Mon, Dec 5, 2011
By Anna Hiatt
Gary Shokin wasn’t content drinking someone else’s vodka. Where one lacked in smoothness, he says, another lacked in taste. So Shokin and his daughter Kary Laskin decided to make their own. Because the duo, like so many novice brewers and distillers, suffer from the belief they could do it better, they opened Brooklyn Republic Vodka in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2011. In a market saturated with commercial and boutique producers, Shokin and Laskin credit one humble ingredient for making their vodka taste better and more pure than the rest: New York City tap water.
New Yorkers say their city’s tap water holds the secret to exceptional bagels, pizza crust and allegedly better coffee and beer. Foodies across the country envy New York its tap water so much that some restaurants import it or chemically engineer their local supply to taste like New York’s. In a blind pizza taste test televised in 2009 on the Food Network, crust made with New York’s water was pitted against Los Angeles and Chicago. New York won unanimously. Whether or not better water makes for better vodka though is a matter of debate, but it’s its reputation as New York’s secret ingredient that the Shokin and Laskin hope to cash in on.
Some distillers claim that pure water is essential to good vodka, and New York’s tap water is just that: pure. The city’s water comes from upstate—a billion plus gallons a day—pulled mostly by gravity toward the city of New York. On the journey to your faucet, water passes over ground soil, absorbing minerals and making the water “harder,” or more impure. This is normal. But the water that flows from New York faucets has a natural mineral content so low that the federal government deemed it one of the five cleanest in the country. The New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection deemed further filtration unnecessary. It’s kind of a miracle that in a city of eight million plus people the water could taste so clean.
Whether or not cleaner water will translate into tastier vodka is up for debate. In the process of making vodka, almost all water is de-mineralized, using a process of reverse osmosis, before adding neutral grain spirits. Large-batch distillers, like Absolut, argue that the filtration process makes a pure source of water unnecessary. On the other end of the spectrum, small-batch distillers, like 45th Parallel in Wisconsin, warn that excess filtration ruins the body and character of the spirit.
But for vodka which, by definition, has no flavor, is over-filtration possible? “‘Vodka’ is,” by the United States’ government’s definition, “neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, color.”
When Brooklyn Republic Vodka opened this year, it became the first—and to date, the only—company to produce vodka legally in Brooklyn since Prohibition. There are a handful of distillers in Brooklyn producing gin and brown spirits, like bourbon. Colin Spoelman, co-founder of Kings County Distillery, makes whiskey. He laughs at the concept of “artisanal” vodka, a spirit which, he says, is about alcoholic yield. Whiskey, on the other hand, is about taste.
“The art of making vodka,” Spoelman says, “is about removing as much flavor as possible. It’s about making a very pure, very scientific alcohol.”
To Spoelman, vodka is a feat of engineering, not an art. It’s a practice in extracting and distilling as much pure drinkable alcohol as possible. To qualify as vodka by United States standards, neutral grain spirits must enter the still at 190 proof, or 95 percent alcohol, and the final vodka product must be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Any spirit under those limits doesn’t qualify. Everything above is vodka. Some people taste variation or character from one vodka to the next, but Spoelman can’t, and he’s skeptical that the average drinker could. They would be hard-pressed to articulate why one vodka tastes different.
Kris Berglund, a professor of chemical engineering and food science at Michigan State University, says he can taste the difference between vodkas. He’s not a vodka connoisseur, but Berglund’s also not a lay-person. He has taught a workshop in artisan distillation since 1997 where he’s trained hundreds of hopeful distillers and made his fair share of liquor. Berglund says that using different raw ingredients—like grapes, corn, or rye—to make neutral grain spirits affects the end product’s taste. But it’s not likely, he adds, that the average person will taste the difference between vodkas made from different water supplies.
Gary Shokin is among those who say they can taste character and flavor in good vodka. Good vodka, he says, is in his blood. Shokin immigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1980, a time before shelves were crowded with 20 brands of vodka. Artisan spirits were a thing of the future, and vodka was simpler. Shokin drank Stolichnaya then. In the last few decades, new vodkas have rushed onto the scene: imported vodkas from Sweden and Russian and the world over: every grade from standard to premium and deluxe, and then came flavor-infused. Shokin wanted vodka made his way.
He had learned about distillation and blending over the years during his travels, but to start his own company, Shokin needed to know more. He traveled to Wisconsin where he took a two-day class in grain-to-glass production at 45th Parallel. Because home distilling in the United States is illegal, people aiming to open their own distilleries—but who don’t want to bootleg—attend workshops at places like 45th Parallel and MSU to learn the basics.
Vodka production is fairly simple. There are two main ingredients: the first is grain or plant matter and the second is water. The grain is made into a mash and fermented into a neutral grain spirit that’s nearly pure alcohol, then it is run through the still to remove impurities before it’s blended with water. The spirit can be made using any plant matter with sugars, from grapes to rye to potatoes and more.
Brooklyn Republic Vodka is not a distillery. Shokin and Laskin don’t have enough space in Brooklyn to distill their own spirits. Instead they buy a corn spirit from Missouri and a wheat spirit from upstate New York. (The names of both distilleries are proprietary, Kary says.) The former grain is a nod to American vodka, the latter to European. They blend the two neutral grain spirits with their special ingredient, New York City water. The mix is then run through a six-column still to remove remaining impurities. The finished product is a blend of 60 percent water and 40 percent neutral grain spirit—water made alcoholic.
The less pure the water, the more times the mix must be distilled. Commercial vodka producers brag about the number of times their vodka is filtered. In a promotional video on their website, Absolut boasts 12 distillation cycles. (They wash the bottles with their vodka too.) The resulting vodka is “smoother,” according to Absolut. But according to 45th Parallel’s website, that’s over-filtering and it renders vodka tasteless. Distillers at 45th Parallel use a common purification process called reverse osmosis to extract minerals from the water before blending it with neutral grain spirits.
“The presence of water softeners and reverse osmosis systems,” Paul Werni, a distiller for 45th Parallel says, “makes the quality (of) water less important than the availability of water.” Werni’s claim poses the question: If water’s initial purity can be fixed, why worry about its source?
A liter bottle of their 80-proof vodka costs $27.99 at a small liquor store on the Upper West Side. The man behind the register at International Wine & Spirits instantly knows the vodka. He knows that it’s made in Brooklyn and that there’s something special about the water. An image of the Brooklyn Bridge is emblazoned on the back and the minimal copper-colored lettering looks austere, almost Soviet. It’s been selling well, he says.
What Shokin is most concerned about is a vodka that tastes great and feels smooth and that he wants to drink. He’s happy to drink his vodka straight. He’s Russian, after all. He’s serious when he says, “It’s part of our culture. It’s part of who we are. We’re eastern European. People joke and say ‘Russians like vodka,’ but it is part of Russian culture and celebration.”
Served right, Shokin says, vodka is freezing cold. He pours it into a shot glass, toasts na zdaroviye, to health and shoots it.