Clad in a long, hooded, brown monk’s robe costume, the doorman stood on downtown Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street, clipboard in hand. He almost managed to convey solemnity as he checked off each guest, looked them in the eyes and bid them to “Bring the Bedlam!” when they got upstairs.
I navigated a dimly lit hallway to find an elaborate, fake historical display in the reception room that told a richly imagined and ridiculous tale of Bedlam Vodka’s history, using maps of fake trade routes, fake ancient manuscripts and portraits of fake ancestors.
Fortunately, the drinks were real.
This was the official launch party for Bedlam Vodka, one of the growing number of North Carolina-made vodkas lining the shelves at your better-stocked ABC stores.
In the first six months of this year, we’ve seen at least five North Carolina distillers release or promise the upcoming release of vodkas: Durham-based Graybeard Distillery’s Bedlam, Durham Distillery’s Cold Distilled Cucumber-Flavored vodka, Kinston-distilled Three Stacks Distilling Company’s Social House Vodka (with roots in Raleigh), Fuquay-Varina-based Gold Leaf Distillery’s Spell Maker and Moravian Falls-based American Alcohollery’s Spur. You may recognize the Durham Distillery brand from its Conniption Gins and Damn Fine Liqueurs.
Of the newbies I’ve tasted, Bedlam packs the biggest surprise.
At the release party, I started with a vodka and soda with grapefruit bitters. The drink was tasty and refreshing, but I wasn’t sure it – you know – brought the Bedlam. One of the vodka makers got us a couple of shots, served room temperature, not chilled. First I noticed the aroma. It had one – vaguely nutty and warm. The taste was oddly familiar. Is that rice?
Indeed it is.
The real story behind Bedlam is that the rice-based recipe was passed down to Scott Russ, one of the brand’s founders, by Irish ancestors who would not be deterred from distilling vodka by the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century.
But, if it’s rice, is it still vodka? What would the Russians say? Doesn’t vodka have to be wheat or potatoes?
No, it does not.
According to the legal definition, vodka is just ethanol, the result of the distillation process, and water. Distillers can choose whatever plant material they like to create the spirit, which must be at least 190 proof and, when mixed with water, no less than 80 proof in the bottle. The official definition in the U.S. federal code describes vodka as “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
Vodka differs from other spirits by the simplicity of its recipe. With spirits like whiskey and rum, distillers aim to keep in the stuff that might add to the flavor, then they age and fiddle with it after distillation to coax more from the liquid. With vodka, it’s all about minimalism, distilling the main ingredient into a higher plane of goodness.
So, what makes vodka good?
For as long as I can tell, the gold standard had been smoothness. You want a vodka that goes down easy without scorching your throat. Top-shelf brands are palatable alone if chilled and served with a twist. Middling brands are acceptable as long as the taste of the vodka doesn’t overwhelm the cranberry and soda.
Clearly, that’s not what everyone is going for these days. The aforementioned Covington sneaks some vegetal notes into its sweet potato-based vodka. Spur goes bold with a vodka distilled from muscadine wine. And Bedlam – which recently was the exclusive vodka served at an ESPY Awards party – has a clearly articulated nutty flavor, which makes it a friend with benefits when you mix it with Campari, vermouth and a lemon twist to craft a Negroni.
As with any spirit, the accompanying legends also fuel the fire. North Carolina’s newcomers have some stories to tell, mostly of start-up founding adventures thus far. Social House, for example, came to be after a trio of friends with shared experiences in the restaurant, hospitality and spirits worlds decided to make a farm-to-flask vodka. Last week, it hit ABC stores in Wake County (in Cameron Village and Morrisville) and in Lenoir County (in Kinston, where it’s distilled). It also is served at Chef and the Farmer and Boiler Room, the two restaurants owned by Chef Vivian Howard.
As the state becomes friendlier to distillers, I’m guessing we’ll see even more local options under the vodka sign. And maybe more Southern ingredients will catch vodka makers’ attentions. Peanuts? Butter beans? Black-eyed pea vodka, anyone?
Don’t wrinkle your nose. I bet it would make a right fine Bloody Mary.
Amber Nimocks is a former food editor of The News & Observer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ambernim.