May 26th, 2010
Click on drinkboston.com’s “vodka” category, and you’ll find some words on the subject that aren’t too pretty. (I always wonder if vodka marketers who send me press releases and even bottles of vodka fail to notice this or if they just don’t care.) I’ve accused vodka of taking “hostage the imagination of all who serve or drink liquor” and described its favorite party dress, the Cosmo, as “Paris Hilton in a glass.” Then Karlsson’s Gold came along.
I first tasted it last fall at Craigie on Main when Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli was still managing the bar. He had recently acquired a bottle and made me try it. Now, I knew that if Tom, who is well acquainted with my taste in spirits, was telling me to taste a vodka, it was either going to be notably bad or notably … not vodka-like. Luckily, it was the latter. There was a bread-y fullness to it, and a clear hint of that really good unsweetened cocoa that makes a great brownie. Tom poured some chilled Karlsson’s in a martini glass and twisted a lemon peel over the top. Those cocoa notes, along with the lemon oil, resulted in something that struck me as a very stripped-down Twentieth Century. Which is kind of wild, because Karlsson’s is made of potatoes, water, yeast and nothing else.
Since then, Karlsson’s has been popping up in other bars around the city. Recently, I attended a tasting and dinner sponsored by Karlsson’s. (This is where I disclose that the company’s reps have bought me two fancy dinners and handed me a bottle of Karlsson’s Gold — their flagship and, so far, the only one of their brands available in the States). There, I met Mr. Börje Karlsson himself, who also happens to be the guy who created … Absolut?! That’s the vodka that started the whole flavorless booze-as-status-symbol quagmire we’re in today. That’s why it’s a bottle of Absolut that is reclining in a coffin in my Vodka R.I.P. series. Uh, sorry, Mr. Karlsson.
The thing is, Mr. Karlsson is like a brewer who made his career on developing the recipe for Bud Light, only to turn around and create some really funky, boutique beer with rare malt and wild hops. But in his case, we’re talking heirloom potatoes. There’s a little pinkie-nail of land on the southern coast of Sweden where a group of farmers are busily fending off golf course developers in order to continue cultivating several varieties of “virgin new potatoes,” which they pick before the tasty little tubers have even grown a skin. It takes, like, an IKEA hamper full of these things to make one bottle of Karlsson’s Gold ($40).
At the tasting, we sampled some of the single-variety potato vodkas, from different years, with which the distillery experimented on its way to developing the blend of seven potato vodkas that comprise the Gold. The intent was to create a vodka that evoked its raw material — and that raw material’s terroir — through a single distillation and with no carbon filtration to strip out flavor. They succeeded. Some of the vintages were amazingly vegetal, with hints, even, of scallion. And in succeeding, Karlsson’s utterly fails the “odorless, flavorless” criteria embraced by almost all of today’s super-premium vodkas.
Which is just fine by me. Perhaps the best description I’ve seen of Karlsson’s Gold comes from Jim Meehan of PDT, who calls it a “potato eau de vie.” However you describe it, vodka lovers and vodka haters might just be able to come together over a rocks glass full of this stuff. Mr. Karlsson recommends garnishing it with a little cracked black pepper. Skål!