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Long Island Potatoes

February 12, 2010

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 12, 2010 9:29 am

    With property values sky-high in Suffolk, and most potato farms long-since gone, he’s going to have trouble keeping those five thousand acres! Just like orange groves in L.A. County.

  2. mirdreams permalink
    February 12, 2010 2:04 pm

    I actually like Core quite cold, though I serve it in a cordial glass and sip it rather than mixing it with anything. I really love it. Need to go out soon and replace my bottle, Batch 21 was a good one.

  3. hppyhse permalink
    February 12, 2010 4:15 pm

    I am a native eastern li’er and actually summer in Baiting Hollow. Love, love , love LiV!
    You must experience LiV’s tasting room in the summer. Stand out on the 2nd story deck and look out over the potato fields, it is quite a pretty sight. Enjoy!

  4. cece cast permalink
    February 12, 2010 9:09 pm

    Liv is the best tasting vodka ever

    love all of them.


  5. February 13, 2010 3:07 pm

    The cut between Heads and Hearts is actually the easier of the two. Heads have a very woody smell to them that is very distinct. The hard cut is hearts to tails. The smell is relativity the same early on, but tails are super harsh, so clearly you don’t want them mixing in with the final product.

    If you ever have a really harsh vodka it is most likely the tails, not the heads that is making it such.

    In regards to LiV I really love their Sorbetta line. So much better then the super artificial flavors you get with a lot of cordials and liqueurs.

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:11 pm

    Just tried LiV on your rec. Very very nice. I also tried the small-batch CORE vodka you discussed a while back. That stuff is also quite delicious. Can you really taste the apple–or is it just the power of suggestion working on the taste buds?

  7. February 16, 2010 11:58 am

    Why so surprised about Long Island farming? It’s roots are in agriculture. Farming and fishing. When I lived in Brooklyn I used to love going for drives to Long Island and stopping at farm stands along the way.

  8. georgina nemecek permalink
    December 31, 2012 2:17 pm

    I am a native of LI and a part-time resident of Southampton where I have had a home for 30 years. While the are more active farms on the North Fork, there are still potato farms on the South Fork, e.g., in Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Sagaponack. LI potatoes from local farms are sold at farm stands in the fall. You might also read Dirt Under My Nails by Marilee Foster, whose family has been farming in Sagaponack for generations.

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