Hard Way is the Jersey Way at Claremont Distillery
At this point, I've been on the road touring distilleries for about three weeks and I've noticed a trend. In distilling, as with any type of multi-step manufacture, there are various shortcuts one could take to save time, money, cut down on waste, and so forth. The customer would never be able to detect, in the resulting spirit, if any of these shortcuts were taken.
There are plenty of distillers who make their spirits without shortcuts. They call their way old-fashioned, authentic, "hand crafted," etc. Or they don't draw much attention to it all. I understand, if someone takes steps that others may consider 'unnecessary,' why they would feel compelled to seek acknowledgement for it. If they didn't, no one would know the difference.
I write all this as a long-winded introduction to Chris DeGasperis, head distiller at Claremont Distillery in Fairfield, NJ. They are the only distillery I've encountered so far making vodka from potatoes; no easy feat, I'm told. Potato vodka is often and appropriately associated with Russians, a people that have learned to savor punishment.
After sourcing the potatoes (Claremont uses local Russets) and getting them delivered, they get mashed and ready for fermentation. Mashing potatoes here is not the same as what your mom does at Thanksgiving. It involves a large mash tun and an agitator and a lot of mess. The mash ferments for five days, as yeast turns it into an alcohol wash. Chris runs the wash through Claremont's two-column still several times, for the equivalent of a twenty-times distillation.
The result: a clean taste, with a silky mouthfeel and the slightest hint of sweetness. Is it noticeably better than the countless other craft vodkas I've tried? Not particularly. Chris explains their decision to use potatoes. Out of all potential ingredients for vodka, the starchiness of potatoes, while relatively difficult for yeast to convert to alcohol, does make for the most efficient filtering out of esters - the fatty lipids that lend spirits flavor. Vodka, by definition, is supposed to be odorless and flavorless. Claremont comes pretty damn close.
Chris has me try Claremont's two flavored vodkas: peach and blueberry. Keeping with the labor-intensive process of turning potatoes into vodka, the flavoring process here is similarly au naturale. Chris macerates fruit and adds it into the same 190-proof distillate used to make the unflavored vodka, along with a little sugar. He then runs it through the column still once again. The results for each flavored vodka is a very subtle fruit nose. The palates differ widely. The blueberry is only a mild sweetness while the peach hits me like simple syrup. Flavor vodka is allowed to be a proof lower than 80. Both of these are 70.
There's another clear spirit to be had at Claremont: their unaged whiskey (they call it Jersey Devil Moonshine, after the Garden State's answer to the Loch Ness Monster.) The mash is 80% corn (from New Jersey) and 20% barley (from Canada), and they bottle it at 80 proof. The nose starts off grainy and with a musty wood, and evolves into sweet fruit. The palate is earthy, with a chocolate spicy finish.
There are two flavored versions of the moonshine: cinnamon and apple pie. Like the flavored vodkas, these are 70 proof as well. They differ from the vodkas, however, in that they are flavored by extracts added to the moonshine base. For the apple pie, it's cinnamon, apple, sugar, caramel, nutmeg, clove and vanilla. It's as cloyingly sweet as hard candy, with cinnamon being the overriding note for me. Strangely enough, the cinnamon flavored moonshine (or "sinamon," keeping with the Jersey Devil theme) has more of an earthy and musky palate. I didn't get the strong burn of cinnamon I was expecting, like you would with Fireball. That's all for the best. If I ever wanted that much cinnamon, I'd pop a stick of Big Red.
My tasting complete, Chris and I somehow get onto the topic of LA restaurants. I tell him how hard it is to keep up with the latest trends, since it seems like even the most highly regarded restaurants constantly shut down, switch chefs and/or rebrand entirely. I'm surprised when Chris names two of my favorite local spots, Gjelina and Scopa. He says he makes it out to LA about once every couple of years, but hasn't been to either restaurant yet. As delicious as both places are, I wouldn't say either of their famously charred pizzas are worth a cross-country flight on their own. Now a true Jersey Shore style slice of grease and cheese, that's a different story.