The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

By Brent Rose on at

I do not like vodka. Let me start there. In fact I’ve previously written that a vodka soda is the world’s most dangerous drink because you will fall asleep and choke while drinking it’s so fucking boring. So, when I walked into the Woody Creek vodka distillery near Aspen, Colorado, it was not without a great deal of scepticism.

And then I took a sip. Holy crap. This high-end potato vodka was so incredibly smooth, and so delicately sweet. My mouth watered. “Is this something people can buy right now?” The tasting room manager smiled and nodded. I immediately pulled out my notepad and pen. This was not your typical vodka. This was something different, and I needed to know how.

Woody Creek makes potato vodka. Why? Because potato vodka costs almost ten times (10!) as much to make in terms of raw materials compared to grains like wheat or rice.

That’s enough to keep most people out of the potato vodka game right there, but this isn’t the story of some scrappy underdogs making hooch in their garage on the cheap. This is the story of a couple guys who wanted to make the absolute best vodka possible and were willing and able to shell out the premium bucks to make it happen.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo courtesy of Woody Creek]

Genesis

Before getting into the distilling game, Pat Scanlan and Mark Kleckner were both in the defence industry. According to Pat’s bio, he worked for companies like Lockheed Martin and IBM with clients that included NORAD, US Space Command and the Air Force’s missile division, and he had Top Secret Security Clearance. Mark worked in mergers and acquisitions and helped close defence contracts worth half a billion dollars. In other words, when they decided to walk away and try their hand at distilling, they were not poor.

They were also both Chopin-drinkers. Chopin, for those who don’t know, is a high-end Polish potato vodka. It’s actually one of the only vodkas that I will tolerate. I never order it at a bar, but if someone happens to have a bottle of it lying around (and they don’t have any good whiskey) then sure, why not. Chopin is incredibly smooth, and it has a light sweetness to it. That sweetness comes from the Stobrawa potato it’s distilled from, so that’s the potato Woody Creek wanted to start with.

Just one problem. Poland is rather protective of these particular potatoes because they’re so good for vodka-making that they’re a national asset. That makes it nigh impossible to get seeds into the US. In fact, Woody Creek found that it actually was impossible to get them in any significant quantity. So they turned to science.

Pat Scanlan was able to obtain a small amount of Stobrawa potato tissue in a petri dish. They were somehow managed to preserve it until they were able to get it back to Colorado. At that point Pat brought it to Dr. David Holm at Colorado State University, which just so happens to have a Potato Program (yes, really).

Holm and his team cultured that tissue sample in test tubes on artificial media. The potato plants grew, producing micro tubers which were then used as seed stock. Enough seed potatoes were produced to get them started. In year one all the potatoes they harvested were retained for seed in year two. In year two they grew enough to make some vodka and retain enough seed to go forward. Currently Stobrawa potatoes account for just two acres of the potatoes planted at Scanlan’s farm, so they still can’t make much of this stuff.

The takeaway here is that the best vodka I’ve ever tasted came out of a petri dish. Which is crazy.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo courtesy of Woody Creek]

Mashed Potatoes

So now they had their taters, they had to find a place to grow them. Wouldn’t you know it, the high mountains of Colorado provide a pretty perfect climate for those suckers. In fact, a hundred or so years ago the Aspen Valley grew more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho.

So the distillers bought some farmland in Woody Creek (about 10 miles south of Aspen proper) and planted their fields. This actually makes them one of the few distilleries that controls every aspect of their product from planting seeds to bottling. This is great for quality control, but it allows them another advantage that even fewer distilleries can boast: freshness.

Woody Creek processes their potatoes the very same day they’re dug up out of the ground, which is pretty remarkable. They claim the extreme freshness of the potato ensures that all of the best, sweetest flavours wind up in the mash.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo courtesy of Woody Creek]

As soon as the potatoes come off the truck they are put into a large cleaning machine that blasts them with high pressure, high-temperature water. They then go into a hammer-mill that breaks them down into rice-sized bits. From there, those bits are boiled for one hour, which breaks up the long-chain polysaccharides, essentially releasing the sugars inside the potatoes for the yeast to eat. Potato doesn’t have nearly the concentration of sugars that grains like wheat do, which is why so much is needed, which accounts for part of the increased cost of production.

