By: Tod Stewart
Writing about vodka some years ago, I joked that for $25, you could get something that smells and tastes like nothing $55 gets you the “premium” version of something that smells and tastes like nothing, and $100 gets you the “ultra-premium” version that’s been distilled nine times and filtered through six feet of diamonds, ensuring an ultra-premium smell and taste of nothing. Somewhat ironically, the top-selling vodkas at the time were the flavored variety.
Technically, vodka is deemed a “neutral” spirit and is produced as such in most international markets. In Canada, however, more and more vodkas are becoming less and less bland.
“Vodka! Tasteless alcohol in most places but not here in Canada,” reports Davin de Kergommeaux, co-author of The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries. “Our regulators have decreed that traces of the feedstock can remain in the spirit, and so we have apple-based vodka with almost-hints of fruit, crispy rye vodkas and a most revolutionary Vodkow, distilled from fermented milk sugars. It’s creamy palate nearly betrays it, but no, it really is vodka.” More on Vodkow in a bit.
To understand the evolution of vodka in Canada – and to better understand how some changes to Canadian regulations have altered the playing field for makers of “craft” vodka – it helps to get a high-level view of the industry.
“Vodka, by tradition, is neutral, for sure, and it is also very boring until mixed with something,” de Kergommeaux concedes. “What many people do not know is that – across North America at least – some of the biggest names simply purchase beverage-grade alcohol from alcohol plants, filter it until it matches their profile and bottle it as their brand. By definition, each country makes its own laws, and in Canada, our laws – regulations really – require distillers to filter the spirit they use to make vodka but do not require that they remove all the flavor.
“American regs are equally permissive, but in a different way, in that they define “neutral” as something that we in Canada do not consider to be neutral, and definitely not flavor-free. This focus on laws and what is legally vodka has pushed spirits production towards finding the legal loopholes, then filling them as inexpensively as possible. But that is not what is happening here. If the big players can buy alcohol from fuel plants and call it vodka, then I think it is fair that the smaller players be permitted to make vodka within their practical limitations, and that means leaving some traces of feedstock flavors in the final spirit. And we, as consumers, benefit because some of these new vodkas are quite tasty.”
Going back to the Canadian regs de Kergommeaux cites, they were originally introduced by the federal government in 1959 and remained unchanged until a couple of years ago. The old definition stated that for a spirit to be labeled as “vodka,” it “…shall be a potable alcoholic beverage obtained by the treatment of grain spirit or potato spirit with charcoal to render the product without distinctive character, aroma or taste.” As of 2019, the definition reads that vodka “…shall be a potable alcoholic distillate obtained from potatoes, cereal grain or any other material of agricultural origin fermented by the action of yeast or a mixture of yeast and other micro-organisms.” The move was introduced to “…enhance economic competitiveness and improve trade.” Raw materials can now include things like honey, apple or dairy in vodka production in order to expand consumer choice and be more in line with vodka definitions in the United States and the EU.
The upshot of the easing of restrictions has, as de Kergommeaux alluded to, been an uptick in the number of rather unique vodkas produced across the country, with a few of the smaller craft distillers definitely pushing the envelope. While the regulations still state that a Canadian vodka must be “…without distinctive character, aroma or taste,” one wonders exactly what defines “distinctive.”
For example, the Liberty Distillery on Vancouver, British Columbia’s Granville Island distills a vodka that uses local, organically-grown oats as its base ingredient. It’s definitely aromatic, with traces of toasted nuts, white flower blossom and subtle fruit. It’s nicely viscous on the palate, with peppery end notes. Then there’s the aforementioned Vodkow.
Though whey-based spirits are not unheard of (Wisconsin’s Copper Crow distillery and the UK’s Black Cow Vodka both produce them), they are hardly staples in most people’s liquor cabinets. (As an interesting aside, records indicate the indigenous people of the Steppes region of Central Asia had been converting milk to alcohol for thousands of years.)
About a 40-minute drive southwest of Canada’s capital of Ottawa lies the sleepy town of Almonte, home of Dairy Distillery. It specializes in turning permeate (not whey, per se, but another milk processing byproduct obtained by removing protein and other solids from whey) into vodka. This is a beneficial thing for a couple of reasons. The first, obviously, is the end result: vodka (produced via the fermentable – and ultimately, distillable lactose). The second is that permeate disposal is headache-inducing, and anyone willing to take the stuff off a dairy farmer’s hands immediately becomes a good friend. A third bonus is that both distillers and dairy farmers can share in a revenue source.
