A flavored gem from Durham Distillery
By Tony Cross
In the past, I’ve complained about North Carolina ABC stores rolling out the red carpet for copious bottles of flavored vodkas. Though I still find this to be the case, there are exceptions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried a friend or date’s cocktail — you’re sharing a sip if we’re hanging out together — that tasted quite delicious, only to find out that the base spirit was a flavored vodka. It didn’t happen often, but it happened. However, the only time I was completely wowed by a flavored vodka straight was the first time I kicked back a sample of Durham Distillery’s Cucumber Vodka.
On an early spring day last year, my father accompanied me to a meeting in Durham. “Just please don’t say anything,” I pleaded. I inherited the gift of gab from him, so I know that when he gets going, it’s hard to stop. Pops riding along ended up being a good idea. He’s in shape, has a silver handlebar mustache, wears dark shades, black clothing, and looks like a badass. Actually, he is a badass; he served 20 years in Special Forces. So, with my dad standing 6 feet behind me while I made my pitch, it looked like I had a bodyguard. Ka-ching. As soon as the meeting was over, we stepped outside, high-fived, and made our way down the street to Durham Distillery.
We were greeted by co-owner Melissa Katrincic. Her husband, Lee, the head distiller and co-owner, joined us. They gave us the grand tour, explaining how their Conniption gin is distilled. The Katrincics are both scientists, and that’s how they approach their distilling. My dad doesn’t drink gin, but he’ll try anything once, and if he likes it, he’ll have it again. Melissa is chatting away with Pops, while Lee is answering my questions. Before I know it, samples of their American Dry and Navy Strength gins are being offered, and oblige them we did. The gin seemed to immediately “get good” to Pops, and all I could do was smile and revel in how quickly he can go from 0-to-60 in storytelling mode. In the midst of his explaining one of his past adventures, I noticed Melissa starting to pour a different liquid into a taster glass.
My dad’s story stopped dead in its tracks and he asked, “All right! What’s next?” Lee and Melissa explained that this was their cucumber vodka. They had used it in the past as a component in some of their gins but had decided they were going to bottle it on its own in North Carolina. One sip, and we were both blown away. On our way back to Southern Pines, the conversation kept circling back around to, “My God, I can’t wait until they release that vodka.”
Later I reached out to Lee, asking him to explain how he’s able to capture the pure essence of the cucumbers in each batch of vodka. Unlike other flavored vodkas, which are basically just a distilled vodka with an extract added, Durham Distillery’s tastes like fresh cucumber slices have completely filled up the bottle. It’s no wonder Lee and Melissa say it’s like “spa water with a kick.”
“The cucumber vodka is the only cucumber vodka on the market distilled under vacuum (no heat applied) with no artificial flavors or added sugar. Most others you see will be extract-based. With ours, only alcohol and fresh sliced cucumbers are used to make it,” Lee says. They handpick their cucumbers, which are peeled and sliced, then put in a pot on their vacuum still. “Our corn-base ethanol is added to the pot and the still is sealed. The vacuum still only has a 5-gallon capacity, so it’s made in very small batches. A vacuum pump removes all the air from the still. Under the reduced pressure, the ethanol boils around room temperature. So, all that great cucumber flavor is being extracted and subsequently distilled without any heat. The cucumber distillate we get off the vacuum still is around 185-proof, so we add our deionized water to cut it down to 80-proof for bottling.” Did you get all of that? In short: hand-picked, small-batch, science, alcohol, delicious.
Last year I wrote an article praising Durham Distillery’s Conniption gins, and pleading for them to get a spot on our ABC shelves. In addition to their gins and vodka, they also make excellent chocolate, coffee and mocha liqueurs.
Durham Distillery’s gin is also sold in London. London. Melissa and Lee were inducted into the United Kingdom Gin Guild. Lee says that the guild is 300 years old, and he and his wife are only the fourth and fifth U.S. distillers ever inducted and the only ones from the South. We’re lucky to have such an amazing distillery, producing top-notch spirits. Once you get your hands on their cucumber vodka, try this easy spin on a Moscow Mule I whipped up:
2 ounces Durham Distillery Cucumber Vodka
4-5 ounces ginger beer
4 dashes Angostura
Candied ginger and cucumber slices (garnish)
Pour vodka into a rocks glass, add ice and ginger beer. Top with bitters. Garnish with candied ginger and cucumber slices
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.