Cigar Aficionado

Vodka Turns "Green"

Those who planted vegetable gardens and are now harvesting the fruits of their labor can take comfort that a couple new organic vodkas have also weighed in over the summer—just in time to squeeze the synthetic-chemical-free juice out of your ripe tomatoes and mix up an eco-friendly Bloody Mary.

American Harvest from Idaho debuted early in the season, and more recently Kanon, a Swedish brand, has been introduced in the U.S. market. Both are made from organically grown wheat. One happy development is the descending price of championing environmental awareness through spirits. American Harvest comes with a price tag of $23.99. Many earlier efforts in organic spirits have come in far north of $30. The suggested retail price of Kanon is about $26.

Organic spirits have enjoyed a growing market over the last decade as these two new brands join such vodkas as Blue Ice Organic Wheat, Rain, Square One, and TRU. Moreover, other spirits, including gin, rum, Tequila and even a Scotch whisky—Benromach Organic Single Malt—have joined the fray. Demand for organic spirits doubled in each of the past two years, and has been predicted to quadruple in 2011.

Distilled and bottled in Rigby, Idaho, American Harvest is the first vodka from Sidney Frank Importing since it sold its hugely successful Grey Goose vodka. The spokeswoman Kate Laufer says the product marks the company's dedication to American production, asking, "Who says quality has to be imported?" The vodka takes water from the aquifers of the Snake River Plain and uses winter wheat (a type of grain that confers smoothness on whiskies) from local farms to makes its mash. Once fermented, it is distilled once in a four-column, continuous distillation process.

Bottle shot of Kanon vodka.

The Swedish distillers operation is confined to a three-mile radius in which the well water is drawn, and wheat is grown on four farms. Fermentation is achieved with naturally occurring yeast. Kanon is distilled with naturally occurring yeast and starch. It's distilled on a site northwest of Stockholm that has a centuries-long history as a foundry for making cannons. Intermittently, it has been used for distilling through the ages and was recently (1996) repurposed for that.

The makers of Kanon take the unusual stand of using but one distillation and no filtration. However, the still has four columns. The company says that the cut of the run—in which the impurities at the beginning and end distillation are diverted—is quite narrow, using only 10 percent of the alcohol. The rest is used for biofuels.

Such a "green" ethos typically spills over into other aspects of organic-spirit production, as a great part of the allure is the perceived environmental advantages of using sustainable products. Hence, a third of the electrical consumption in the production of American Harvest is wind generated. The company also points out that its bottles are 100 percent recyclable and decorated with organic ink and water soluble varnishes. Similarly, Kanon's Gripsholm Distillery is powered by wind and water power.

Distiller with wind turbines in background.
Wind turbines generate a third of the electricity used to produce American Harvest.

The contribution to flavor of using organic methods for spirits is not as clear as its environmental effect. It's arguable that the original taste of the grain is distanced by the distillation process that gets into the bottle at 40 percent alcohol (80 proof). However, Peter Wijk, the president of Kanon USA, says that his vodka, which has a big, full cereal taste with an underlying sweetness and a lasting finish, also reflects the wild flowers and weeds that grow near the wheat.

On the other hand, Gray Ottley, the owner of Distilled Resources, which makes American Harvest as well as several other organic spirits, has said, "It's not that organic tastes better. It appeals because it supports sustainability." Nevertheless, American Harvest has a distinctively sweet and sort of candied taste with a crisp finish.

The irony of the organic market, which has been largely furthered by smaller craft distillers, is that it was first opened by the comparatively huge Buffalo Trace, which is best known for making Bourbon whiskey, in Kentucky. In 1996, Harlen Wheatley, the present master distiller who was then a supervisor, decided to make vodka using a still designed for light whiskey. In his search for superior grains with which to begin, he found corn from a farmer in Illinois that just so happened to be grown organically. The result was Rain vodka, which was not certified nor labeled as an organic product until 2002.

"Too bad we can't just call this "naturally grown" or something other than "green". While drinking quality vodka carefully crafted from all natural ingredients is great, its production has no impact on the planet whatsoever." —August 29, 2011 15:09 PM