By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Kathryn Shea Duncan, Brightside Pictures and Cheré Coen
Three innovative Southerners are turning local and unique ingredients into tasty spirits.
Like many of you fine Southern gentlemen, I grew up eating farm to table, picking corn and digging potatoes less than 100 steps from our kitchen. Now, the phrase “farm to table” has become synonymous with tasty, locally-sourced ingredients and we see it everywhere from food trucks to fine dining to farmers markets (you farmers market folks don’t really need to say this, we figure if the farmer is selling us some produce, it’s farm to table). But what about drinks? Shouldn’t we “drink local” the same way we eat local?
We should. And I just happen to know a trio of distilleries that can help compliment your farm-to-table dinner with a little grain-to-glass libation.
Let’s look to Louisiana for our first couple of bottles: vodkas using grain to glass to dispel the common myth that vodka must use potatoes. While it’s true that traditional vodka recipes use potatoes, a little innovation never hurt anyone, and in this case, it’s produced two damn fine vodkas.
Over in Sulphur, Jamison Trouth uses cane sugar in his Yellowfin Otoro Vodka. A spearfisherman with a degree in chemical engineering, Trouth’s taste for vodka was developed after years of careful tasting and experimentation in college, and after a class in distilling, he found a love for making the stuff. And he’s good at it, something reflected in the name: otoro refers to the finest cut of tuna you can get, a delicious, melt-in-your mouth cut from the inside of the belly. Like its sashimi cousin, Yellowfin Otoro Vodka delivers a delicious, decadent, melt-in-your-mouth flavor every time it hits your tongue.
Cane sugar is an ingredient folks more often associate with rum, but believe me, there’s nothing rum-like about Yellowfin. Instead, the cane sugar serves as a sort of shortcut for the distilling process. Since yeast — the driver in fermentation — can only eat sugar, everything has to be broken down to its base sugars to be used in fermentation, and by jumping right to something as rich and flavor-forward as cane sugar, Trouth can get right to the heart of the matter: making vodka.
Smooth and easy-sipping, Yellowfin Otoro is tasty on its own or in a cocktail like Louisiana Lemonade: 2 ounces Yellowfin, 5 ounces lemonade, 3/4 ounce sweet tea; serve on the rocks. However, Trouth has expanded what he’s doing. Now, when you stop by their storefront, give a taste — and grab a bottle — of their oak-aged vodka, Yellowfin Oaked Otoro. It has a buttery yellow color (like the fins on their namesake tuna) and a touch of toasty, oaky flavors from the oak staves that steep in the spirit prior to bottling.
If we head to Branch, La., we’ll find a farm where Michael Frugé grows rice for his distillery, JT Meleck Distillers. Named for his great, great uncle, John JT Meleck, who had the crazy idea to start growing rice here back in 1896, the distillery honors his legacy by using rice grown on JT’s original 20 acres in their JT Meleck Rice Vodka.
Frugé calls his vodka “dangerously smooth” because “it’s so smooth you don’t even realize you’re drinking vodka.” In fact, the only difference from other vodkas is the finish. No sharp alcohol tang, no acerbic mouthwash feel, just a kiss of that boozy sting and a sweet little note at the end, rounding out your drink.
What should you make with it? Frugé tested batches of vodka with a dirty martini until he made one he called “The best martini I’ve ever had.” Take 2 ounces JT Meleck Rice Vodka, add 1/2 ounce vermouth and 1/2 ounce olive juice into an ice-filled shaker; shake the hell out of it and strain it into a chilled glass. Garnish with two olives, and enjoy. Oh, in case you were wondering, it does indeed go well with your crawfish boil. And if you’re a fan of whiskey, keep your eyes peeled for JT Meleck Rice Whiskey. It’s been aging for the last 3.5 years and is about to make its public debut.
If we look east to Dalton, Ga., we’ll find Charles “Chuck” Butler, Jr., and Dalton Distillery. Chuck’s a second-generation distiller, following almost in the footsteps of his father, Raymond Butler, Sr., who got his start on the illegal moonshine side of things, serving up the fine folks of Dalton County jar upon jar of his moonshine. But he had a secret: his mash bill always included a little bit of sunflower seeds. The mixed mash bill of corn and malted sunflower seeds intrigued customers of Senior and Junior, and when Chuck went legit, he carried on the sunflower tradition, experimenting with the recipe and landing on a mash bill that’s 60 percent malted sunflower seeds. Thus, TazaRay was born.
How’s it taste? In a word: great.
“Bloody Mary’s are the best with TazaRay,” Butler says. “You can taste the nutty finish from the sunflower seeds. It compliments a spicy Bloody Mary really well.”
That nutty finish adds an interesting note to their play on the Moscow Mule, which Chuck calls the D.C. Donkey. Add 2 ounces TazaRay to 4 ounces ginger beer and a squeeze of lime, stir, pour over rocks in your mule mug, and garnish with mint. Deeeeelicious.