Entrepreneurial Spirit

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

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.

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.

"Once we have the wheat, what we do is, we distill it to around 190 proof in Benson, but of course we don't bottle it at that strength," he continues. "Basically, there are about 3,000 things you can do to filter or cut vodka, which is what gives each vodka its distinct flavors. It took us a long, long time to figure out what our recipe would be, what would give us the level of character, smoothness, and purity we were looking for. I can't tell you too much more because those are all the proprietary secrets, but we distill the vodka six times, whereas most of the other top-shelf vodkas on the market are distilled only four or five times."

This is true. I stood shiftily in the aisles recently at France 44, and read the backs of a shocking number of high-end vodka bottles that claimed to have been distilled fewer than six times! Finally my pawing at the bottles aroused the suspicion of France 44's liquor buyer, Don Hultmann, who came to protect the precious clear liquor. Hultmann knows a lot about vodka, and told me a lot of things, such as that south metro upscale vodka buyers will tend to work their way up and down the upscale vodka shelves, trying them all.

"There's no denying that Shakers is a very good vodka, and in the last two weeks we've sold 80 bottles of it--that's a lot of vodka," he says. "I just wonder how many people will keep buying it at that price." Which I must confess was the first time I noticed that Shakers was almost the most expensive vodka on the shelf. Priced normally at $33, it's a good $5 or $6 more than Grey Goose, its nearest competitor in flavor and style.

Well, we'll see. Every liquor store I talked to for this story had Shakers blowing out the door at a heretofore unbelievable rate. At last count, it was in 450 liquor stores in the state, from Surdyk's to the Liquor Depot to Virginia, Minnesota's Kap-N-Kork. As the guy who picked up the phone at the downtown Haskell's told me, "We went through a case in an hour. Bam! Bam! Bam!"

Yeah! I have always said that Minnesotans understand base-level economics better than anyone, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people decided that $33 that stays inside the state is a better buy than $28 that follows some perplexing stream back to France.

France! Who died and left them king of all beverages! I'm gonna keep an eye on them, or I swear they will start marketing our Shamrock Shakes back to us in superior packaging: Les shamrocks verts! And on this note I will quote my most loyal reader, gimlet expert and World War II vet Ray E. Dunham: "My battered taste buds cannot detect much difference between Shakers, Grey Goose, and Belvedere. They are all very good, but politically I am leaning away from the French product (Grey Goose). Having spent a few months in 1944-45 slogging around their country with an M-1 slung from my shoulder leaves me somewhat bitter about their present non-support, even if it is an iffy war!"

In case you don't want to invest in a whole bottle, Shakers is currently available in a few hundred local restaurants and bars. Prior to this writing, I would have thought that the only thing in common between the patrons of glittering expense-account destinations like Goodfellow's and those of the airport Maui Taco would have been the right to trial by jury. But now I know differently. Also look for Shakers at such local centers of wealth and power as the Dakota, Pazzaluna, Blue Point, Martini Blu, and even at destinations farther flung, such as Loretto, Minnesota's intriguingly titled Choo Choo Bar.  

In fact, the Minnesota response to Shakers has been so extreme that Infinite Spirits sold its entire first production run, meant for sale nationally, on the local market. "We sold more in Minnesota than we hoped to sell all year," Clarke told me. "It's been phenomenal."

Well, like I said, you never can tell what sort of hidden talents or propensities lurk in the depths, until you try. For instance, while I was on the hood of that Chevy Cavalier, I got to thinking, what if the greatest Unix programmer of all time died 50 generations ago, pounding a grub on a rock in the Rift Valley? Wouldn't that have been sad?

I mean, maybe it's you who is going to turn some of those northern peat bogs into the first Minnesota thing that's like single-malt whisky. It could happen. It's better than torturing the dog with that geranium all day, anyway.

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