The word organic sure has a nice ring to it. In fact, it’s currently singing to the tune of some $40 billion in annual domestic sales—and growing. Across the country and beyond, food and beverage producers are making hay with what is truly one of the trendiest terms in contemporary society. But what does it mean, exactly? How are organic products different? Do they taste better? Are they worth a premium? While these questions can come with complications, in the realm of vodka, at least, they are easy to answer.
Leading the way in this rapidly emerging category is Prairie Organic Vodka, out of Minneapolis. Both their flagship spirit and a cucumber-infused variation utilize locally-sourced corn, grown on family-owned Minnesota farms. Retailing at around $20 a bottle, the up-charge over its non-organic counterparts is negligible.
In order to better understand what you’re getting for your money, take a trip to Sather Farms several miles east of the South Dakota border, where you can view an organic farm in action. Prairie works in close proximity with this family operation to provide most of the corn that goes into the brand’s distillate.
SOIL AND BUG MANAGEMENT
With plains of crops stretching out as far as the eye can see, Sather separates itself from the pack as one of the primary organic growers in this region of the state. The two biggest challenges in obtaining that certification are soil maintenance and pest management. At Sather, crop rotation is practiced in order to replenish the underlying earth, without robbing it of the essential nutrients needed for healthy vegetables to flourish.
Sather Farms Flamethrower / Photo Credit: Bill Hickey
That part is a relative breeze compared to the effort required in keeping away the bugs. Because it prohibits the use of pesticides, organic farmers need to come up with creative ways to protect their fields. At Sather, a speciality flame-thrower was custom-rigged to the back of the farm’s tractor. Throughout the growing season, it makes its way up and down the rows, shooting arcs of fire as it plods along. In addition to providing one hell of a nocturnal spectacle, the intense heat of the flames wards off the minuscule bugs which would otherwise feast on all those, sweet, yellow-kerneled cobs.
After it is all harvested by one massive combine—the size and height of a two-story condo—the husked bounty is delivered to Prairie, back in the city. The distillery contracts with a co-op of organic farms in the region to satisfy their demand for raw ingredients. Distillation itself is designed to maximize sustainability, with excess biomass used as heat source to further fuel alcohol-making. It’s a radically different approach than the one employed by major U.S. vodka producers.
Sather Farms Corn / Photo Credit: Bill Hickey
Typically, the big guys obtain what is essentially ethanol from industrial grain facilities. They merely rectify that liquid and proof it down to individual specifications. It’s a wholly efficient process, but it leaves little room for imagination or nuance. A pour of Prairie, by contrast, introduces subtleties to the palate—a creamy mouthfeel with gentle summer fruit in the finish—elements which are quite foreign to mass-produced vodka.
It’s impossible to pinpoint just how much of that is the direct result of organic growing practices. Far simpler is it to understand how those practices are benefiting the environment, and even the health of those who drink it. To receive it’s USDA certification, all the corn must use non-GMO seed, be grown without chemicals, in soil that is free of artificial fertilizers.
Sather Farms Corn / Photo Credit: Bill Hickey
Every step of the process is designed to minimize environmental impact, resulting in a bottle of booze that is competitively priced. Leaving you to wonder—all things equal— why wouldn’t you want your next vodka martini to be organic?
An increasing amount of distillers have no good answer to that question. So instead, they’ve decided to hop on the bandwagon, teaming up with organic growers along the way. Although Prairie was the first major organic brand to arrive on the national scene in 2008, a deluge of notable alternatives have popped up in the years since: Crop Organic out of upstate New York; Square One and Hanson, both out of Northern California; now even Hawaii is getting in on the game, as Ocean Vodka is making waves on the mainland.
Prairie Organic Spirit / Photo Credit: Bill Hickey
These are but a select few. Nowadays, a visit to your local liquor store will most certainly entail an encounter with an organic label, if you only care to look. Take a pour. It might not taste any different to your tongue. But it sure should feel better for your soul.
Ready to find your next favorite vodka?