Exploding potatoes are just one occupational hazard that Karlo Krauzig must contend with.
He’s the owner and sole employee of Yukon Shine Distillery, which began selling its vodka on liquor store shelves shortly before Christmas.
The business is a big gamble for Krauzig. The 44-year-old, who was born and raised in Whitehorse, has put three years of his life into the venture and, he says, more than $1 million.
At the heart of the operation is an enormous assembly that Krauzig has built in a warehouse on Industrial Road. Inside are gleaming steel tanks, a 600-litre copper kettle and two tall distilling columns – one so big, standing seven metres tall, that part of the ceiling had to be cut away to make room for it.
It’s here where potato-induced explosions have been known to occur as Krauzig got a handle on the finer points of distilling.
While learning the craft, he’d been warned by a German master distiller that potatoes can be “extra volatile.” It wasn’t a joke.
“If you look up, you can see potato on the ceiling,” said Krauzig, gesturing upwards. Sure enough, spud-splatter remains from when pressurized mash blew through a glass valve atop a 1,200-litre steel holding tank.
Originally, Krauzig envisioned distilling a product from locally-grown, Yukon Gold potatoes.
But he hit a snag. It turns out that Yukon Gold potatoes are just about the worst kind of potato to use to create alcohol because they are low in starch.
“It would be astronomically expensive if I were to put it on the shelf,” he said.
So Krauzig compromised. His vodka is part potato, part rye and malted barley.
The spuds hail from Steve and Bonnie Mackenzie-Grieve’s Yukon Grain Farm. The rye eventually will be too, he said. He’s persuaded them to grow some for him.
Although he’s not the only vodka-maker in the territory, he’s “the only one in the Yukon that makes spirits from potatoes.”
Klondike Vodka, which began producing vodka outside Dawson City in 2009, starts with an imported neutral grain spirit. Other ingredients are then added and the mixture is redistilled, said owner Dorian Amos.
“We tried with potatoes,” he said. “You can’t do it. The starch content was just way too low and it wouldn’t work.”
Amos also tried making vodka from scratch using grain. “But the ecological footprint was just huge,” he said. “We were just throwing all this food away, basically.”
Yukon Brewery also uses neutral grain spirit in Solstice, a difficult-to-classify spirit that is infused with raspberry, rosehip and sage and then redistilled.
“We can buy it more pure than we can make it,” said president Bob Baxter. A whisky that’s in the works by Yukon Brewery will, however, be made from scratch.
Just how big a role potatoes play in Krauzig’s creation remains a “proprietary” trade secret, he said.
Such distinctions may not mean much to casual drinkers. But it helps explain why he is charging $50 per bottle, more than double the price of a bottle of Smirnoff’s.
Does it make a difference to the taste? He thinks so. The potatoes carry with it a “sweet bouquet,” said Krauzig. “I didn’t want to distill that out.”
He also shunned using reverse osmosis on his water supply. The process essentially eliminates all impuritiesÂ and, along with them, flavour.
“I think our water here tastes pretty damn good,” said Krauzig.
And, as a nod to the Yukon’s history, after the spirits are filtered through charcoal and paper filters, it also makes a pass through a chamber of gold nuggets.
Krauzig concedes this doesn’t affect the flavour, but he adds, “I think it tastes awesome.”
And if the golden-nugget filtration sounds silly, at least Yukon Shine is in good company.
Gray Goose distinguished itself as an upscale vodka brand by filtering its alcohol through limestone from the Champagne region of France, while others have filtered vodka through crushed diamonds for dubious bragging rights.
Krauzig reckons he could produce 50,000 bottles annually – far more than could be consumed locally. He has his eyes set on exporting to B.C. and Alberta.
“I’d get a much larger market. To be a big business I need to get south. I need to get out of here,” he said.
He also plans to produce a line of gin beginning this spring. And he’s acquired the oak kegs to make whisky, but that will need to be aged for three years before it’s ready to be drunk.
Yukon Shine is located in the same building as Bella Home Decor, which is run by Krauzig’s wife, Sarah. The chic retail outlet was actually an afterthought once Krauzig had secured the building lease for his distillery plans. But it ended opening up nearly a year before the vodka business.
From start to finish, it takes Krauzig six days to produce a run of vodka.
First potatoes and grains are cooked in batches. Enzymes are added to convert starch to sugar.
The resulting mash is fermented for several days before it’s returned to the big, copper kettle.
The alcohol is then distilled as it passes through the tall copper columns. It is first vapourized, then condensed as it passes through a series of water-cooled chambers.
During production Krauzig removes undesirable stuff like ethyl acetate and fusel oils, so that the end product tastes like vodka, rather than nail polish remover.
The distilled product is more than 90 per cent alcohol, so it’s mixed with water before being filtered and bottled.
Learning precisely how far to distill the liquid took a lot of trial and error, said Krauzig. In doing so, he said, “I burned all the skin off the top of my mouth.”
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