Thomas Kuuttanen is on a mission. A self-described spirits geek, he hails from Sweden, where vodka has been produced for 800 years and where there are 175,000 vodka stills for less than one million households. He says he was never a vodka fan---that “whiskey is about passion, but vodka is about image.” And his mission? He wants to create a vodka with the character of a Scotch, Cognac or Calvados.
There are some places in the world where he would be locked up, but this is America---a haven for visionaries as charming and charismatic as Kuuttenan. I met with him in New Orleans in July, and the men with the strait jackets were nowhere in sight. “The reason I didn’t like vodka is not because of vodka itself,” he said, “but because of the distillation process. In the past, vodka was produced in pot stills. It had flavor, texture and body. Today it is designed to be mixed with soda or fruit juices, to get people drunk without ever tasting the vodka.”
Kuuttenean claims to have invented a totally different distillation procedure. Working out of the 13th-century Ellinge Castle in southern Sweden, he first processes barley and estate-grown winter wheat in a 600-gallon copper pot still. This spirit is then transferred to specially designed column stills for rectification. According to Kuuttenan, his vodka goes through 34 separate distillations with a total of 65,536 possible options. At the end, he has lost 90% of the liquid and is left with a distillate of 192 proof, or 96% alcohol. This is then carefully cut with natural, mineral-rich water from a protected source to become Purity Vodka.
Critics would maintain that Kuuttenan is doing nothing more or less than what any other distiller would do in a column still; not having visited his facility, I can’t pass judgment on his claims. The key question, of course, is how does the stuff taste?
The nose of Purity Vodka ($40) is powerful and herbal. Tasted neat, it enters the mouth forcefully, with the flavors of wheat and barley very evident. There is a rush of pepper and spice flavors in the mid palate, and the finish is long and complex, with echoes of anise, mint and fresh herbs. It possesses excellent balance, and seems to have a real generosity of texture---regardless of how it’s made.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating history, which will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to www.iconicspirits.net.