At that point you have wort, the sweet liquid that will be inoculated with yeast. The yeasties tear through the sugar, turning some of it into alcohol. At that point you basically have a potato beer, which is probably disgusting but I kind of want to try it anyway. Then it’s time to distil it into a high-proof spirit, and oh, what a wonderful toy they have for that.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo courtesy of Woody Creek]

Distil My Heart

According to Woody Creek’s master distiller David Matthews, every time you redistil you are further diluting the flavours of the original ingredients that went into it. Since they spend so much money and effort to cultivate those Stobrawa potatoes, they obviously want to preserve those flavours as much as possible. So they spared no expense and bought the very best still that money could buy, and it truly is a thing of beauty.

This is a custom-made beauty from Christian Carl Stills in Germany. It took six months to build. It has two 34-foot rectification columns with 21 bubble plates in each of them. It’s a steam-punk wet dream. It’s also an absurd amount of copper.

Copper is significant because it absorbs sulphur compounds, ethyl carbonate, and other nasties that would mar the flavour of the spirit. Also, copper is really expensive these days which is why many distillers are using stainless steel with just a few copper plates. That’ll work just fine, but again, we’re talking no compromises here.

When it comes out it’s almost pure ethanol. For a spirit to legally be called vodka in the US, it must be at least 95% ethanol when it comes off the still. It turns out that the first 90% is pretty easy to manufacture, it’s getting those last few per cent that requires the majority of the work. Typically, this involves running the spirit through the still multiple times, which is why you see so many vodkas bragging they they’re distilled five or six times.

Most cheap vodkas use a combination of charcoal and chill filtering to remove the heads and tails from a run, which are extremely unpleasant tasting and may even be poisonous. Filtering it through charcoal removes most of the heads, but it also strips the spirit of flavour and character.

The spirit is then chilled, which causes the fusil oils in the tails to congeal and they can then be strained out. High-end rectifying stills like the one used by Woody Creek (and most of the better spirit makers) separate out these undesirable elements by temperature, so they don’t end up in the spirit that comes off the still.

Once it’s done, the spirit goes into stainless steel holding tanks which don’t alter the spirit’s flavour while it’s waiting to be bottled. Bottling is done by hand right there in the distillery. Then it’s boxed up and shipped out to a few lucky liquor stores.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo courtesy of Matt Kisiday]

The Joy of Drinking

The first sip of Woody Creek’s high-end Reserve vodka shocked me. It was just so damn good. And again, I don’t generally care for vodka. This was fantastic. It was perfectly smooth, and it had a natural sweetness like I’ve never experienced with a vodka. Is that the Stobrowa? Is it that incredible still? Who knows, but I wanted to savour it. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to keep in the freezer; you actually want to experience all of the subtle flavours. I couldn’t believe it. I like Chopin okay, but I actually, dare I say it, loved this vodka.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo credit: Matt Kisiday]

Woody Creek makes another, less-expensive vodka called Signature Potato Vodka, which is actually their flagship product. This one uses the Rio Grande potato which is a Colorado native and is also grown on Scanlan’s farm where it occupies all but the two acres where the Stobrawa grow. The Rio Grandes then go through that same processing and the same magical still as the Reserve. I’d say it’s not quite as good, but it’s damn close. I’d choose it over Chopin, too, and I’m not the only one. It just won best in show in the vodka category at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which is arguably the most prestigious award in booze.

Woody Creeks makes some other spirits as well including a straight rye (100 per cent rye mash), a white whiskey (100 per cent corn), and even a pear brandy. They stood out to me as exceptionally smooth, which is likely a result of using that same magical still the vodkas go through. The pear brandy was so damn good I thought I was going to have an out of body experience.

The High-End Magic Behind the Best Vodka I’ve Ever Had

[photo credit: Matt Kisiday]

Currently, the Signature vodka, the Reserve vodka, and the Straight Rye are all being distributed to liquor stores, though obviously they’re a small company so they’re going to be very hard to find. You’ll have an easier time finding them in Colorado and New York. Beyond that, ask around. Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. If you want some of their smaller batch items like their Four Grain Whiskey, their Reserve Rye, pear brandy, apple brandy, you’ll have to visit the distillery as that’s the only place you can get them for now. Rum and gin are coming soon, too.

I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn here other than don’t always trust your assumptions. Open yourself up to trying something you’re pretty sure you’re going to hate, because sometimes you are very wrong in a wonderful way. Also, sometimes going to insane lengths to be the best sometimes actually results in you being the best. Which is kind of cool.

[Woody Creek]

[Top photo credit: Matt Kisiday]