Before the North Fork became the epicenter of the Long Island wine industry, it was covered in potato fields. Long Island potatoes were famous long before the Hargraves planted grape vines in the early 1970s.
Of course, many of those potato fields have been replaced by grape vines, but there are still hundreds (thousands?) of acres of potatoes grown on Long Island.
You might think about French fries or mashers when you think potatoes, but Rich Stabile, owner of and head distiller at Long Island Spirits, sees the ultimate raw material for making vodka.
"Long Island has a long history and tradition for producing world-class potatoes. Potatoes also produce the world's finest vodkas," he told me in an email last week.
The distillery, on Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow, occupies a restored barn on an 80-acre potato farm. It's there that Stabile uses 9,000 pounds of locally grown potatoes to make a single batch of vodka in two German-made 650-liter copper stills. Eventually, the barn will serve as a tasting room too, Stabile just isn't sure when. "We are waiting on the State for the tasting room, so I have no firm date on when we will be able to open."
In the meantime, his first release, an unflavored vodka named LiV (rhymes with five) Vodka ($38 for 750ml, $44 for a liter) is available at shops, restaurants and country clubs on Long Island and in New York City, or as Stabile puts it "We are in close to 200 locations from Montauk to Manhattan." The response has been good too. "Thirty-percent of our customers have place re-orders."
The official tasting notes read a bit like wine tasting note: "Fresh, crisp and lively with a creamy, buttery feel on the palate. Bright, silky smooth texture with hints of banana, citrus, strawberries, vanilla and anise followed by an incredibly elegant, clean finish."
Tasted neat at room temperature (so that none of the spirits aromas or flavors were muted) I noticed distinct vanilla aromas on the nose along with an extremely faint banana note. I tasted much the same on the palate, unable to pick up any of the other fruit flavors mentioned. Where LiV Vodka excels is in its mouthfeel, which is creamy and extremely smooth. It's easy to picture one's self enjoying it simply on the rocks with a twist of lime.
To some vodka lovers, any fruit or other flavors are frowned upon, but Stabile disagrees that vodka should be neutral and flavorless. "All Vodka’s retain some character notes of the original raw material that they are made from. Potato vodka will taste different then vodkas made from grains. Other vodkas can be characterized with an ethanol smelling nose and heavy burn on the finish. We are actually using the traditional European style method which is a more complex coupled with a more expensive raw material for making vodka then other comparable vodkas."
Stabile is currently experimenting with different flavored vodkas for the future and, when I asked him if he has plans for other, non-vodka spirits I liked his answer: " Yes and as you can imagine we will be focused on using local crops that are available."
Maybe we'll see some eue di vie made using local apples, grappa made with spent grape must or maybe a bourbon made from local corn. Stabile certainly has a plethora of raw materials at his disposal.
(A version of this piece will appear in the August 1 issue of Dan's Papers)