January 16, 2011

The Bottom Line: Maine-made vodka a five-star spirit

Freeport's Cold River Vodka has won recognition – and fans – since it debuted five years ago.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Chris Dowe, the head distiller and a partner in Maine Distilleries LLC in Freeport, developed the recipe for Cold River Vodka.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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“People always say they want smooth vodka, and Cold River is the definition of that,” said Paul Pacult, a professional spirits taster.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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ART OF MAKING VODKA
During the distillation process:

Potatoes are ground, steamed and boiled.

Yeast is added to the mixture, which becomes a 9 percent-alcohol potato wine.

Potato wine is distilled in the copper pot, and the vapor is condensed into a “low wine.”

The low wine is distilled again and stripped of remaining water in a copper rectification column.

The spirit is distilled a third time, resulting in a liquid that is 96.2 percent ethyl alcohol.

Water from the Saco River aquifer, where the Cold River runs, is added, cutting the spirit to 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof.

The company still operates at a loss, but Dowe expects to turn a profit in 2011.

"We are so close," he said.

Once that happens, Dowe said he and his partners may sell the company, a strategy included in the original business plan.

Maine Distilleries sells liquor in 26 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and England. Last year, the company shipped some 4,000 cases of vodka, blueberry vodka and gin, a new product.

Sales are strongest in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maryland.

The spirits are made from Yukon gold, russet and white potatoes harvested at Donnie Thibodeau's Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg.

A machine grinds the potatoes into one-eighth-inch chunks, which are steamed, cooked in filtered water and pumped into one of three fermentation vessels, where yeast is added.

Next, the "potato wine" undergoes a three-part distillation process, before it is cut to 80 proof with water from the Saco River aquifer.

Most people think vodka is odorless and tasteless, but Dowe said Maine potatoes impart an earthy flavor, and cooking endows hints of caramel.

Cold River won gold medals at the World Spirits Competition and from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, and Wine Enthusiast named it the No. 1 vodka in the world in 2008.

Pacult describes Cold River as "elegant," less viscous than Eastern European and Russian vodkas, but heavier than Scandinavian brands.

"It all comes down to distillation. They have great attention to detail and care about what they are doing," he said.

Harkins, Maine Distilleries' director of sales and marketing, said the company controls production from the ground (the potatoes) to the glass, a level of oversight that distinguishes Cold River from competitors Belvedere, Grey Goose, Chopin and Tanqueray.

He added that the company thrives largely without advertising, relying instead on a "feet on the ground" marketing strategy.

Maine Distilleries has three salespeople who sell to retailers, restaurant owners, hotel food and beverage directors and bartenders.

"If we can get a bartender or a wait staffer working for us and selling the brand -- that is what it is all about," said Harkins. 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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