Coho’s beverage list features many artisan vodkas and gins crafted from on-island producers and those in the surrounding Seattle metropolitan area. We have been waiting for over a year to add Chuckanut Bay Distillery’s spirits to our line-up. We kept in touch with head distiller, Matt Howell, who we got to know over the years as one of our wine reps, as he overcame the trials and tribulations of making a potato-based vodka. Finally, in early June, we sat out on one of our decks with Matt for a tasting.
Matt wanted to use local Skagit Valley producers. He wanted his main ingredient to have a strong regional identity – potatoes! He found a farmer who could supply Yukon Golds. There wasn’t a lot of technical data available about fermenting potatoes for distillation, so, Matt did a lot of experimentation. He designed and built a potato grinder using a bicycle. He’d ride the bike while a helper fed the potatoes into a hopper, several hundred pounds at a time. It takes about 1600 pounds of potatoes to produce 120 bottles of vodka.
They inspect each potato and cut away any suspect areas. Fresh potatoes, unlike those that are dried and flaked, don’t have a long shelf-life and quickly oxidize. So Matt hustles through each load as quickly as possible. Potatoes, while starchy, aren’t sugar-rich and slowly undergo successful fermentations.
When the first potato distillate flowed from the still, Matt was impressed by the complex earthy aromas and flavors. His potato vodka unlike others on the market is gluten-free. Matt also makes a wheat vodka using Skagit Valley wheat. It imparts sweeter notes than its potato-based counterpart.
Matt likes to boast that all vodkas even those that are “craft distilled” are not created equal. Most are made from “neutral grain spirits” purchased from factories that also produce ethanol for fueling vehicles. The distiller runs the neutral grain spirits through a still but Matt chuckles that your martini could have easily ended up in a gas tank!
After creating a successful vodka, Matt turned his sights to gin. He inherited his Grandpa Del’s liquor cabinet. Matt sampled one of his Grandpa’s dusty old bottles that happened to be a gin. The flavors were pure, subtle, and perfectly integrated. This taste was a turning point for Matt. Matt sought out to create a Gin with the same flavor profile that his Grandfather Del used to drink. Chuckanut Bay Gin embodies Matt’s vision. Unlike many of the heavily aromatic and botanically-based gins, Matt’s gin is restrained, with subtle lemon and citrus notes. Next time you come to Coho for dinner try a martini with Chuckanut Bay’s Vodka or Gin or sample a flight of vodkas or gins featuring regional producers. It is fun to taste them in a line up.