So ask the Los Angeles or New York sophisticate, with Vodka Martini in hand, what she thinks of Idaho. What did she say? Did she wrinkle her nose? Mutter something about rednecks? Gaze at you in bemused bewilderment quietly demanding some explanation as to why you’d sully her urban mind with such quaint notions?
The Pacific Northwest carries some cache and our young elite might mention craft businesses of various kinds. Perhaps even microbreweries. Portland. Seattle. Probably images west of the Cascade Mountains featuring lumberjack looking people in checkered-flannel pallor gleaming beneath clouded skies obscured by giant, unnumbered pine trees. But we say you should pay attention to those areas east of the Cascades as well… and in particular, Idaho.
Boise is a well-known hub for agriculture and ranching but not a place one would expect to find a European-styled distillery. Cows? Potatoes? Corn? But surely one could not expect brandy sufficient to please the snobby palates of Europe? Nonetheless, just outside of the city limits lies the Koenig Winery and Distillery (pronounced “KONE – ig”). We had the good fortune to visit the Koenig distillery and meet with the owners personally.
We’ve interviewed many different craft distillers and many of their stories share some similarities. Very often, they are bureaucrats serving some larger corporate, became disenchanted with The Machine or The Man, and spiraled off to launch a business that they can call their own. Very often, they are either home beer brewers expanding outward or chemists or chemical engineers fascinated by the biology and engineering of distilling. It’s a romantic story… but it’s not the Koenig story.
Andy Koenig graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in agribusiness in 1995… expressly in order to better manage his future distillery. That same year, he and his brother Greg Koenig purchased land for an orchard, planted the (wide variety of) fruit trees, and Andy began his apprenticeship in Austria in brandy distillation. Finishing that apprenticeship in 1997, he returned to Idaho just as the trees were beginning to bear fruit and they first began distillation in 1999. This is most definitely not the story of a disaffected bureaucrat in middle-management turning to a new career in a moment of mid-life reflection. Rather, the distillery is the result of a highly focused and well-executed plan beginning in college. In what we’ve come to regard as the European style of brandy distillation, they use a copper pot still with very specific attention paid to the quality of the distillation to specifically emphasize the taste of the ingredient being used as a base.
While brandy served as their spiritual source they acknowledge it as a “skinnier market.” The modern American market means vodka. Being in Idaho, they naturally gravitated towards potatoes as their source… which in our view means a creamier, earthier vodka in a market where the vast, vast majority are based on grain. The potatoes are all sourced in-state from eastern Idaho near Pocatello (which, incidentally, we understand is also where McDonald’s sources their french fries).
The water is sourced from a 400 foot well right on site. “Too much fluoride and chemotherapy drugs in the city water,” Andy remarks. “We’re much better off with well water.” That water is given a UV treatment and filtered to remove mineral content because they want to emphasize the quality of the distillation rather than the mineral content of the water… again, a sensibility we tend to associate with European brandy makers (many vodka distillers brag about the mineral content of their water and prize it). “We don’t want any precipitates in the spirit,” Andy casually mentions at one point.
Along with potatoes, Idaho also means huckleberries and that led to their huckleberry vodka. The huckleberry is known for growing wild in the mountains and defying all efforts at cultivating. It looks like a very small blueberry and tastes like a very tart mix of cranberry and blueberry. It’s about the size of green pea. If the idea of stumbling up and down dusty mountains trying to handpick smallish berries from low-growing bushes sounds murderously awful, you’re right.
The Koenig huckleberries are sourced near Riggins, Idaho—a very small town in a place near “Hell’s Canyon” (named for its extreme heat and lack of water). The huckleberries are hand-picked (God bless you, huckleberry pickers!), frozen on the spot much like fish are frozen on the sea, and then packed out on mules (that’s the only way to traverse the landscape). The vodka (in this case a blend of their potato vodka and a corn-based vodka) is infused for 6 weeks with the huckleberries and filtered for color and bottled. In a time where “all natural” ingredients is a label often suspect… this is as natural as it gets. No other ingredient goes into the vodka save those huckleberries from Hell’s Canyon. Once again: a celebration of the ingredient.
While the potato and huckleberry vodkas are available on the market, Koenig also produces a line of brandy, which is Andy’s first love from his apprenticeship in Austria. They have a full line of different eau-de-vie (un-aged) fruit brandy and each of the ingredients are grown on site at their own orchards. Apricot, cherry, pear, and plum are all available as well as a few others that aren’t as well publicized in limited quantities. So be careful who you may be calling mountain hicks next time you think of Idaho… they may be drinking some of the best European-styled eau-de-vie available.
Still turning up your noise at Idaho? To all you Sex in the City little-black-dress-wearing adorants sipping on your grain vodka mixed with some kind of cranberry juice or “all-natural” infused mass-market berry-flavored something or other in your penthouse suite clubs with electronica music thumping in the background… well, remember that there’s a flannel-clad mountain women listening to the sound of mountain breezes caressing the branches of pine carefully sipping some of the most natural stuff on earth. Who do you think has it better?