Though the distillery was not on my official Canadian Tourism Commission itinerary – through whose good offices I had gotten to PEI in the first place – my ever genial and accommodating PEI guide, Grant, kindly acceded to my hopeful requests and – despite a lot of miles and a lack of time – got me to the distillery on the last day of my visit to the island, where I met the delightful Julie Shore, craft distiller and one half of the couple behind the production of Canada’s first potato vodka.
18lbs of potatoes in one bottle. Weighty stuff, this potato vodka.
Julie Shore was talking me through the process of making potato vodka at the small Prince Edward Distillery that she established in 2008 with her partner Arla Johnson in Hermanville, in the north east of the island. “Our distillery is about distilling the agriculture here on PEI,” said Julie, “and the number one crop is potatoes. That being said, potatoes are the hardest thing to distill – a potato is 80% water, so it takes a lot of potatoes to make a bottle of vodka. My colleagues look at me like I’m crazy to do it.”
It is, of course much more common – to say nothing of being easier – to distill vodka from grain, though you’ll find some potato vodkas being made in places like Poland and Sweden, as well as a few in the U.S., in addition to that made by the Chase Distillery in the U.K. Even poitín, the legendary clear Irish spirit that everyone assumes to have been made using potatoes, was, and is, more commonly based on grain. But here on PEI, where close to 10% of its million or so farming acres are planted with potatoes, that’s what Julie wanted to use, and so around 4500lbs of potatoes at a time go into their cook kettle for each batch.
My initial encounter with the vodka, however, was not so much about volume as temperature, when, within minutes of arriving at the small island outpost, I had felt the warming effect of a crisp, ice cold shot. Though the vodka is distilled to neutral, it’s somewhat like our beloved Irish neutrality – which is to say neutral enough, but not that neutral, really. On the nose, the vodka has an earthiness reminiscent of potato skins, while the spirit itself retains a lot of the character of the potato. It’s a classy product that, among other things, has won two gold medals in international competitions, beating out Chopin, a potato vodka from Poland, and is available locally on PEI, in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Alberta and further afield in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark.
It’s not all about spuds at the PEI distillery, though. “Most of my other spirits start out with grain and I say that’s for my sanity,” said Julie. They include a wild blueberry vodka, crisp and smooth, made using blueberries from the island, with no extracts or sugar added; a citrussy gin which features lemongrass and ginger in addition to traditional juniper and other botanicals; and a light rum, which is more than a passing nod to the rum running history of Canada’s maritime provinces, and something on which Julie and Arla will focus more at their second, more recently established distillery in Halifax in neighbouring Nova Scotia. They also make a rye whisky and I.C. Shore, a bourbon-style corn whisky, a direct reference to Julie’s own family heritage as, four generations ago, her family were makers of corn whisky, operating I.C. Shore Distillery in North Carolina, a business to which prohibition eventually put paid.
We toured the back of the premises, where, in advance of distillation, vodka-bound potatoes – skins and all – are ground, cooked for most of the day, pumped through a heat exchanger, then piped to fermentation tanks. The still, designed by Julie and custom made by German manufacturers Arnold Holstein, combines both a pot still and tall and short distillation columns. For clear spirits, such as the potato vodka, both columns are used to distill to a neutral spirit, but for the rums and whiskies, pot distillation is used to retain more character, and the still is fitted with a valve that Julie can adjust in order to bypass the tall column as needed. After distillation, the clear spirits are bottled, while the dark spirits age in new American oak barrels which have been given a medium char.
As I returned to savouring my sample of potato vodka, Julie described her favourite way to enjoy the tuberous tipple: “Straight from the freezer with a twist of lemon and two dozen PEI oysters – it’s amazing with oysters,” and immediately I wished I had known that over the preceding few days, when I had consumed a considerable number of PEI’s very fine oysters, and to which, I thought, there could have been no more appropriate accompaniment.