Entrepreneurial Spirit

A Minnesota-made vodka hits the top shelf

Once again I have been up all night, clinging to the chandelier, worrying about the magnificent potentialities you might have that remain untapped. For instance, have you ever really, really tried to balance a potted geranium on the dog? I suspect you might have a hidden talent that way. I think that. I also think you might be the one to conquer that great problem of the modern age, namely, of course, how to make bouillabaisse in the toaster. From those old grapes in the crisper drawer.

I mean, what I'm trying to say is, have you really, really thought about drinking a lot lately, straight from the bottle? You should. You might just be one of those rarest members of the population, one who can taste half a dozen high-end vodkas and distinguish within them things one reads about in books. Such as the fragrance of jasmine blossoms, mid-palate echoes of toasted wheatberry, and bottom notes that remind one most of the sort of spring day in North Dakota when a perfectly executed U-turn in front of a state trooper goes completely unticketed.

Because did I say I was clinging to the chandelier? If so, I sincerely regret the error, because I meant swinging from the chandelier, for I have spent the better part of the day tasting high-end vodkas.

Stirred by Shakers: Top-shelf cocktails at Martini Blu
Trish Lease
Stirred by Shakers: Top-shelf cocktails at Martini Blu

For you! I did ths. I mean this. Because Shakers, the first and only high-class, high-falutin', high-cost, all-wheat vodka in the history of Minnesota, has just debuted nationwide. And I would like to say something snazzy about this vodka, as compares to other high-end vodkas, like I done seen them do in them fancy magazines they got now with the pitchers of them eight-million-dollar stoves and whatnot.

However, after a day of pitting Grey Goose against Belvedere against Chopin against Svedka, I have concluded that while I might be able to say that Grey Goose finishes a little more lemonily, while Shakers ends a bit more toastily, and Svedka cleanly to the point of vanishing, I must truly conclude that learning to distinguish between high-end vodkas can be done. Yet, like knowing too much about Limoges china patterns or being able to tell the difference among the children on The Waltons, it is a skill that is at best unseemly, and at worst will certainly make anyone who hears you doing it think less of you.

Also, no matter whether you spit all your vodka after tasting, sugar, this ain't no wine tasting: After an hour or so you will also find yourself clinging to a cavalier. I mean, mingling with a chanticleer. I mean--what he said.

By he, of course, I mean Tim Clarke, one of the six young co-founders of Infinite Spirits. That's the company founded to produce Shakers, which they do at a Benson, Minnesota ethanol plant. (Benson is west of here, just past Wilmar, but east of Montevideo, in case you were wondering.) I spoke to Clarke on the phone for this article, and he explained to me that Shakers vodka is basically the product of Minnesota farmers, Minnesota ag Ph.D.s, Minnesota wheat, Minnesota water, and slick coastal marketing. Well, I added that last bit. But five of the six Infinite Spirits folks are on the coasts now, and only St. Paul native and master distiller Pat Coteaux is still in town, so draw your own conclusions.

The six--Clarke, Coteaux, Atlanta-based sales head Joey Glowacki, Napa Valley-based CEO Mark Bozzini, and Manhattan-based brothers David and Neil Glasser--met while working on Pete's Wicked Ale in Saint Paul, and got to thinking that the spirits aisles in America's liquor stores were about due for the same boom that the beer aisles had recently undergone. Which is to say, they were due for a new world of micro, domestic, and artisanal vodkas, gins, and such. While the six men all had left the company gradually, about two years ago they "got the band back together" and started working in earnest on an all-American spirit. They settled on the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Plant because the place had already set up a division to make vodkas and such, called Glacial Grains Spirits.

Basically, there are three things that distinguish one vodka from another: the way it's distilled, the water it's cut with, and of course the basic foodstuff that the spirits are derived from. Vodka can be made from nearly anything, like rye, wheat, potatoes, or grapes. However, in America, it's almost universally made from corn. If you're drinking bottom-shelf vodka right now, you are drinking corn vodka. If you've got a bump of domestic beer, that's probably made from corn too. If you're accompanying this with nachos, popcorn, and a corn syrup-sweetened Coke, take a bow: You're enjoying a machine-made six-course corn buffet. Who knew that every corner bar was in fact a complex corn distribution point? When you start thinking about the corn-fed hamburgers that would center the menu at such a corner bar, these oceans of corn we drive through every summer become truly mind-boggling.

Anyway, Shakers is distinctly not made from corn, it is made with good old Minnesota wheat. "All the farmers out there helped us," says Clarke. "There are so many Ph.D.s walking around in the fields of Minnesota, it's amazing. They are so smart, sometimes talking with them hurts your head. One of the greatest things about working with these farmers is that they know their fields inside and out. They have been doing this all for so long, they really know what makes a good wheat. They know if we do x, y, and z to the wheat, it will give these flavor characteristics to the vodka. It would take anyone else generations to come up with the insight these guys have.

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