Long Island Potatoes
If you told me that there are farmers growing potatoes on Long Island, I would likely be incredulous. I know for a fact this is true, and I still have a hard time believing it.
Perhaps part of the problem is my prejudice about Long Island as a whole. These prejudices aren’t entirely unfounded, mind you. I have family in Great Neck, Huntington, and East Hampton (my aunt is a townie).
But Long Island is a big place. And admittedly, beyond those three towns, I haven’t seen a heck of a lot of it. These potatoes that I am talking about are grown near the island’s north fork around the town of Baiting Hollow. I imagine they would be hard to miss, since they take up over 5,000 acres.
I learned all this about Long Island potato cultivation from Richard Stabile, the distiller at Long Island Spirits. We met at the craft-distilled spirits tasting and seminar in Saratoga Springs last month. For the sake of full disclosure, Mr. Stabile gave me two bottles of spirits to take home and enjoy in a more focused setting.
It has been a pleasure tasting his LiV vodka over the past few weeks. I am very excited about the return of farm based distilling to New York. So let me tell you a bit more about this unique spirit.
In general, I’m not much of a vodka drinker. In general, I do not find it as interesting as other white spirits. The fact that most brands are made from the same industrially produced bulk vodka with a heavy dose of marketing is probably not a coincidence.
Long Island Spirits does not make a typical vodka. For starters, it is made from 100% potatoes, specifically white russets. They come from those farms that surround the distillery. And it’s good there are 5,000 acres because it takes about 15 pounds of potatoes to make one bottle of their LiV vodka.
Here is my understanding of the process. The potatoes are run through a meat grinder. The resulting potato pulp is then fermented into what was described as a “potato wine” that is around 6% alcohol by volume. The “wine” is then put into the still, where it is turned into vodka.
Richard gave us an amazing demonstration. When spirits come off of the still, the first liquids to be released are called the head and the last dregs are called the tail. Part of the distiller’s art is identifying the heart of the spirit – the delicious part between the head and the tail. Richard put several ounces of the head, heart and tail into jars, so that we could smell and see the differences.
It was eye-opening to experience firsthand. The head was cloudy, and smelled pungent and volatile. The heart was clear and smelled properly of vodka. The tail just smelled flat and wet. It all makes sense to me. The impurities come off early. And at the end of the run, once the alcohol has been distilled, the resulting distillate is more like water. However, deciding where the head ends and the heart begins cannot be easy.
All of that work makes a much more interesting vodka.
I disagree with the distillery’s tasting notes that call LiV vodka “Fresh, crisp and LiVely.” I think it is stately, with a rich body, and (after several minutes of aeration) a nose redolent of bananas foster. It has a bit of earthiness, a surprising sweetness, and a long and slightly peppery finish.
When I drink this craft spirit, much like when I drink Harvest Spirits’ Core Vodka, I think of it more as an eau de vie than a vodka. I pour it into a tulip shaped glass and drink it unchilled, which really allows me to savor the nuances of the product.
My mother-in-law loves Long Island Spirits’ Sorbetta lemon liqueur. It is effectively a limoncello made from the LiV vodka base. The distillery employs a labor-intensive process to infuse the most true lemon flavor into their potato vodka while maintaining the liqueur’s clarity. I salute the effort, and the hand-craftsmanship, but it’s just not my thing.
It has been a while since I’ve been to the eastern side of Long Island. But next time I go, I will try to make a side trip and see those potato farms for myself. While I’m there I might as well pop into the distillery for a quick tour too.