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Potatoes will eventually kill us all, one way or another. Eat them after frying them up, recent studies suggest, and you get cancer. Eaten any other way, they are another step down the long sad path to bloat and heart failure. Itís enough to make you wish you could just get drunk on them ó to blot out, at least for a few hours, the horror of creeping toward mortality. Now a coalition of Mainers has made it possible to dance towards another potato-related fatality with panache and a buzz.
Cold River, the latest entry into the premium ($30-plus) vodka market, was launched last week at an elegant "first pour" event. It was a thoroughly Maine launch for a thoroughly Maine product. Most vodkas, including fancy ones, result from an unholy alliance of massive Midwest grain conglomerates and toney coastal distilleries. Trucks full of undistinguished alcohol made from barley or rice crisscross the country before submitting to the particular distillation that makes it Belvedere, Grey Goose, or Hangar 1. Cold River rejects that model in two ways. First, Cold River Vodka is made from potatoes, not grain. Second, every aspect of the production of Cold River, from the potatoes to the water from the Cold River to the copper pot still, is based here in Maine. If this vodka is to succeed in the fickle high-end vodka market, it is these two points of distinction that will make it happen.
It is actually rather difficult to get drunk on potatoes in America. Cold River now joins Chopin as the only two potato-based vodkas on the market. Essentially, vodka has two ingredients ó alcohol and water. Many vodka makers maintain that what is most important is how a vodka is distilled, and how many times, not the source of the alcohol that goes into the still. Alcohol can be produced from grain less expensively than it can be produced from potatoes, and so it is grain alcohol that ends up in most vodkas. The makers of Cold River believe that potatoes produce a vodka that, compared to the grain-based products, is smoother and less jarring to the palate ó the quality to which premium vodkas most aspire. They also believe potato alcohol harbors an extra bit of unfermented sugar, which survives the distillation and lends the vodka a subtle sweetness that strikes the palate as integral to the vodka, not an add-on to mask the harshness of the alcohol.
Based on what we tasted at the first pour in Freeport, they are right. Cold River tasted neat and seemed smoother (less harsh on the tongue) than most vodkas that appear in $10 martinis these days. And there was a subtle but identifiable sweetness that was very pleasant. These two qualities should make Cold River perfect for martinis, especially if served with a twist of lemon rather than an olive. They also indicate that the vodka will work well in most of the sugary vodka-based cocktails that are popular now. There were several cocktails to taste at the Freeport event, and they were uniformly good, as was the vodka infused with honey and blueberry.
The first pour also emphasized Cold Riverís other distinguishing mark ó its strong roots in Maine. Fryeburg potato farmer Donnie Thibodeau and his brother Lee talked about the lessons they learned walking through the Maine countryside with their father. The governor spoke of how the whole project evoked the spirit of Maine. The unanswered question is whether the genuine appeal of local craftsmanship can cross over into the hyper-stylized world of vodka preferences. What makes Cold River unique ó the potatoes, the river water, its connection to place ó is easy to understand. These are not gimmicks designed to make the vodka fashionable. They are a genuine return to basics, but are still rare enough in the vodka world to make Cold River stand out. But tasting vodka is not like enjoying the best local ingredients at Fore Street or Hugoís. Itís in the nature of vodka that aroma, taste, and feel are all ephemeral, bordering even on the imaginary. What seems clear is that Maineís restaurants and bars will support Cold River, and that it will win over vodka drinkers here one by one. It is impossible to know if the martini-nation will follow.
Brian Duff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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