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Arts & Life

Cheers! Michigan potato vodka in a Hawaiian-named drink

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio

With things opening up as the COVID-19 pandemic eases, Tammy Coxen with Tammy’s Tastings and I decided it was time to start visiting the mixologists and distillers who are the driving forces behind the craft cocktail movement.

Our first stop was Griffin Claw which has two locations in Birmingham and Rochester Hills. We visited the Rochester Hills site. Griffin Claw is, known for its brewing, but it distills spirits too.

“Griffin Claw has been distilling since day one. We have our own unique brands of spirits that are available only in our taproom. Selections include our own Grain Vodka, Potato Vodka, Gin, Rum, Whiskey, and Schnapps. Our German Schnapps Still brings a ton of character and history to our spirits,” according to its website.

One of those spirits is fairly unique, a potato vodka. Now, you might think all vodka is made from potato, but as Tammy noted when she was talking with head brewer and distiller Dan Rogers, it's not.

Griffin Claw head brewer and distiller Dan Rogers
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Griffin Claw head brewer and distiller Dan Rogers

TC: “The vast majority of vodka we drink in the United States is made from grain either corn if you're drinking Tito’s or wheat if you're drinking kind of more artisanal stuff. But you guys actually make a grain vodka and a potato vodka.”

DR:Our grain vodka is 50 percent barley and 50 percent wheat. The potato vodka is and it's unique to a lot of potatoes vodkas because I'll guarantee it is 100 percent potato. There's no grain in there. It's 100 percent potato.”

Tammy decided I should be the judge of a blind taste test to determine which vodka was made from grain and which was made from potatoes.

"Theoretically, there shouldn't be a lot of difference. Right? The way that we think about vodka is that it's a neutral flavored spirit. You're distilling something, a 95 percent alcohol by volume. You're not going to carry, theoretically, a lot of the character in the spirit,” she said.

Dan Rogers gave me a little hint. “I'll say our potato vodka has a creaminess to it and maybe a slight, slight potato character comes through it. You'd have to go back and forth with both of them for a bit and really have your palate cleaned to discern them.”

I’m no vodka expert and I wanted to get through this as quickly as possible. I tasted one. I tasted the second. I made my decision. And I was wrong. Not at all surprising to me.

“Opposite way around,” Tammy said, adding that she knew beforehand which was which, so when she was tasting them, she was looking for certain characters. “Knowing that the grain based vodka is made from two different grains and also, of course, coming in knowing that it was the grain based one, I could kind of taste like almost two different kind of flavors there. Where with the potato one, it really had that sort of one note, like not in a bad way. I like the note. But it was kind of a little bit more consistent from start to finish, if that makes sense.”

Rogers said besides being a little more creamy, he says some of the sugars of the potato stay throughout the distilling process.

Potato vodka in a tiki drink

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Some of the ingredients for the Hawaiian Sunset.

Back in Tammy’s kitchen, it was time to put the potato vodka to the test in a cocktail.

“I am going to make a little number called the Hawaiian Sunset,” Tammy said, explaining,  

“This is actually a classic tiki drink. We think about tiki as being all about rum, but this dates from the 1960s in Las Vegas at a bar called the Aku Aku Polynesian restaurant.”  You can see some photos of Aku Aku on this Facebook page of vintage Las Vegas.

She started squeezing juice from a lemon and a lime, added some grenadine, and then some milky substance from an unlabeled bottle, orgeat. It’s an almond syrup that she made at home. There’s a link to the recipe below. Then she added ice and started shaking it all in a tin.

When she poured out the content, it was a milky pink, sort of like strawberry milk.

“That's why I thought about creamy vodka, creamy looking drink. There's no actual cream in here. But the orgeat ,the almond syrup is made with almond milk. So it definitely gives a creamy look to the drink and a texture,” Tammy said.

She took the biggest channel knife I’ve ever seen and made a curly lime twist as a garnish.

The drink is deceiving the first thing you notice in this milky pink drink is the bright citrus taste. It’s not as sweet as I thought it might be, which suits me just fine.

“It's really refreshing. You're right, the citrus comes through at first and then you kind of get that nuttiness from the orgeat that hits at the end,” Tammy said.

During the more than five years of these Cheers! episodes, we’ve rarely used vodka.

“I don't use vodka a lot in cocktails because it is so neutral that it doesn't have a lot to bring to the cocktail itself. And that kind of works to the benefit of this drink because what you're really experiencing is the citrus and the almond and the pomegranate. You know, you're kind of getting all of those other flavors and the vodka is just acting as a way to stretch those out, add some alcohol to the drink. But it's good in this case that it's not really an assertive flavor. Rum here would hide the rest of what's going on,” Tammy said.

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Tammy with the Hawaiian Sunset made with Griffin Claw's potato vodka.

Hawaiian Sunset

1 1/2 oz vodka (Griffin Claw Potato)
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz orgeat (get the recipe here)
1 tsp grenadine (see below)
Garnish: lime twist
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain
into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish.

Grenadine: Heat 1/2 cup pomegranate juice (such as POM) with 1/2 cup
sugar in a saucepan just until sugar dissolves. Optional: add 1 tbsp
pomegranate molasses. Let cool and store refrigerated. Yield: 6 oz

Tammy Coxen and Lester Graham are the authors of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers from the University of Michigan Press. The book is based on the Cheers! episodes heard on Michigan Radio.

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