Platts: Knowing where your spirits come from
When you’re at the grocery store, or a farmer’s market, and see potatoes on display, have you ever thought about how crisp and refreshing those would taste if they were a part of the vodka drink served to you that evening?
Until a few weeks ago, a thought like that had never even crossed my mind. I saw vodka and other hard spirits as mass-produced products. They occupied numerous bottles in liquor stores and helped stiffen a few cocktails I enjoyed drinking at my favorite restaurants. What they are and how they are made seemed entirely detached from why and how I drank them. Sure, I knew there were some spirits that were more luxurious than others. It became obvious during college that McCormick’s Vodka was much less desirable than Grey Goose, and not only because one is stored in a plastic bottle while the other fills the lyrics of rap songs in which artists boast about their wealth. Sure, we all prefer to go with the fancier options when we are able to. But, fancy or not, I still had no idea where the ingredients in my drink were coming from.
This method of blindly consuming is not typical for me or for many others I know that are my age. When it comes to food, we like to know what we’re putting in our bodies and where it comes from. With alcohol, we don’t seem to know or care nearly as much.
However, there are distilleries out there that want to change that mentality. In fact, there’s one right in our backyards that knows exactly where its product comes from and where it’s made. Woody Creek Distillers was established in 2013. In only three short years, the company has grown exponentially. Currently, its products are available in 12 states. And the distillery has received numerous recognitions and awards for its two different kinds of vodka and its rye whiskey.
You’ve probably heard of Woody Creek Distillery in one form or another in recent years. Maybe you’ve tried one of their creative cocktails at Food & Wine or the Aprés Ski Cocktail Classic. Or you’ve seen the bottle resting on a shelf at a local bar. Perhaps you’ve even had the opportunity to check out the tasting room and go on a tour of the distillery. But experiencing the process from start to finish, getting to sift dirt through your hands and pick up potatoes that will soon be turned into vodka, that’s what Woody Creek Distillery is all about. And there’s nowhere else quite like it in the entire country. That’s because every step of production is done in the Roaring Fork Valley, and the distillery has complete control, starting with the seed of the potato plant all the way to the bottling of the vodka.
It starts by planting potato seeds, which are of the Rio Grande and Stobrawa varieties, in the springtime. They are harvested in fields in the upper valley. From there, they are transferred to the distillery, which is located in Basalt, to be made into vodka.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to learn about Woody Creek’s vodka-making process firsthand from the man behind the nectar, David Matthews. He’s the head distiller and vice president of operations for Woody Creek; he has been with the company from the start.
Matthews and I started at one of the potato fields near Emma where they had just picked close to 300,000 pounds of potatoes. They harvest more than a million pounds each year.
“It’s great that we get to grow the potatoes ourselves,” Matthews said. “They come out of the ground and right away the process is started with fresh potatoes.”
That process starts with cleaning the potatoes again (they were washed thoroughly at the field). They are then ground up and boiled. This helps to sterilize the potatoes and turn the starch into sugar. Then, yeast is added for fermentation. After that comes the complex distilling process. After a couple of days, it’s ready to be bottled. The whole process, from field to bottle, happens in less than five days.
“We have total control over our potato source. We are controlling the variety, the way they are grown and the quality. And they are fresh,” Matthews said. “This gives us selected varieties that make quality vodka.”
Matthews distills other spirits besides vodka. He created a gin because of the demand from bartenders for a quality product. In his spare time, he’s also made a brandy, which can be tasted and purchased only at the distillery. And, perhaps one of his most exciting endeavors, he’s been working on a bourbon for four years that will be released in 2017.
As far as vodka goes, this season was even more successful than past ones. Woody Creek is on schedule with production. Last week the team finished mashing the potatoes. They completed harvesting a couple of weeks earlier than last year, thanks to the warm weather. Already, the vodka is coming off the stills, and, as I can attest, it’s incredible. For the first time in my drinking tenure, I could actually taste and smell the potatoes that were used to make it. And I knew the journey it took to get them to that point.
Now, that is truly knowing where a product comes from.
Barbara Platts was never a huge fan of vodka…until now. Reach her at email@example.com.
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.