Since many of my columns focus on the good life, outside of food and wine, my moniker is changing from Food and Wine editor to Flavors Editor for Lifestyle of Comanche Trace and the Texas Hill Country. I will focus on local and distant sources of gourmet foods and drinks and discussions of recent travels which always involve new adventures in food and drink. This article is a good representation of my new title since I am writing about the growing and evolving Texas vodka market. It is very difficult to believe that there are some twenty-four distilleries operating in the state of Texas. Some produce Bourbon like my friend Dan Garrison in Hye, Texas. Others produce rums, gins, and single malt whiskeys. At least sixteen of these distilleries are producing a clear, neutral, flammable spirit that is presumably tasteless, odorless and colorless.
Chemically, straight vodka is ethanol blended with enough spring or pure water to result in 40% alcohol content or 80 US proof. The first step is fermentation. Corn, rye, wheat, or any other grain, potatoes, sugar cane, molasses, grapes, fruits, or vegetables can be converted to an ethanol concentration of 12% to 18% depending on the sugar content (just like winemaking). Live active yeast much like those used in bread making is added to the food product which begins to convert sugars to alcohol. When all of the sugar is converted by the yeast to alcohol, the fermentation stops and the yeast is killed by the high alcohol content. The fermentation process is the conversion of the natural sugars in these food products to ethyl alcohol or ethanol. At this point, the product could be a beer, wine, or a cider. If the product is then distilled, the result is a neutral alcohol that we know as vodka. The term hard liquor is used in North America to distinguish distilled beverages from un-distilled ones (implicitly weaker). This neutral spirit may then go through other processing, flavoring and aging techniques to produce other spirits such as bourbon, scotch, gin, rum, brandy, and schnapps. If more sugar and flavorings are added the product is called a liqueur.
Most distilleries will distill their vodka multiple times to purify the spirit. Distillation is a chemical process where the liquid is taken to 1200F (the boiling point of alcohol) in an externally heated closed tank. From the top of the tank the alcohol vapors enter a pipe that is then cooled by the outside air or a water cooled chiller to condense the alcohol vapor to a liquid. A single pass through the still makes moonshine or “white lightning”. All of the vodkas are also filtered as many as ten times to produce a very clear, tasteless liquid. All of the Texas vodkas are very clear with no visual impurities.
One distillery in San Antonio makes their unique vodka from fermentation of the prickly pear cactus leaves that grow here in the hill country and then distills it to vodka. The nose has overtones of tequila but the taste is almost neutral.
Ok, so now you know a bit about the history and production of vodka. A few weeks ago, I assembled a group of volunteer vodka aficionados at my house for a blind tasting of Texas vodkas. Before you ask, yes, each one brought their own designated driver.
We tested the following Texas vodkas:
Deep Eddy - Austin
Tito's - Austin
Starlite - Austin
Savvy - Austin
Dash - Brookeshire
Spike - San Antonio
Cinco - San Antonio
Enchanted Rock - San Antonio
Dripping Springs - Dripping Springs
1876 - Dripping Springs
Western Son - Lewisville
DeLos - Lewisville
Lone Star - Lewisville
Nue - Lewisville
Troubadour - Orange
Smith's - Smithville
The tasters are professionals in their own right, but not professional tasters. All of us socially enjoy vodka served either on the rocks or shaken vigorously and then served up in a very chilled glass with various vegetables garnishes.
The tasters were: Jarrick Cooper, Editor of Lifestyle of Comanche Trace and the Texas Hill Country; Nancy Watts, Interior Designer; Teri Albright, M.D.; and me.
The tasting followed the rules of a blind wine tasting. The vodkas were numbered one through sixteen. They were chilled in the freezer and then poured into identical glasses with corresponding numbers. The accountants for the evening were Milton Shaw, M.D. and Bob Watts, Nancy’s husband.
In the first tasting round, each taster was given four or five of the numbered glasses to evaluate. They were also given a glass of purified water and some plain unsalted crackers. Each person scored the vodkas for Aroma, Smoothness, Crispness, Finish, and the Overall Taste experience.
The voting numbers were totaled by the Shaw and Watts accounting team. The top two vodkas from each taster were entered into a second round of tasting. From those eight vodkas through another blind tasting, the tasters collectively voted Deep Eddy number one, 1876 as number two and Savvy as number three. I won’t tell the scores of all the rest, but none of them were considered objectionable.
After the results were in, we each had our favorite vodka martini made from one of the top three along with some typical vodka accompaniments. We tasted three excellent American Caviars on blinis with Crème Fraiche; Caponata, Gravlax, a duck mousse with truffle, cured meats and various cheeses. No one got blitzed. Throughout the evening the tasters had about the same amount of vodka a person would consume in three cocktails. Again, everyone had a designated driver with them.
House Made Gravlax (Vodka cured Salmon)
1 side of very fresh salmon with skin on and pin bones removed (to be considered fresh, it should not have any smell). 1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 bunch fresh dill
1 thinly sliced lemons
Vodka in a spray bottle
• Wash the salmon under cold water and dry with paper towels.
• You can cut it into multiple pieces if you wish.
• The larger the piece, the easier to slice later.
• Spray both sides of the salmon with the vodka and lie it down on the skin side.
• Mix the salt and brown sugar and sprinkle it all over the mea t side of the salmon.
• Cover the meat side with sprigs of the fresh dill and thin sl ices of the lemon with rind on.
• Spray again with vodka.
• Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or seal in a vacuum bag, if you have a vacuum food sealer.
• Place filet, skin side down, on a baking pan and place a heavy object on top of it. Store in the
coldest part of your refrigerator. Turn the salmon over every day and place the weight back on it.
• After five days remove the plastic wrap or from the vacuum bag .
• Remove the lemon and dill and lightly wash if desired.
• Slice in very thin slices.
• Serve very cold on unsalted crackers with cream cheese or Crè me Fraiche and a cold vodka martini.