PEI Adventures: You Say Potato, I say Vodka.

I spent the first week of July wandering around Prince Edward Island, enjoying the sunshine, thankful for the fact that even when its incredibly hot, there is always a cool breeze off of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I love food in PEI, from the fresh seafood to the local bakeries and butchers who will give you fresh cuts of bread or beef. One thing I had never explored before was local booze.

On a particularly hot, sunny Saturday my sister and I decided to head to the Prince Edward Distillery, in Hermanville on the west end of the island. Owned by Arla Johnson and Julie Shore, who moved to PEI around ten years ago and opened the Johnson Shore Inn, the distillery seems to be the product of a childhood in South Carolina where Julie’s family had a whiskey distillery and PEI’s long held fondness for bootlegging. As the producer of the only potato vodka in Canada, my interest was piqued and I had to check it out.

PEI vodka & gin

There are three products at Prince Edward Distillery -- potato vodka, blueberry grain vodka and gin.

It takes 30lbs of potatoes to make one bottle of vodka—6000lbs to make a batch. Which explains why potato vodka isn’t exactly big business these days. In fact, not even all of the vodka out of Prince Edward Distillery is potato vodka; the blueberry vodka is a grain vodka. And the Distillery has also branched out into a grain-based gin and are working on rum and rye whiskey as well. The ladies who run and work at the Distillery actually shovel all of the potatoes into the big mash tub. Ditto for the blueberries. It has all the glamour of being an extra in Back to the Future 3.

The vodka is distilled three times—the same amount as Grey Goose, one less than Poland’s premium potato vodka, Chopin. The liquid is separated into head (pungent, high proof ethanol that will basically make you go blind if you drink it), heart (the best, purest part), and tail (the lower quality alcohol that ends up giving you a hangover). They use only the heart.

Prince Edward Distillery

This is a $500,000 distillery custom built in Germany. Across the room from this gleaming masterpiece there are new fermentation tanks that look like something out of Strange Brew. The distillation, fermentation and bottling all happen in one room. It's the middle column that makes this a vodka distillery---the gin skips that part of the process. I don't know why. Alcohol magic, I guess?

Distillery - Closeup

A point of pride: I was the first person on one of their tours to ever ask the question "do all of those handles have happy faces on them?" Upon closer examination, what looked like winky happy faces were just directional instructions. Mystery solved! (They still look like happy faces to me.)

A tasting was included in the ten dollar tour. Frankly, that was our main goal. And it was worth it. The potato vodka is an incredibly earthy, vegetal vodka; it’s quite smooth and very full. There is nothing shy about the potato flavour. The distillery actually won the gold medal at the 2009 San Fran World Spirits Competition and in 2009, the Chicago Beverage Institute gave it 92 rating, 1 above Chopin, which happens to be my favourite vodka. The blueberry vodka was pretty good, with a bit of a bite and lots of flavour from the wild berries, but I can’t say I loved it.

The gin, however, was exceptional, made with lemongrass, ginger, citrus peel and cardamom. You get the definite taste and smell of juniper, but it’s quite unique and botanical and the ginger really lingers. I absolutely loved it. We walked out the doors with a bottle of the potato vodka and one of the gin. That night we sat in the sweltering heat happily sipping icy glasses filled with vodka and soda, filled with a new appreciation for PEI potatoes.

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