Serene Mastrianni is a Force of Nature, at Saratoga Courage Distillery
I don't write this to malign a region of the country, but there is a type of person that I have only met on the upper East Coast of the United States. Most recently, I was reminded of this "stereotype," I supposed it's called, by Serene Mastrianni of Saratoga Courage Distillery in Wilton, NY. Don't let her name fool you.
There is no mistaking when you meet Serene, her purpose on Earth is to share a message. That message is that Saratoga Courage's Pick Six vodka is the best vodka made ever, anywhere on Earth, period, end of story. I'm exaggerating only slightly.
To her credit, Serene is very responsive and thorough in her emails when I'm coordinating a time to stop by. Another thing I love about this type of East Coaster: they leave nothing to chance.
I show up a little earlier than I'm supposed to. Before I can look much around the modest one-room facility, Serene leads me back outside to her Mercedes roadster with Massachusetts plates. She's putting me to work, she announces. Ok, so it's only holding open the trunk (it won't stay open on its own) while she pulls out some bottles. But I add this as a way of illustrating my second favorite point about these people: in their world, everyone's a giver, so it makes no sense to "ask" a favor. You simply inform a bystander of the desired task. Easy enough!
Point Number Three: their recognition (not to be confused with gratitude) of all they've been gifted with. In the case of Saratoga Courage, it was the foresight of their founder, Serene's brother Serge, to select a property with a geyser on it. Not just any geyser, but one of the sources from which Saratoga Springs derives its name.
Water is crucial to the flavor of most spirits. Even more so vodka, because, by definition, any oils that would flavor a spirit must be distilled or filtered out in vodka. Water is all that's left in the vodka bottle, besides pure alcohol.
Back inside, Serene leads me to the literal water closet. She opens the door and there, flowing up through the floor, are pvc pipes leading into all sorts of pump machinery, before continuing farther up into the ceiling. I don't know why I was expecting to see a natural spring simply bubbling up from the concrete. Shows what I know.
We follow the pipes along the wall in the main room, where they lead to a charcoal filtration system and finally to holding tanks. You'd would think a substance that requires so much technology to pull out of the ground could at least power a car. But no, it's odorless, flavorless and merely keeps you alive.
Serene emphasizes that once proofed down to 80 with this miraculous water, Pick Six vodka will get filtered through a series of fourteen carbon trays, six times. It's amazing the stuff is still wet by the time Saratoga Courage is done with it.
If it seems like I am spending a lot of time on what Saratoga Courage does to its water, it's because not much else is done at the facility. I don't call the place a "distillery," because there is no still. Serene is upfront about this early on. She tells me what they do here is called "rectifying," a fancy word for "adding water."
The neutral spirit arrives to Saratoga Courage already distilled to 190 proof. Serene is cagier about the specifics on the relationship between her company and the place doing the distilling. First, it's their own distillery at an"offsite location." Then it sounds like they employ a distiller who works out of a third-party facility. I'm able to gather, after a few more rounds of verbal twister, that they purchase the neutral spirits outright. Compare this dance to other distilleries I've been to, where they matter-of-factly describe their vodka or gin starting off as a grain neutral spirit poured into a column still. As with other things in life, it's only as big of a deal as you make it.
Back to Serene and her marketing. She likes to have visitors fill and label their own bottle to take home, and I happily oblige. I also learn I would make a lousy bottler. My screw-on cap leaked right before I regifted the bottle to a relative.
Another part of the Saratoga Courage experience is a taste test of vodkas. I try three in a row -Smirnoff, Kettle One and Tito's, though maybe not in that order- before Saratoga Courage's own Pick Six. (I will notice an equestrian theme at the distilleries in the area, due to the famous Saratoga Race Course). All the while, Serene explains the different factors that go into vodka judging, or the "four F's": fragrance, feel, flavor, and finish.
Like the water that goes into making it, vodka ideally should have no flavor or fragrance. Of course, it will always contain alcohol, and therefore, at its very cleanest, will still taste and smell of that compound. There are unwanted chemicals that come through in the distillation process, such as methanol and esters, that if not filtered out completely and/or separated from the distillate, will lend additional flavors and odors to vodka (as well as make a hangover more likely, according to folklore). So if you are comparing vodkas and smell and/or taste anything other than alcohol, it may be due to these extras getting through. In sampling Pick Six, I taste the slight sweetness of its corn origins and a faint alcohol scent on the nose.
"Finish," refers to how much or little your mouth is left with an alcohol burn after sipping vodka. Pick Six's finish is smooth, with a very minor burn.
"Feel" in vodka tasting refers to how the liquid interacts with your tongue. Chemicals left in, other than alcohol, may cause a "bite" or harshness. Serene asks me after each sip how my mouth feels. I know she wants me to cry out "ow, it burns horribly. Make is stop!" But only the Smirnoff has any hint of a burn, and it's more of a sensation of liquid drying quickly on my tongue. I would not be able to pick Pick Six out of a lineup, based only on Feel. Sorry.
I think it's an accomplishment for Saratoga Courage to have made a vodka (however you choose to define the concept of craft) that can hold its own against the big guys. Serene, in what I'm sure is genuine enthusiasm, foresees a day when Pick Six is the go-to call vodka in most craft cocktail bars. (I think of a brand as having "made it" when a hotel chain or an airline touts it, the way they currently do with Tito's, as proof of being "in the know.") This type of ambition, at least expressed out loud, is rare for most craft distillers I visit. But then again, I have only been in New York for one day. For all I know, there may be two million Serenes living in Manhattan alone - with no shortage of unsolicited opinions.