, I discovered recently, used to be quite a connoisseur before he got into gin) so I was actually quite struck by the differences when we lined up half a dozen vodkas recently (more of which anon). One of those was Indiana vodka from Heartland Distillers in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is not yet commercially available in the UK but I was lucky enough to get a sample from Bar Spirits who will be distributing it.

Heartland is actually the first new distillery in Indiana since Prohibition, and founder Stuart Hobson believes that Prohibition pretty much killed off the state’s distilling tradition. He seems to be driven by local pride as much as anything, making a point of sourcing his raw materials locally, as well as a desire to make something artisanal and old-school. All the bottling and labelling are done by hand, he says—each bottleneck is even hand-dipped in wax.

Many vodkas boast that their spirits are “tripled distilled” or “four times distilled”, but Heartland ups the ante by distilling Indiana six times. It is distilled and redistilled in batches, and each time they discard the “head” (the first distillate to emerge, which contains impurities you don’t want) and the low-alcohol “tail” (at the end of the distillation) keeping only the “heart”, thus gradually filtering the less desirable bits of the spectrum.

Like Sipsmith, they believe copper stills are best (in fact their still was made by the same Bavarian company as Sipsmith’s, Christian Carl), and that the copper reacts with the spirit to remove certain impurities such as sulphites.

Indiana is made from corn and maize, which Hobson believes produces a smoother and lighter flavour, with a sweeter finish, than vodkas made from wheat or potato. Just think, he says, how much tastier corn on the cob is compared to bread or mashed potato. Hmm. I don’t know that this argument holds much water, but there’s no doubting that Indiana is cracking vodka. It’s a lot like Sipsmith, in fact, in that it is smooth, sweet and creamy (a characteristic that Sipsmith attribute to their vodka’s being made from barley—not corn). It’s also remarkably fruity.

I have some Sipsmith to hand, so how do they compare? The Sipsmith has a much softer nose, with less of the fruitiness of Indiana, and its palate is dominated by a smooth unctuousness. I’ve also got a mini of Chase potato vodka: this is fruitier again on the nose, almost vinous, but the palate is quite buttery, hinting at ice cream. Chase somehow tickles the sour-receptors of the tongue without actually tasting sour, whereas Sipsmith bats its eyelids at your sweetness-receptors*. Compared to both, Indiana actually seems quite dry.

The only vodka I have to hand that I think may be made from wheat** is Smirnoff Red. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but I try the Smirnoff alongside. It seems to have no nose at all—and no taste***, only a little burning at the back of the throat to let you know it was there.

Clearly vodkas are not created equal. But I’m not convinced that any particular grain is the bee’s knees. I wouldn’t say that Indiana, the only corn/maize vodka I have knowingly tried, is superior to Chase potato vodka or Sipsmith barley vodka****. But it’s certainly good.

Matt Ford from Bar Spirits tells me the retail price of Indiana will be £23–26 when it gets here around 28th March. From their vodka Heartland make a range of seven infused versions as well as a gin they call Prohibition, which I will tell you about very shortly.

* Apparently we were lied to in school and the tongue does not have specific zones for different tastes. Which must be a bit embarrassing for high-end drinks glass merchant Reidel who used the “tongue map” as justification for their vast range of specific vessels for every conceivable alcoholic drink. Well, I don’t suppose they do one for Thunderbird or WKD, but they do an awful lot and they tend to be very expensive.
** Actually it's hard to know what it is made from. I heard a rumour that it was made from molasses spirit, as a lot of European volume vodka apparently is, but the Diageo PR I spoke to insisted it is "grain"-based. This website aimed at those with food allergies offers a list that gives Smirnoff as corn-based, something I've seen elsewhere. Yet another site suggests that in its original form it was made from wheat and rye, which I think is quite traditional, but that under Diageo it can be made from all manner of grain and non-grain spirits. Neither Smirnoff's nor Diageo's sites tell you anything.
*** Amusing, in 1938 Smirnoff was (quite successfully) marketed by one distributor in Kentucky as "White whiskey—no taste, no smell".
**** Martin Price, the man behind SW4, also has a vodka up his sleeve, as it were. It has not been brought to market yet, so I don’t even know what it will be called, but it is also made from barley. It’s jolly good, but it is different from Sipsmith, with saltier, edgier style.

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