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Sustainable in Spirit

Amelia Levin sips Tito's Handmade Vodka and Death's Door vodka and explores their role in the sustainability movement.

When it comes to wine, putting time and effort into picking the right vineyard, the right grape and the right year is nothing new. But have you met a vodka aficionado, tried a “handmade” vodka or tasted one using grains from sustainable farms? How about organic vodka?
    Often known as the booze of choice for quick buzzes, fraternity games and screwdrivers, vodka’s not commonly thought of in wine terms—made for the sipping and savoring. But perhaps by now you’ve noticed a change. Distributors have been introducing unique vodka brands in stores, and more restaurants in the city have added these interesting spirits to their drink menus. We seem to be going back to the James Bond days where a vodka martini isn’t a real vodka martini if it isn’t shaken, not stirred, with just the highest quality or unique spirit. And it’s okay nowadays to order vodka on the rocks and sip it like wine if, of course, the vodka steals the show.

In Hill Country
    That’s how Tito Beveridge (yes, that’s his name), founder of the Austin, Texas-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka, thinks the spirit should taste. Gone are the days of that rubbing alcohol aftertaste, that tool for intoxication, those overpriced vodkas that claim to taste the best but whose origins are questionable at best.  Beveridge believes vodka should have that kick people seek, but also go down easy with a crisp and pure taste. “We just want to make a vodka that people say, ‘Man that’s good,’ after they drink it.”
    The story of how Beveridge got into the business goes back to oil. A college graduate who studied geology, Beveridge got his first job in the oil business, working on rigs and eventually moving up the ranks, traveling around the country to supervise drilling efforts. At an organized tour of his vodka “plant” in Austin, Beveridge talks with a broad smile on his face and would chat for hours if you let him. No matter, we stood around, laughing at the end of almost every sentence.
    “So, I did the oil business for a while, and then I decided to become a mortgage broker,” Beveridge says bluntly and with a chuckle. Outside of this new line of work, though, he says he continued his hobby of flavoring bottles of plain vodka with his own ingredients like habanero and fruit, having learned the trick from his uncle. He’d then take the vodka to parties, where they were an instant hit. Soon, all his friends started requesting bottles of their own, and he became known as the “vodka guy.”
    But, Beveridge says, “I didn’t want to be known as the vodka guy. I kept telling them, no, I’m the mortgage guy. Do you need a house?”
    The signs were all there. After writing down the pros and cons of his mortgage job during a moment of inspiration, he noticed everything pointed to vodka.  So he quit his job and went to a local liquor store, telling the owner he wanted to learn how to make and distribute his own line of flavored vodkas.  “He laughed in my face and said, 'See all the dust on those flavored vodka bottles? You don’t want to sell those, what you really need to do is learn how to make regular vodka first.’”
    Months later, after loads of research and toil in getting the right permits to be the first vodka manufacturer in Texas, Beveridge’s dream was finally off to a start. But the challenges didn’t end there. He bought a plot of land smack in the middle of seemingly deserted hill country, bought machinery off eBay, maxed out 19 credit cards and for six years, day in and day out, hung out in his “shack”, with the massive distilling tank just beside him and countless bags of plain corn, filling up bottles, capping them and putting on hand-printed labels, all using more eBay products. For those six years, it was just Beveridge and his dog, sleeping on a cot at night next to the 180 degree-tank, with no air conditioning in the dog days of Texas summers. The showerhead that hovered near the tank wasn’t for hygiene—it was in the spirit of Murphy’s Law. “So if something blew up, and I caught completely on fire, at least I could spray myself off a little and then run far away.”  Not a bad idea considering a smaller vodka tank once malfunctioned and blew through the air like a nuclear rocket, landing a mile away.
    Beveridge admits that his venture may have seemed a little crazy, but this crazy idea has gone from a tank in a shack to a real plant, with massive distilling tanks and a bottling and packaging room full of machinery and a full crew. Tito’s distribution numbers have climbed from 1,000 to 10,000 to 100,000 in those six years, and the vodka’s distributed in every state except Alaska. Distilled six times, it’s also outperformed Grey Goose and other higher-end, mass-distributed vodka brands in multiple, blind taste tests. “We kicked their butt,” Beveridge says with another charming smile.
    Here in Chicago, he’s also made it big. The vodka’s available at most liquor stores, and North Pond restaurant includes it on its cocktail menu, along with other specialty, premium vodkas, like North Shore vodka and Square One, an organic rye vodka from California.
    “We actively pursue unusual or unique distilleries and where possible, support the ‘little guys’ over the ‘big guys,’ but it has to taste good,” says North Pond general manager Laurel Sandberg. Bruce Sherman, owner and chef of North Pond, has made an effort to seek out local farmers and distributors for the finest sustainable foods. And the restaurant has sought to do the same with spirits, wines and other liquors. “But we won’t use anything that doesn’t taste delicious,” Sandberg says.

At Death’s Door
    A story about unique vodka makers wouldn’t be complete without the story behind Death’s Door vodka, which gets its unusual name from the passage between Wisconsin’s Washington Island and the Door County Peninsula, where the choppy waters have sent sailors of yore to their doom. The brainchild of acclaimed chef Leah Caplan and businessman Brian Ellingson, Death’s Door hit the market exactly one year ago and already has made it on the menus at Blackbird and Avec, Naha, Hop Leaf and the newish Between Boutique and Violet Hour lounge/restaurants in Wicker Park. It also has its own drink, the Death’s Star, on the menu at Debbie Sharpe’s Feast in Wicker Park, and distributor Dan Fullick says he’s been working with several other restaurants around town that want to serve the vodka.
    Essentially, the vodka could be considered sustainable. Caplan,
head chef at the Washington Hotel, a 100-year-old, boutique, resort hotel on the island, with its own culinary school, rose to recognition among foodies for her efforts in supporting local farmers to boost business of the main crop on the island: wheat. For years, Caplan used the wheat to make her famous breads, pastas and dough, baked in a brick oven fired by pine, maple and oak. Noticing that there was still so much wheat left over, Caplan met Ellingson, a land planner and conservationist, at a Slow Food event in Madison, and the two put their heads together to figure out how to buy all the island’s wheat and create more products using it in order to educate people around the country about the island’s agriculture.
    The first decided-upon product became wheat beer, which took off after Ellingson met with Capital Brewery, who came on board in a “stars aligning” sort of way, Ellingson says. “I came to them saying, hey, I’ve got this wheat and want to make a beer, and they said, ‘We’ve been looking for you.’” Apparently, the brewery had been actively seeking out a local farmer for a new product. The result: Island Wheat Ale.
    Then came the vodka, and six months later, Death’s Door came out with a gin made from wild juniper berries found on the island. Now, Caplan’s restaurant wasn’t just known for its sustainable food—it became known for its essentially sustainable drinks, too. “Death’s Door is a natural outgrowth of our philosophy,” Caplan says. “To me, sustainable spirits are just another food. We’ve done something more with wheat that also tastes good, and it compliments the cuisine of the Great Lakes.”
    Death’s Door and Tito’s Handmade Vodka serve as a symbol for what could be the next revolution in food and drink. Where sustainable food has become more an institution than a buzzword as of late, more restaurants are looking into sustainable wine, beer and spirits that, in Ellingson’s view, help reunite people with land. But, at the end of the day, he says, “If it’s not a good product, people will buy it once, but if it’s a great product, people will buy it again and again.”

Published: February 07, 2008
Issue: February 08 Money Issue