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Drink Fri Sep 06 2013

The Chemistry of Vodka @ CH Distillery

20130824_152545_1.jpgTremaine Atkinson, owner (along with Mark Lucas) of CH Distillery, was making gin one Saturday afternoon at the copper-topped still near the front entrance. Anyone passing by or entering the distillery/cocktail bar could see this steampunk-y piece of equipment with its levers and windows and tubes. It's hard not to get an itch to poke around around the place.

A spout arced a stream of completed gin into a stainless steel jug as Atkinson took samples to taste and assess its progress. This was an important part of the process and no doubt a contributor to his 12-14 hour days. You have to catch any "funkiness" in gin right away to correct it, otherwise you'll ruin a whole batch. (Luckily, vodka can just be re-distilled if something is off). He let me taste as well, and we'd continue to do so over the course of the hour I was at the distillery. Atkinson pointed out how the different flavors in the gin, juniper, lemon, coriander, presented themselves at different times.

"Those are vertical flavors," he explained, because the mouth picks up on a variety of tastes and sensations. The coriander in particular struck me because it's less a flavor and more a light peppery sensation toward the front of the tongue. Those ingredients steeped in re-distilled vodka, a "soup" that melded over the course of two weeks into a fine, high-quality gin.


It all began, though, with that vodka CH Distillery made from scratch. The fermentation tanks and column still used explicitly for vodka were mammoth-sized compared to the equipment for gin. The still itself stretched up toward the second story ceiling. One of the tanks contained 2,100 pounds of grain (Atkinson and co-distiller Kevin McDonald use a combination of wheat and rye, most of which is Illinois-grown) and 600 pounds of water. I climbed up for a peak at the burbling mixture that would morph into vodka within nine days, and was struck by how both mundane and impressive it looked--like rice cooking, only on a huge scale.

But this was a finely-tuned operation. Atkinson's enthusiasm for making spirits was catching (he's experimenting with whiskey and plans to make a peppercorn gin too). He started out as a home brewer before turning to the Siebel Institute of Technology to learn distilling. The key for making the high-quality vodka he wanted was the column still which allowed the distiller to remove impurities, alternate forms of alcohol, and any other chemical that would leave a flavor behind. He wanted the cleanest possible taste.

If I would have seen an operation like this in high school, all that vodka cooking, I would have been way more interested in chemistry. From how he described the process (and the fact that the distillery takes its name from the abbreviations of carbon and hydrogen, two atoms that form ethanol) I assumed Atkinson was a chemistry geek, but no. "I just really like the taste of ethanol," he said. "There's a little bite, a little sweet." But not any flavor.

The advantage of such a clean, neutral spirit is it serves as a great base for making cocktails. Though Atkinson himself prefers to drink vodka straight, mixologist Kyle Davidson of Blackbird created several vodka and gin-based cocktails for CH Distillery's bar, a few involved house-made infusions, including the Czech Mate with cinnamon/spice-infused vodka, and The Baron Takes Tea with Earl Grey-infused gin.

20130823_193152_1.jpgA friend and I stopped at the bar on a Friday night to try out the cocktails and were pleasantly surprised that even at 10, the lights hadn't dimmed so low that the bar felt like a cave. How could it when the window behind the bar provided such a bright, tantalizing look at the distillery? In fact nearly the whole wall that separated bar from distillery was a window.

The bar served only the alcohol they made, which included whiskey and rum besides vodka and gin. I was most interested in Davidson's cocktails so I tried the Rhymes with Orange (serrano chili vodka, lime, CH orange curacao, watermelon) and Oxycontin Cocktail (lapsang suchong-infused gin, ginger syrup honey, lemon). The chili in the Rhymes with Orange had just enough of a kick to be weird and fun without intimidating someone like me who is more sensitive to spice. The Oxycontin contained some of my favorite flavors balanced with each other so well it was hard not to drink it like juice. Our waitress also gave us a taste of the vodka, which was warm and surprisingly smooth but without the burn I associated from my college days of drinking cheap vodka straight--all that fine tuning in the distillery does make a difference.

Though there was no full kitchen or range, the bar offered small plates by Jesse Katzman of Avec, including two kinds of caviar, a melon salad, shiitake pate, roast beef and other meats, plus cheese and charcuterie. (Go for the melon salad, it's light, refreshing, and has the same grains used in the vodka).

All in all, CH Distillery is a really cool concept. The vodka stills are rightly the focal points in the bar, a steady reminder that your drink was made from someone who nurtured it as much as you're trying to nurse yours.


564 W Randolph

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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