Sweet Potatoes = Vodka
Amid the explosion of artisanal spirits gushing forth around the U.S., North Carolina has something completely unique to offer: sweet potato vodka.
Award-winning Covington Vodka, made entirely from home-grown sweet potatoes, starts out as a golden puddle of purée which is fermented, then distilled into a clear, potent, aromatic spirit that you've simply got to taste.
Covington Vodka is a brand new spirit. The first batch was bottled at the end of January this year in Snow Hill (Greene County). The spirit gets its name from the sweet potato variety, 'Covington,' developed at North Carolina State specifically to thrive in the sandy soils of eastern North Carolina. The Covington sweet potato (named for Henry Covington, the scientist who developed it) boasts higher yields, better quality, and longer shelf life–which allows for exports to Europe. North Carolina is to sweet potatoes what Idaho is to white potatoes; we are the country's top producer.
When two of the state's largest growers, Jimmy Burch and Bobby Ham, cast about for what to do with their surplus of tubers, they created Yamco, a company in Snow Hill, to produce sweet potato purée–a product they could sell to food companies and restaurants. The success of Yamco led to a partnership with businessman John Kimber of Raleigh and distiller Jim Eason.
"We were looking for other ways to use the surplus of sweet potatoes that weren't suitable for fresh markets," said Kimber, whom I interviewed at his office in north Raleigh, "those that were misshapen or not the right size." Funded by a USDA grant to explore the feasibility of artisan products, Kimber and Eason traveled to Michigan State University to check out the artisan distillery program.
"We went up there with a truckload of sweet potato purée and came back with an alcohol product that had even impressed the distillers at Michigan State," said Kimber. When he and his partners staged a blind tasting of the new spirit with several imported vodkas (the likes of Grey Goose, Smirnoff, and Cîroq) at a major culinary institution, 97 percent of the cooking school students preferred the Covington.
"We realized it was not only feasible," said Kimber, "but that we would be dumb not to do it."
It takes 20 pounds of sweet potatoes to make one 750 milliliter bottle of Covington Vodka. In the first year, the partners projected production at 5,000 cases, but the distillery, housed in a walled-off section of Yamco in Snow Hill, has the capacity to produce four times that much–and undoubtedly will as consumers discover the product.
I confess that when it comes to vodka, I'm no fan of the ultra-neutral versions. They're okay for elaborate mixed drinks (those combined with a clutch of liqueurs, flavored syrups and exotic garnishes), but drinking vodka the way I like it–neat, thoroughly iced, and ideally served with caviar (osetra, if available)–I want one with an edge of flavor and aroma, the way I learned to like vodka at the Russian Tea Room in New York and Caviar Kaspia in Paris. Vodkas like Stolichnaya, Zubrowka, Tarkhuna; not the more highly distilled (four times) Grey Goose, Blue Ice, or pricey Chopin.
Yes, I know–vodkas these days come flavored with everything from chocolate to blueberries to chili peppers and beyond. These have their place, and their fans, but they also have the effect of obliterating the pure spirit altogether. The intriguing aromatics of the Covington– with its faint hint of caramelized sweet potato or sweet potato pie–lead in to a smoothness on the palate, completely dry, that is very appealing. It has become my new favorite.
When I first tasted it with John Kimber last July, we tried it neat, over ice–the best way, incidentally, to experience the Covington's subtle but unmistakable aroma. It was very smooth, with none of the burn or backbite that characterizes many vodkas. Then we added a little slice of lime, which made it even smoother…quite sublime, in fact! A few days later I took a bottle, along with fresh limes and Rose's Lime Juice to a friend's house in Chapel Hill, where I made vodka gimlets (see accompanying recipe). Very pretty with its blush of color, fresh and inviting for a hot and steamy night–my friends were delighted, became instant converts, and we shared another short one before dinner.
For longtime sweet potato growers Jimmy Burch and Bobby Ham, the consumer response to the Covington is gratifying. "We're excited," said Ham in a telephone interview. "Jimmy and I were looking for a way to extend our product line and bring attention to the sweet potato–it's a healthy product; it's a local product."
Sweet potato vodka is, however, more expensive to make–the raw ingredient is costlier than corn, rye or wheat.
"It's more cost-effective for us, though," Ham continued, "because we grow the potatoes ourselves. We're looking to expand–we have the product to do it. It's exciting to be the ones to produce the country's first and only sweet potato vodka."
Grown and made in the Tarheel State.