Vodka, we’re told, is flavorless. It’s wheat, rice, potatoes, corn, rye, sorghum, or any number of other plant rich in starch or sugar, which is distilled into alcohol. That alcohol is then distilled again—sometime the distillation total is three, sometimes five—and filtered. It’s there to be a base for the other ingredients in your cocktail, or to be chilled and thrown back quickly. A bad vodka burns, maybe even turns the stomach. A good vodka disappears.
Barr Hill Vodka doesn’t disappear, and it’s one of the best damn spirits on my bar cart. When you look at the bottle, you’ll see a little bee on the label; you’ll also see the line, “distilled from raw honey.” This may lead you to believe this is a honey-flavored vodka, but it’s not. It’s made from honey. Just honey.
“We’re not using any potatoes, we’re not using any corn,” says Ryan Christiansen, head distiller for the Vermont-based Caledonia Spirits. “We’re just bringing honey straight from the apiary into the distillery. We take the honey, we dilute it with water so that the yeast can consume the sugar. That produces alcohol, which is basically like making honey wine. We then take that fermented honey, and we transfer to our pot still.”
The honey wine is distilled twice, and never more than twice. That alone makes the process unusual, as most vodkas are distilled three times, and can be distilled as many as five. “Even the third distillation will strip it of all character,” Christiansen says, and that’s not the goal here.
That second distillation runs slowly, because that’s what’s needed to get the spirit to 190-proof—meaning the bottle is 95 percent alcohol. But that last five percent is what gives Barr Hill its character, and it’s all coming in through the nose.
“We tested it to confirm, and there are no sugars in the body,” the distiller says. “It’s all aromatics—and there’s definitely a sweetness to it, but it’s what you’re smelling, and it makes it feel like it’s what you’re tasting. It’s incredibly pure, but there’s this little hint of where it came from, and that’s, to me, really special.”
I’m a big spirits nerd, and this is the only vodka I’ve ever owned that I drink like whiskey—just in a glass, maybe with ice. That’s how Christiansen recommends drinking it, as well. “Just put it in a glass, maybe with one big ice cube,” he says. “It makes a great cocktail, but you’re going to lose the honey, and that’s what makes it so unique.”