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For Vodka, an Absolution

Two California distillers have a revolutionary idea: use pure fruit, not artificial flavorings

September 18, 2002|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vodka is the ultimate flavor delivery vehicle. It is officially defined as an odorless, colorless, flavorless spirit, but any connoisseur will assure you that the crystalline weight and purity of a fine vodka offer a sensation that is, if not exactly a flavor, an unmistakable impression.

It's a kind of expectant void in which the senses are poised to receive taste itself, a Zen-like stillness awaiting only the specific nuances that will make the mind say, "Ah, lemon. Ah, lime. Ah, Buddha's Hand citron ..."

So why have flavored vodkas been almost uniformly disappointing? Why do they almost always taste like Kool-Aid? It could be because most are made in much the same way, pumped full of artificial flavorings.

Now, two of the finest artisan distillers in California are trying to break out of that trap, making spectacular flavored vodka by infusing the neutral spirit with crushed pure fruit. Not quite convinced by the generic citrus-like tang of Absolut Citron and its ilk? Try Domaine Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit or Hangar One Mandarin Blossom.

The difference between these flavored vodkas and the run-of-the-mill high-production commercial varieties is like that between watching a video and seeing a fresh print of the film on a wide screen with THX sound.

This combination of perfect flavor delivery vehicle and high craftsmanship was probably bound to happen eventually. Vodka is the most popular spirit on the American market, and has been since shortly after its introduction by Smirnoff, in 1939. Last year about 40 million cases of vodka were sold in the U.S. (up 4% from 2000), and industry analysts say 25% of all cocktails consumed are now made with vodka.

Flavored vodkas first became popular in this country in the 1990s, when they were embraced by young, hip, cash-rich drinkers during the decade's dot-com-driven hedonism. Every major vodka brand offers at least one flavor. But for the most part, these are fit only to be mixed into cocktails.

That is not to say that the marriage came easily. In fact, distilling vodka is a completely different process from most small-volume artisan distillation. Producing vodka requires extremely efficient distillation that was virtually impossible (or highly impractical) before the invention of the column still in 1830. Vodkas are usually made by the millions of gallons.

The pot or alambic still, which is used for distilling most brandies, whiskeys and eaux de vies, does only one small batch at a time, and is not nearly as efficient in refinement and fortification as a column still.

That's good for most spirits, where some residual aroma and flavor are desired. But it makes it tough to produce something as refined as vodka. That's why both Hangar One and Charbay begin with base vodka bought from specialty distillers in the Midwest. This is infused with flavor and then a portion of it is re-distilled.

Charbay's flavored vodka had its birth in 1995 when Marko Karakasevic, the son of Napa Valley master distiller Miles Karakasevic, was having a drink at Tra Vigne restaurant.

"I'd been watching all the premium vodkas explode onto the market," he recalls. "I didn't think we could compete in that market, but then I noticed that the only flavored vodka on the back bar was Absolut Citron. That tasted like a melted Popsicle to me. I knew we could do better. And I realized that was the way to get in [to the vodka market]."

A Family Project

The Karakasevic family began distilling 13 generations ago in Eastern Europe. Since 1983 they have operated a still in the woods high above Napa Valley on Spring Mountain, and more recently installed another in a more accessible location in Ukiah. Miles has become famous for his brandies, ports and eaux de vies, but the flavored vodka project is almost entirely Marko's baby.

At first he had to sell the idea to his father. "We're not in the vodka business," said Miles. "We're all about fragrance. I think of us as a house of perfume."

What eventually sold him on the project was the idea that Charbay flavored vodkas would be varietally specific infusions of fresh, whole fruit.

Hangar One is a joint project between two of the best-known figures in California distilling, Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin and Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits. It was the possibility of doing something better than what was commonly available that also convinced Rupf when Coale approached him last year.

"I'd never thought about doing vodka before," Rupf says. "Our distillation processes are geared to extract maximum flavor. That's what a good eau de vie is. Vodka is the opposite. It's counter to what we do. But there has been a progression in the manufacture and perception of vodka. Now the high-end imports have some distinctive characteristics, and that's what opened my eyes to being able to get involved."

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