Unfortunately, fermenting milk sugar, as distillery owner Omid McDonald found out, isn’t quite as easy as fermenting fruit sugar. Regular distillers’ yeast doesn’t do the job. Learning of a yeast strain used in New Zealand to convert milk byproduct into fuel alcohol from a University of Ottawa biology professor (and employing the research of one of his students), a suitable strain was isolated, and Dairy Distillery was in business. Today it produces not only the original Vodkow but a range of (wait for it) cream liquors.
I’m not sure how you’d react, but when I was first presented with a sample of Vodkow, I approached it with a degree of trepidation. I mean, there was something about a fermented, distilled, milk-based liquid that struck me as just, well, wrong. I was quite pleasantly surprised by what I tasted.
Perfectly vodka-like in appearance (so, yes, the “colorless” part of vodka: check). Odorless? No way. I’d even go as far as to say the creamy, almost vanilla aromatic profile is decidedly “distinctive.” More vodka-like in flavor (meaning less of it), there were still sweet cream notes nestled among the peppery nuances. And there were certainly some lingering lactic notes in the otherwise clean, crisp finish.
Of course, not all Canadian vodkas deviate from what would be considered more or less “traditional” local ingredients.
Up until a few years ago, Prince Edward Distillery, situated not surprisingly on Prince Edward Island, was making vodka from locally-grown potatoes, a ubiquitous island crop. It’s now permanently shuttered, but the potato vodka torch is currently carried by Blue Roof Distillers in neighboring New Brunswick. In Alberta, rye whisky specialist Alberta Distillers Ltd. (ADL) crafts Northern Keep Vodka from a mash of primarily prairie-grown rye, with a percentage of winter wheat, while Dillon’s Distillery (see the December – January issue of Beverage Master for more on Dillon’s) in Niagara, one of Ontario’s wine regions, crafts a grape-based vodka (this would fall into the “less traditional” bucket, but it’s certainly local). And could there be such a thing as “varietal” vodka?
Crystal Head Vodka, the one co-conceived by actor Dan Aykroyd and that comes in a bottle shaped like a glass skull, produces a range of vodkas, each using a different base to impart distinctive qualities.
“Crystal Head uses only the highest-quality ingredients to create unique expressions of ultra-premium vodka,” points out Daniella Vizzari, the brand’s marketing manager. “Our original vodka is crafted from locally sourced Canadian corn, offering a silky-smooth vodka with a hint of sweetness and vanilla. Aurora uses the highest-quality English wheat, offering a crisper, drier, bolder vodka. Our latest expression of vodka, Onyx, is the first globally available agave-based vodka with subtle hints of agave, citrus, green grass and white pepper. As a final distinctive touch, all expressions of Crystal Head Vodka are blended with Newfoundland water and filtered through Herkimer diamonds.” (See, I wasn’t kidding about the diamond-filtering thing.)
Incidentally, the skull-shaped bottle caused much consternation among the province of Ontario’s liquor board (LCBO) executives, who worried that such a package might cause acute psychological trauma to any customer exposed to it – and bring on an inevitable lawsuit. I’m likely exaggerating things just a bit (but just a bit). Yet initially, the possibly offensive vodka was banned from the market. The public was not amused (nor traumatized when the bottles finally hit the shelves). If other Canadian markets could have it, why not Ontario?
“The LCBO believed the skull-shaped bottle represented death,” recounts Vizzari (likely with a smirk…just saying). “Our bottle has always been a happy skull and a symbol of life. During this time, consumers pulled through for us. They wrote letters and web campaigns asking why it was unavailable in Ontario. Crystal Head Vodka was designed with the creative spirit in mind by creative people. Today, we continue to disrupt the industry with one-of-a-kind packaging and innovative thinking.”
Of course, one very important vodka-distilling component hasn’t been mentioned yet: water. Marketers love to prattle on about cool crystalline waters bubbling down from glacier-fed mountain springs (and blah blah blah) as the water source for their brands of vodka. Newfoundland’s Iceberg Vodka would appear to have them all beat.
I was somewhat skeptical about the brand’s claim to use water actually sourced from north Atlantic icebergs. I mean, c’mon. So I posed the question to Iceberg brand manager Karen Lai: Do you actually harvest icebergs to produce Iceberg Vodka? If so, how exactly is this accomplished?
“Yes!,” she enthusiastically replied. “We use actual iceberg water in our iceberg vodka, which is what makes our vodka so smooth. It is the purest water you can find since it’s been frozen for tens of thousands of years. The process begins when iceberg bits break off from the Arctic and floats down past the coast of Newfoundland. The iceberg bits are tracked, then melted down to water that is used in our vodka.”
Who would have thought?
Vodkows, Crystal Heads and Icebergs: just a few of the characters redefining the spirit of Canadian vodka.