Will a city in love with specialty coffee, microbrew beer and boutique pinot noir warm to its very own vodka? When New Deal Vodka hits the market at the end of the month, two ex-Reedies-turned-computer programmers will find out.
"I had the spare moment at work…" begins Tom Burkleaux.
"…and I heard the thought-bubble pop," concludes Matthew Vanwinkle.
Thus, two years ago, the pals hatched plans for a Portland first: a vodka distillery, churning out the Slavic elixir specifically for local consumption.
"We're making this, like, a Portland thing," Burkleaux says as he fidgets with a pack of Lucky Strikes at a Southeast Portland pub. "It's just vodka. It's good, but it's nothing fancy. We just want to get local folks drinking it, one drinker at a time."
New Deal, which kicks with a slightly sweet aftertaste (see the taste test, below), will sell for $19.50 for a 750 mL bottle. Sister brand Portland 88, a more "classic" vodka suited for cocktail mixes, will go for two or three bucks cheaper. Infused flavors, including hot pepper, cardamom and rosemary, will follow.
Oregon boasts a number of micro-distilleries, from brandy producer Clear Creek to Corvallis' new Medoyeff Vodka. However, New Deal looks to be the first Portland-based vodka. Burkleaux, a Rose City native, and Camas-reared Vanwinkle say they draw more inspiration from local icons like Stumptown Coffee than from the grand names of the vodka market.
"It seemed like all the vodkas coming out were just gimmicks," Burkleaux says, citing the glut of heavily marketed premium vodkas that appeared during the '90s. "The boom was over. I thought, 'Someone's gotta make vodka for when times aren't so good. I don't just want to drink beer.' We picked a name, New Deal, we thought reflected the tenor of the times."
Picking the name, of course, was the easy part. It took the partners a two-year voyage through federal and state bureaucracies-plus about $50,000 in credit-card and paycheck venture capital-before they could even test out their $2,600 still. In a cramped garage in inner Southeast, they spent last summer testing grain-based techniques.
"We've been amazed at what small changes in the distilling process will do to the flavor," Vanwinkle says. As for the main ingredient: "We love Bull Run water. We've tried using filtered, and the vodka just doesn't taste as good. It tastes flat."
Beyond a certain aesthetic (read the manifesto at www.newdealdistillery.com), the pair has a disarmingly modest business plan: They don't really have one. They're hoping Portland's enthusiasm for local products will stir demand at both bars and liquor stores. Though the Oregon Liquor Control Commission listed New Deal in its inventory this month, as of mid-January Burkleaux didn't know if anyone had ordered it. He hadn't hooked up the fax machine yet.
"It'll be a real emotional commitment when we actually have to sell the stuff," Burkleaux says.
"Yeah," Vanwinkle adds. "Right now, it's tough to let go of every bottle. It's like kicking your kid out of the house. 'There goes Mel….'"
So how does Portland's new hometown vodka stack up with some of the big names? In an unscientific effort to find out, we convened a four-person Vodka Task Force.
Robb Kapp A bartender at downtown's Red Star Tavern.
Kelly Clarke WW's own double-dealing food-'n'-drinks columnist (see "Night Avenger" and "Bite Club").
Roman Tchamkin Guitarist for the Portland-based Russian punk band MiruMir. Moscow native. Enough said.
We put New Deal up against two well-known vodkas of roughly similar cost: Russia's iconic Stolichnaya, and every sorority girl's favorite, Skyy.
First up: New Deal.
Roman: Hmm…it seems flavored. What are they doing to it? It goes smoothly and then…
Robb: The aftertaste just kind of sticks with you.
Kelly: It's great when you first drink it, and it's great going down. But there's something odd about it.
Zach: Well, keep in mind that they've only been running their still for about six months. And it's a whiskey still, not a vodka still-they did tell me they have to do some secret stuff to it.
Robb: Yeah, I wonder what that secret sauce is. It's almost a fruity flavor. For a first effort, it's not bad. We'd probably put this in at the bar, since it's local.
Kelly: They definitely need to capitalize on that.
Roman: Yes. The label is definitely the best of the labels here. The marketing for this needs to be like a Tupperware party. What they need to do is get it to the people who drink vodka. Tell the Russians about it. Tell them this is the local moonshine vodka some guys make in the garage.
Next, we pour icy shots of Stoli.
Robb: See, this has the flavor up front, but really no aftertaste. We use Stoli for a lot of cocktails because it has that clean, neutral flavor.
Roman: There's no bite. I mean, that's from my hometown.
Kelly: New Deal might have more flavor, but Stoli is definitely smoother.
We eat some pickles, a Russian-style palate cleanser, then proceed to Skyy.
Roman: Ugh. No to Skyy.
Kelly: It's a sneaky bastard of a vodka. You think you'll be OK, and then…oh God, that's awful. I don't know if it's just loyalty to the local boys, but I'd say New Deal is definitely better than Skyy.
Roman: Yeah. Plus the New Deal design is much cooler.
And so our panel of "experts" renders its judgment. New Deal doesn't match up to Stoli-but what did you expect? The local upstart beats out the slickly marketed Skyy. The panel, slightly the worse for wear, raises a glass to New Deal's good luck.
New Deal and Portland 88 should be available by request at state liquor stores. See www.newdealdistillery.com for more info.