Sunday 17 July 2011

Heavy Water vodka

The 1965 war film The Heroes of Telemark was on TV a few weeks ago, about the plucky Norwegian resistance saboteurs who stopped the Nazis from using heavy water made at the Vemork Norsk Hydro plant in Norway to develop nuclear weapons. By interesting coincidence, only the day before I had been at the Distil spirit show and had encountered an engaging vodka called Heavy Water, which is named after the same incident.

Heavy Water photographed at Distil

OK, just look at the picture—it’s called Heavy Water, and it comes in a bottle with what looks like a fuel rod in it. What’s not to like? According to Mark Chapman, MD for Europe and Asia, the plastic rod is an aerator (though he also admitted that primarily it was there to look cool).

Heavy Water has a creamy, vanilla, almost toffee nose with, for me, a hint of strawberry fruitiness. The palate shows the same sweet fruit but it is not oleaginously smooth—there is a peppery edge that leaves a tingling on the tongue. I compare it to some Adnams Longshore that is to hand, and the Adnams has a woodier nose and perhaps a smoother palate. Sipsmith has a similar sweet, fruity nose to the Heavy Water but a very smooth palate; Chase potato vodka has a similar toffee element, which carries over on to the palate, again giving a very smooth impression. Finally I compare the Heavy Water to some Krepkaya strong Russian vodka—which has sharper, thinner nose, with a hint of grapefruit; in the mouth it is fiery (but then it is 56% ABV). For me the Heavy Water has an interesting balance between a sweet, fruity approachability and backbone that makes its presence felt.

I try a vodka Dry Martini using Heavy Water. I’m normally much more of a gin Martini man myself, but this cocktail works remarkably well, with the vodka lending a plump, creamy mouthfeel, but with that peppery character poking through the vermouth too.

So what about this aerator rod? You don’t actually seem to be able to unscrew this assembly, so you can’t compare the vodka poured through the rod with vodka just poured normally. The best I can do is pour some into a shot glass, up to the brim, then clingfilm over it and leave it for about 48 hours, then compare this with some freshly poured through the mighty aerator. There is actually a difference—the fresh-poured is smoother and fruitier, whereas the previously poured stuff has a more medicinal nose and an oddly flat, almost smoky element to the flavour. But I have no idea is this is simply an effect of making the vodka sit in a shot glass under clingfilm for 48 hours.

The hydrogen plant at Rjukan, Telemark. It is not involved in the production
of Heavy Water vodka (and in fact was destroyed by bombing in the war)
Heavy water is water in which a high level of the normal hydrogen atoms are replaced by deuterium, an isotope that has a neutron in the nucleus as well as a proton (normal hydrogen just has the proton). Deuterium occurs naturally in a ratio of one to every 6,400 hydrogen atoms. In ordinary water there is about one deuterium atom to every 156 million, but at the Norwegian plant they found a way of producing deuterium-enriched water. Although not radioactive, heavy water had the property of stabilising early experiments in nuclear fission, which was why Jerry was keen to get his hands on it. Heavy water is indeed heavier than regular water.

You should be pleased to hear that Heavy Water vodka doesn’t contain any more heaviness than ordinary water (heavy water in concentration in the bodies of humans and animals stops cell division, so will ultimately kill you). It is actually made in Sweden, on the shores of lake Vänern, from Scandinavian winter wheat and water from an artesian well, apparently from a subterranean lake formed during the last Ice Age. The marketing bumf makes great play of the five-times distillation, the filtration through Norwegian black birch charcoal and the rarefied water source, claiming that Heavy Water is the “purest vodka in the world”. Privately owned, it was actually launched in 2005, and I was intrigued to discover that Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller were involved.

“Anistatia and I had been living in Boise, Idaho,” Jared explains in response to my questions, “where we worked as tasters on Bardenay Gin as it evolved from something we were making on a glass chemistry set still in a one-stall employee toilet (the only part of the building licensed at the time), to when it was being churned out on a gleaming Holstein copper pot still.

Kirk Douglas sports a stylish sweater in the film
“But, buckling under pressure from our editors at Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, and Random House, we moved back to New York. Once there, Anistatia decided to get a job outside the house and became creative director for a marketing and PR firm. One of the first clients she was presented with was Heavy Water, in the pre-natal stages of start-up, but with a decent set of guys behind it. I was invited to the meeting as well.

“We thought the bottle was novel, the name was good, and then tasted the product they were going to fill the bottle with. We looked at each other for a minute, thanked them for coming and walked out of the room. We didn't want our names anywhere near it. The young CEO was deeply offended, but one of the older guys at the table followed us out and asked if we thought we could do better. We tasted their vodka every morning for a week, then sent our organoleptic analysis off to them. The distiller, impressed we knew his starting and finishing fermentation temperatures by the taste of the final product encouraged them to bring us over. A month later we were working through the first samples in Norway and Sweden.

“We finally got it to the point where we were happy with it. One of the investors had insisted that the spirit not be entered in any competitions. ‘I’ve got a lot of money in this and a bad score would kill it,’ or words to that effect. Anistatia took a gamble and sent it off to the Beverage Tasting Istitute anyway. They liked it. They liked it a lot. It got best spirit in the white spirits category and a nice high score [94 points]… Heavy Water went on to rack up an impressive list of medals and accolades. But without a giant bankroll to fund the roll out, it has remained a boutique brand.”

Heavy Water vodka can be had for about £30 a bottle if you can find it. The only online source I have found is Drinkology—who are really German.

1 comment:

  1. Hi guys. I saw the vodka in a shop today (I'm strictly a gin martini man--Bluecoat, dry, two twists), but was curious as to whether they actually put some D2O in the vodka. Turns out they don't, but I can assure you (my doctoral dissertation was on deuterium MRI) that the alcohol in such a vodka would kill you long before the deuterium would (*).

    It might be a clever gimmick to put a little D2O in the product though. It's no more dangerous than ordinary water, and contrary to what some people think, it's not radioactive (tritium is). In quantity, it costs about $500 per kilogram, so you could put a cc or so in each bottle for a few cents. Until then, I may be the only person to have drank down a bottle of D2O with a beer chaser.

    --Matt Mitchell
    University of Pennsylvania

    *--an entire bottle would contain about 450 ccs of D2O if you were to make it entirely with heavy water. That would amount to about 1 percent of the water contained in your body. It takes 25% or so to cause significant illness--I once deuterated a rat to 10% with no ill effects.