In the distilling world, vodka makers like Telluride Vodka's Brad MacKenzie often prefer column stills. In a nutshell, column stills (exactly what they sound like — tall rather than squat) tend to make your vodka “cleaner” tasting. Pot stills, the old guys on the distilling history block, are what you want for full-flavored spirits (whiskey, for instance) because they in theory add more flavor. Impurities, beautifully flavorful impurities. There are exceptions, of course. As Pete Wells pointed out in Food and Wine, California craft distillers Hangar One and Charbay both use pot stills, as does Tito's in Texas. A few bigger guys like Kettle One and Absolut, too. That might seem like a lot, but in the vodka game, the column still rules.
Which gets us to Telluride Vodka, a 2-years-young newcomer to the craft distilling scene. MacKenzie plays on the column side of the vodka fence, but he has an unusual take — he shuns the typical metal column mantra for glass. So what? Well, glass stills — alembics — were the Arabic precursor to modern stills dating to 800 B.C. Today you find the copper alembics both commercially as well as some gorgeous home moonshine models. Glass, not so much. It may be the stone knife of the distilling world, but MacKenzie believes glass actually makes better vodka. So do the guys over at Colorado Pure Distilling in Denver, among the vodka distillers proud to claim their glass allegiance. Must be something in the 10,000+ feet air.
Squid Ink: Glass?
Brad MacKenzie: A glass still has a couple of advantages over pot still distilling. First, you can actually get the vodka very clean. The whole point of distilling alcohol is not just to get the alcohol to separate from the water, but to separate out the different alcohols. A really bad vodka is when you smell it, and it smells like finger nail polish remover. It shouldn't. It's difficult to explain to average consumer because it's about the scientific process.
SI: Well, give it a try.
BM: Imagine a 15-foot tall glass column, a beaker like you use in high school chemistry class with a bulb at bottom that then gets thin on top. As your liquid boils up, say its 85 degrees in bottom of the pot, as it cools off, there is a point when every single atom will evaporate. Basically think of your shower, how steam comes down from the hot shower as hot water goes up. Frankly you'd rather drink the water at the top of the shower than the bottom, because it's evaporated, the impurities in the water are too heavy to evaporate, so in the still, the stuff that comes off the top is pure acetate. Like the steam in your shower. You can tell there is nothing else in it, really.
If you could layer it like a party drink, like a B52 cocktail, you could see the alcohols are distinctly separated by their boiling points. You go through about 3 or 4 types of alcohol that aren't drinkable, then all of the sudden you get to ethanol. You pour that off, and it's pure ethanol, pure drinking alcohol. So you stop the still. You've got your alcohol.
SI: Okay, so why does the still type matter so much?
BM: In pot stills, it's a lot harder to control the temperature correctly. If you think about the configuration of a pot still, basically a copper pot that looks like a big elephant with a condenser on it. You can work with a pot still for a while and get it pretty darn good. But the thing is, the less vodka touches metal, the less you have to take that metal out of that taste. When you're using a glass still, a lot of taste — or lack of tastes that you don't want — comes from using that glass still.
SI: Some vodka makers obviously don't agree with you.
BM: The thing is, no one is trying to make bad vodka, but they're trying to make the best they can within certain budgets. They're just at a point where it tastes pretty good. Tito's Vodka has made a huge marketing splash by the number of times he has distilled it. He says five times isn't enough, but seven is too much, so he chose six. Why six?
That's all fine, but I can't afford like the bigger vodka makers to bring in a whole team of people to tell me what to say to sell my vodka based on the number of times I distill it. I'm chief cook and bottle washer, and I'm proud of that. I'm not trying to buy eyeballs, I'm trying to buy lips and tongues.
SI: Ha. Right.
BM: Another interesting thing that comes up is things like corn and potatoes. But actually, what we think of as vodka, which is pure grain alcohol, really was invented in Poland and was made from wheat. Then later in Russia, potatoes were rotting in the ground, so they used that. But the truth is vodka can be made from any basic carbohydrate that ferments.
I use corn because it's a little sweeter than wheat or potatoes. Most vodkas today are wheat, maybe 10% are potatoes. The corn just has a natural sweet taste leftover after we do the distilling, which is a nice thing. Then we make use mountain water from 10,000 feet up. It's a short distance from God to the earth.
SI: Despite God and all, it seems like somewhat of an oxymoron to tout high quality ingredients if you just said you can make vodka with anything, and that the point is to “purify” the ingredient – to get rid of much of the flavor. It can be confusing to customers — to us.
BM: Yes, actually you're right. But still, no matter how scientifically we try to make our vodka “pure,” some of that original taste of the base ingredient itself is going to come through. The reason is difficult to explain. On one side I am saying Telluride is a very clean-tasting vodka [because of the glass still], on the other side I am saying it is sweeter because of the corn. That is part of the mystery of vodka. I kind of like that there is some mystery there that we can't separate out those two things. That's why I like vodka.
Telluride Vodka, $25, available at select retailers and online.