1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tito's Handmade Vodka and Beer

I was thinking of visiting Tito's distillery next time I'm up near Austin, but it looks like Tito (I shit you not) Beveridge has gone out of his way to avoid telling us where he is, much less offered distillery tours. From photos, I'd guess it's somewhere Northwest of Austin toward Lake Travis, up off 2222 or 290. From the website:

We used to [give tours] before we had insurance. Now our insurance company doesn't allow us to, but you can watch the video piece the Discovery Channel did on us."

Damn you, insurance industry, damn you all to hell! (And thank you for the Ike remittance.)

For those of you who haven't had the chance to drink Tito's, it's pretty damn awesome. Super clean, with full mouthfeel, and no harshness, astringency, or chemical flavor. It should be said that I'm not a big Vodka fan -- I think Vodka should be felt and not tasted -- and so I like to mix it or infuse it (chili pepper and honey? yum). Tito's fits the bill for me.

Another great part of the website is the video section, where you see some local New 8 Austin pieces on Tito circa 1995 (the Big Hill Country Hair era). He's a petrochemical engineer, and built the pot still himself, using old photos of prohibition-era raids. The Tito's venture started off as a planned 10-million dollar whiskey distillery, and shifted to a back-porch vodka plant after the investors failed to shell out and Tito spoke with liquor store owners who suggested Vodka was where it's at. Elsewhere he relates that it took him a full year operating the still before he was willing to taste anything that came out of it (Oh tricksy methyl alcohol, with your single carbon group and your light-footed, ne'er-do-well ways... Why don't you put some weight on like your sister, Ethyl?).

Tito's is distilled exclusively from corn, not from potatoes (as is often assumed) or from rye and wheat, as are the majority of vodkas today (according to Wikipedia, anyway). So if Vodka can be made from corn, rye, or wheat, what separates it from whiskeys? It turns out, nothing, according to David Wonderich. Vodka is just distilled more times -- taking out more of the impurities (like color and taste). Hence, if Tito decided to run the stuff through his still a few less than six times, he'd have a creditable Moonshine. Wonderich adds that there was also once a practical distinction between Slavic and non-Slavic distilled liquor; they liked to use charcoal filters, apparently, while us Anglos preferred wood aging.

But of more interest to me is how vodka's emergence as the bête noire of American mixology (Choclatini, anyone?) echoes the ascendancy of lagers like Budweiser and Miller. These clear and clean American lagers rose in the wake of Prohibition and near beer. People had gone so long without drinking the real stuff, they lost a taste for stronger, more flavorful beer. Combine that with advertising which emphasized clarity, simplicity, and freshness as forms of sophistication, and American dark lagers and IPAs were doomed. Similarly, it seems American whiskey was largely diverted into explosives production during WWII -- millions of barrels of booze ended up in bombs and torpedoes. This exhaused the supply of properly aged whiskey in the US, so after the war, distillers had only a dram of the old stuff lying around and tons of fresh hooch. The solution: mix it. This young stuff didn't have the richness or flavor of the old; but inasmuch as half the drinkers had been away drinking schnapps, vodka, Scotch, or more often, nothing, this didn't bother many. Smoothness was prized above richness, "Canadian" whiskeys rose in stature, and with them, Vodka -- which made a virtue of its flavorless, and hence ultra-sophisticated (00svelt) taste.

All of which is to say that, from McCormick's to Kettle One, Vodka is the lawnmower beer of the liquor world. I'd hesitate to throw crafted booze like Tito's and Chopin in the mix. But if Tito ever wants to start a sideline selling the Texas whiskey he'd always dreamed about, I'll be a huge and enthusiastic supporter (as would, I suspect, most other Texans). Might I suggest a Rye?

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