Are American Drinkers Ready to Embrace the Sipping Vodka?
American Liquor Co is making vodka from all four classic ingredients at once, with an emphasis on flavor — not neutrality
People who drink vodka generally like that it is neutral. They use descriptors like “clean,” “smooth,” “fresh” and “light.” The guiding principle here is clear: whereas drinkers of other spirits are looking for big, interesting, noticeable flavors, vodka drinkers tend to cherish a total absence of them.
Flipping that paradigm on its head are entrepreneurs and friends William Brumder and Michael Slapp, who founded American Liquor Co. back in 2020. Their goal was to create a complex spirit highlighting the various vodka inputs — wheat, rye, corn and potato — that thrive across the Midwest.
In order to achieve that, they tapped master blender Chris Montana, the founder of Du Nord Spirits, the first Black-owned distillery in the United States. Montana came on as a co-founder to help figure out how the hell to make a quality vodka spirit out of the four major crops grown in the Midwest, which also happen to be the constituents of almost all vodkas.
Montana then set out to find the best ingredients in the Midwest in order to put it all together. American’s wheat vodka hails from Ohio and Illinois, their corn from Wisconsin, their rye from Michigan and their potato from North Dakota. From there, like the Power Rangers coming together to form Megazord, Montana blends the disparate vodkas together for bottling in Temperance, Michigan.
The result is a vodka that’s anything but mild. Montana wants you to know exactly what you’re tasting, how each crop translates to the flavor you get. Is this just another “made in America” marketing ploy? Perhaps a little, but the folks behind the brand seem to be in it for more than just a buy-local ethos. They truly believe that vodka is a spirit worthy of your time and admiration.
Eager to learn more, we recently chatted with Montana about all things vodka, from the nuances of the filtration process to why, if you can’t drink vodka straight, you shouldn’t be drinking it at all.
InsideHook: You’ve set out to make a vodka that has unique, interesting flavors. You do that by blending vodkas from different sources. Is what you’re doing blasphemous to traditional vodka makers?
Chris Montana: I don’t think it’s blasphemous. We’re not challenging the very foundations of vodka; we’re just opening the doors a little bit. We are reimagining the spirit. This is a trailblazing product that does not cast any aspersion on existing vodkas as they are, just challenges the notion of what vodka could be.
Can you tell us a bit about how the process differs for this vodka versus your typical single-source vodkas?
The process for American Liquor Co. Vodka differs in almost every way. When making a single varietal product you have a single input and all its variables. When you add four inputs, you’re suddenly dealing with all their different variables as well, making the process even more complex. We worked to find the right mix and had to decipher flavor balancing that you don’t consider when working from a single grain. However, I will say working with four different variables is a great opportunity, because what you can’t do with a single grain is make up for what the varietal is lacking. In our case, we can build upon each varietal’s strengths and weaknesses and find the right balance. For example, one grain could be great to accentuate mouthfeel but not necessarily flavor, we then have other grains to make up for what might be lacking.
Why were you personally excited about creating a non-neutral vodka?
In all honesty, I think all vodka should be non-neutral. What’s exciting about the American Liquor Co. Vodka project is that it has more to do with the four ingredients and the four distilleries and telling their stories. It’s a unique flavor that no one can recreate in the country or the world.
How does the flavor profile differ?
The profile of the vodka is a profile of the grains and distillers; it is more layered than a single source, single-grain vodka. You’ll first taste the berry notes of the wheat, then the sweetness from the corn, followed by that classic rye peppery note. Finally, the potato rounds things out with a full, grassy earthiness.
Does the amount of distillation and filtration that vodka brands always tout really matter at all?
It matters to a point. The number of times you distill something doesn’t necessarily make it any better; what matters is how you do your cuts, what do you keep versus discard. The number of times you distill is akin to a butcher with an ever sharper knife; it doesn’t matter if the butcher doesn’t know where to make the cuts. Filtration is another tool that can improve or wreck a vodka; it all depends on how it’s used. It comes back to the people wielding the tool, the individual craft distillers creating this product.
What don’t most people know about vodka that you think they need to know?
There are many things! People tend to think that all vodkas are the same. They’re not. Vodka can have distinctive characteristics, and people should look at vodka the same way we look at other spirits (like bourbon, etc.) and taste it the same way. You should like the taste, and if you can’t drink it straight like you would drink bourbon or whiskey, you shouldn’t be drinking it at all. I truly believe that the more educated we get about spirits, particularly vodka, the more the taste will matter, and the marketing will fall to the side.
Best vodka cocktail recipe, in your opinion?
I prefer to drink vodka straight, it is really the only way to experience the flavors of the spirits, because they are so subtle. If not straight, I don’t mind vodka over rocks with a slice of lime.
Any other big trends you’re paying attention to in the vodka space?
I see a big trend in the localization of vodka. Nowadays everywhere I go there’s a vodka local to that area. That’s something new to the last 10 years. It was the norm to have a handful of big national brands and that was it. Now there is a boom in locally produced vodka. Since vodka is not aged, it’s a natural first step for distillers to produce and sell their vodka as soon as possible; which can lead to some poor products made more for revenue than for quality. However, there are some incredible local distillers making beautifully complex spirits in every state in the nation today.
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