LAKE PLACID - As a frosty hue begins to pervade the rough edge of the horizon in advance of winter, the region's first locally produced micro-distilled spirit, P3 Placid Vodka, has made a timely debut - skiers, shoppers and diners may now find a locally made vodka to chase away winter's chill.
Crafted by Mike "Twig" McGlynn and Ann Stillman O'Leary, P3 Vodka is the result of years of preparation. Twig has travelled throughout Eastern Europe, studied several distilleries first hand, and has gotten accreditations from Cornell University and Montreal Yeast School. The couple has navigated relatively uncharted legal waters to obtain an A1 distiller's license that allows them to produce and sell annually about 35,000 bottles of grain alcohol throughout the state. O'Leary said they were only about the seventh such distillery licensed in New York and, of them, she is the only female distillery owner. The vodka is now being sold in liquor stores, bars and restaurants from Saratoga Springs to Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake. The couple ultimately hopes to fill a niche for high-end craft spirits ranging from vodka to schnapps.
Ann Stillman O’Leary spent a lot of time thinking of a way to make their vodka pop off the shelves.
A series of propane gas burners under the still heat the liquid during the distillation process.
(Photo provided by Ann Stillman O’Leary)
Li’l Ethyl is a traditional 220-gallon copper pot still that was handmade in Portugal.
(Photo provided by Ann Stillman O’Leary)
Jesse Webb, a bartender at Captain Cook’s in Saranac Lake, holds a bottle of P3 Placid Vodka.
(Enterprise photo — George Earl)
O'Leary said that in order to get their license they had to go through the federal government first.
"Between the feds and the state, it's been an 18-month process," she said. "We're under the world of alcohol, tobacco and firearms - let's face it, we're dealing with hooch."
O'Leary said they chose vodka as their first product because it is a neutral (clear and unflavored) spirit that serves as the basis for many other kinds, such as whiskey and gin. Bourbon whiskey, for instance, begins as a clear fiery vodka or "white lightening." It is aged for at least seven years in new charred oak barrels before it mellows and acquires its distinctive color and flavor. Gin is made by infusing vodka with up to 15 botanicals, including juniper berries, licorice root and cassia bark. McGlynn said he plans to make an Adirondack-style gin with white pine greens he'll harvest in the spring.
Vodka has its roots in Eastern Europe, where it remains extremely popular. The Russian Health Ministry estimates that its nation consumes about four billion liters per year. Though we are not close to the saturation point of Russia, vodka has become increasingly popular in the U.S. By 1975 it had surpassed bourbon as America's most popular grain alcohol. Today it accounts for about 30 percent of all alcohol consumed nationwide. In Nordic and Eastern European Countries, sometimes referred to as the "vodka belt," it is traditionally taken neat. In the U.S it is more commonly served on ice or as the ubiquitous accompaniment to a variety of mixed drinks such as the vodka martini, bloody mary, and more recently, vodka red bull.
In an effort to distinguish their vodka, O'Leary and McGlynn have sourced materials both local and exotic, including cold clear water drawn directly from Lake Placid and corn and wheat from the Midwest. The finished product is "racked" in thick, distinctive glass bottles imported from France. Ann, who owns an interior design company, said she was very particular about choosing the bottle and its label.
"When I saw the bottle, I knew it was the one," she said. "It was sleek and elegant, but not too curvey. We did a number of different concepts before deciding on the P3 Placid Vodka label. I didn't want any snow flaky thing, and we wanted to make sure Lake Placid was a big part of it." She also said they plan to make a vodka fermented and distilled from locally grown potatoes and that a local field will be planted this spring just for that purpose, although she said washing and pealing the potatoes will be incredibly labor intensive.
P3 Placid Vodka is a merger of old world processes and advanced techniques. About a year ago Ann and Twig welcomed "Li'l Ethyl" into their new distillery - a 220-gallon copper pot-still that was handmade in Portugal. The copper still has changed little from those made in Portugal for hundreds of years. The seams even have to be caked with rye flour to make them water tight. The still produces small batches of about 150 bottles per run that many consider superior in flavor to those produced by larger column stills. Other techniques are modern, such as an innovative finishing stage in which the vodka is filtered through local garnet.
While micro breweries and wineries have seen a renaissance in the Northeast, the production of spirits has barely increased since prohibition. However, micro-distilleries like O'Leary and McGlynn's have been cropping up in this region in the last few years. The demand for high-end spirits, including vodka, has grown exponentially in the last decade or so, along with products that have local appeal. Responses from a cross section of area bars and restaurants indicate that P3 Vodka tends to get high marks in both categories.
Lake Placid Pub and Brewery Manager Stephen Kroha said they have been selling P3 Vodka for two weeks.
"It's a crisp, clean vodka," Kroha said. "It's good to support another local product, and it's great to have a brewery and a distillery in Lake Placid."
Don Scammell of Lake Placid said though he was skeptical at first, he warmed up to P3 Vodka very quickly.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh no, not another vodka,'" he said, "but after trying this local product I consider P3 to be up there with the best."
Mike Donohue, a Saranac Laker and self-proclaimed vodka connoisseur, tried a glass of P3 Vodka for the fist time at the recently opened Captain Cook's Bar and Grill in Saranac Lake.
"It's very smooth. Nice aftertaste," Donohue said after taking his first sip. "It's pretty good. It's a grain vodka, I can tell you that. You can tell by the aftertaste. Potato vodkas have a pretty heavy aftertaste."
Captain Cook's bartender Amy Mott said, "I haven't heard anything bad about it."
"When they look at the bottle," she said, "they buy it every time."
Ken Fontanna, who owns the Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake said the vodka is harsh but the bottle is sexy.
One thing about P3 is certain, whether you find it to be akin to the smooth pure water of Lake Placid, or a rough ride down the Olympic bobsled run, it's sure to spark plenty of evening chatter in the local haunts and apres-ski hangouts this winter.