Tyler Schramm is a quiet guy. When you take the tour of the world’s only certified organic potato vodka distillery, located in a non-descript building at the back of Pemberton’s Industrial Park, you get a sense that public speaking is his least favourite gig. But the master distiller has created a product that he’s proud to stand behind, no matter how many microphones that puts in his face.
“Does organic vodka make for a kinder, gentler hangover?” I prod.
“Well, the science of hangovers…” he starts, careful, factual, precise.
“… is that there is no kinder, gentler option?” I cut him off, satisifed that he has passed the first test. He’s no snake-oil salesman.
In its first year of operation, Schramm Vodka won Double Gold for vodka and Spirit of the Year Awards (in the clear spirit category) at the 2010 World Spirit Awards in Klagenfurt Austria in March 2010.
“That seems pretty phenomenal, right out the gate?” I ask.
“That was as good as we could have done.”
The second test is aced in flying colours: the humility of a true craftsman.
The inner-workings of the distillery reveal copper-pot stills, with vaporising columns and submarine-like peepholes. Alas, there are no Oompa Loompas to help run the shop. This is a family-run artisan distillery. Tyler, his brothers and brothers’ wives, his partner Lorien, and their parents, show up once a month to help hand-bottle 1500 bottles.
“Do they get paid in vodka?” I ask.
“They don’t get paid at all.”
I’m touring the distillery with Seattle writer, Maria Dolan, who asks Tyler what he had originally planned to be when he grew up.
His undergraduate degree from U.Vic is in geography and environmental studies. “I considered going into environmental law,” he admits.
Maria and I think that a Masters of Science in Brewing and Distilling was a much better choice.
His thesis at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh set out to prove that vodka, considered by many of his university colleagues and professors to be an indistinct and tasteless spirit – could be just as rich and complex as a single malt scotch.
“I’m quite glad I didn’t [go into law],” says Schramm. “I think maybe I can have more of a positive impact on the environment now.”
While the hangover from over-indulging on organic vodka isn’t kinder and gentler, the footprint of this spirit is.
Brewed from five varieties of organic potatoes grown 15km up the road by Bruce Miller of Across the Creek Organics, the process isn’t diverting food-grade potatoes from the system. Schramm Vodka takes Miller’s “culls” – potatoes that are too small to be sold as table potatoes. The vodka is distilled one batch at a time, a distinct process from that which creates most industrial vodkas which are triple distilled to remove any flavour or character in rectified columns that run non-stop and require no real craftsmanship.
Schramm Vodka, which is pure alcohol distilled from organic potatoes, in blended simply with water from the wild, mountain-fed Birkenhead River.
“A lot of people come in to the distillery and end up trying an organic food item, which they wouldn’t necessarily seek out. They wouldn’t necessarily have thought about the environmental impact of what they drink, or what it took to make it,” explains Schramm.
Test three: the man is awakening consciousness through alcohol. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The final test is the taste-test.
Distillery visitors are poured a cocktail – the glass becomes a keepsake that more than justifies the $6 tour investment.
We swirl our glasses of vodka and inhale. I smell the cedar tang of a West Coast rainforest, shadow-dappled and run through with glacier-fed creek. We sip. The spirit is smooth and powerful. I think: this is the taste of my home. Cheers to that.