In the past few years a barrage of advertising and a parade of pretty bottles have converted what was once characterized as a rough-and-tumble local booze for Eastern European drinking binges to a classy, sippable tipple, lining the top shelf of trendy clubs and martini bars. Now vodka's gone handcrafted, and both the ingredients and the distiller may be just down the road.
Madison's Yahara Bay Distillery joins Milwaukee's Great Lakes Distillery, maker of Rehorst Premium Vodka, and 45th Parallel Spirits out of New Richmond, as Wisconsin's first three legal liquor producers. Vodka can be made from a variety of sources, from potatoes to molasses. In the case of our local brands, the source material of choice is corn.
After fermentation, distillation produces a liquid of at least 190-proof (95% alcohol) to which water is added to get the vodka to the 80-proof we generally expect. The spirits are charcoal-filtered and often distilled at least a second time. During distillation the "heads" and "tails" are removed; that is, the first and last trickles off of the still are taken out, as they contain compounds such as ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate at the front end and fusel oils at the back end, all of which would ruin the clean taste of the vodka.
Nick Quint of Yahara Bay Distillery explained it to me thus: "The first 10% smells like paint thinner and the last 10% smells like wet cardboard." Good riddance.
I looked for a couple of Madison-area venues to try some Wisconsin vodka. I had trouble finding Rehorst. Many of the places listed as vendors on the company website either hadn't heard of it or had stopped carrying it months ago for lack of interest. Now that the Wisconsin distillates are getting a bit more press, patrons may be asking for it. But despite the attraction of a local label, the Badger State vodkas are still going to have to hold up to the major brands to remain behind the bar.
A fine vodka is smooth and lacks an aftertaste. It should also give you a warm feeling in the mouth and throat, not the burning sensation of firewater. With these criteria in mind, I stopped in at The Continental in Fitchburg.
The subdued yellow lighting and the black ceiling make the room dim, but tea candles and paddle fans keep it from seeming gloomy. The zinc bar is attractive, and regular patrons commonly choose to take their meals there.
I asked the bartender, Anna, if a lot of people are drinking Rehorst. "They don't come asking for it, but if they see it at the bar and are curious, they ask. They want to try it when they find out it's local."
"I have people who come in and drink one particular brand, and I have people who will come in and just drink rail vodka because their palates can't tell the difference." She shrugged.
The Continental had both Yahara Bay and Rehorst, so I had a chance to try them side by side. A sniff of the Rehorst left no doubt of its potency, and the taste lingered.
The Yahara Bay vodka was much milder on the nose and sweeter on the tongue as well. I had been told by Quint that 10% of his distillate is derived from apple juice. Some drinkers have even been able to discern a hint of the fruit. Though mine was not one of those fortunate palates, I can guess that the apples were responsible for the much smoother finish. It went down warm, but not burning.
Anna suggested baked brie with apple slices ($8) to go alongside. Another fine option would be the steamed mussels or clams ($9). Happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. is a good time to taste, as the martinis ($9) go half-price then, as do the appetizers.
A couple nights later I returned to Fitchburg to stop in at Liliana's Restaurant. The local spirits fit quite nicely at the bar, with Wisconsin beers on tap and a few of the state wines on the racks, but the menu hails from the other end of the Mississippi. Photographs of the Big Easy, taken by the owner's father, adorn the walls. The bar is neighborly but not cramped, and the room is bright and festive. Diners are separated from the bar area by a hallway of wine racks. A jazz guitarist added a touch of class and was quick to take requests. Some Miles Davis ("All Blues"), if you please, and a chilled glass of Yahara Bay vodka.
Bartender Bryan Trupke was quick with appetizer recommendations for my drink. I pulled the heads and tails off of a plate-full of barbecued Madagascar shrimp ($12). The heat of the chili oil and the pronounced rosemary in the appetizer's sauce was offset nicely by the cool and clean spirits.
Now it was time to try Yahara Bay's rum, distilled from molasses. I asked for a bit of Bacardi, too, to see how the local grog stacked up against it. The mass-market brand didn't even come close. Yahara Bay was much smoother and, although plenty potent, had a warm appeal. Had I been blindfolded, I might have mistaken the aroma for a dark rum. For an accompanying appetizer, I ordered a plate of sharp-cheddar-filled hushpuppies with cherry mustard ($7).
Trupke once lived in the Virgin Islands, home of Cruzan Rum: "A bottle of rum was actually cheaper than two liters of Coke." Trupke offered to add some Coke to my rum, but I expressed my concern it would hide the liquor's flavor. He disagreed: "Coke won't ruin a good rum; just take it easy on the amount."
Likewise for vodka, mixing doesn't mean any old vodka will do. A vodka of a higher proof in a screwdriver, for example, will bring out the orange flavor more, and if you are using a really harsh, low-quality distillate, that aroma and bite will rise above the mixer.
I look forward to a dark, aged rum from Yahara Bay. I'll also be watching for 45th Parallel to make it to our latitude in the coming weeks.
Yahara Bay Distillery
Great Lakes Distillery
45th Parallel Spirits
A common misconception is that a dry martini is simply chilled vodka; but there is always vermouth added in amounts varying by recipe. Be clear with your bartender what you really want, and if you are getting an olive involved, make sure it is showered before entering the pool.