COLUMN: Cardinal Spirits makes a damn fine cup of vodka
By Hannah Alani
Life can be hard as a gluten-intolerant college senior. When I go out with friends, I sit out Sink the Biz. No Dunnkirk pizza or Big Cheeze. Not even Z&C. Remarkably, even soy sauce has gluten.
I know all vodka is ostensibly gluten free. But as someone who has to be careful about what I eat, I was drawn by the fact that Cardinal Spirits advertised its Class of 2017 vodka as “gluten free.” So I took a trip over to the B-Line trail, where Cardinal sits across from Hopscotch Coffee, and investigated.
I didn’t have any reactions, so the “gluten free” claim must be true. I did, however, learn about the thoughtful marketing decisions that go into an iconic bird-clad Cardinal label. I sat down with co-founder and CEO Adam Quirk and discussed the meaninglessness of food buzzwords, the science of good distilling and Cardinal’s desire to increase its relevance with students.
When I first got to Cardinal, Quirk gave me a tour of the distillery. When we walked into the production room, I saw a huge shipment of white grape concentrate from Argentina. The concentrate is mixed with heaps of yeast — Cardinal’s “best employee,” Quirk says — and sits in giant silver fermenters for days. Several of Cardinal’s fermenters are named for country music stars, though my favorite was Yeezus.
Every part of the spirit production process happens on site with the exception of the harvesting and processing of raw materials, such as the white grape.
“We got into this because we wanted to make stuff,” said Quirk, an Evansville, Indiana, native.
After fermentation comes distillation. Cardinal bought its giant bronze steam-powered distiller — “Penny” — from Montana. Penny spends her days distilling massive quantities of spirits.
The gluten debacle comes into play during distillation.
Proper distillation will heat the liquid to above alcohol’s boiling point — 174 degrees Fahrenheit — until the alcohol rises out of the liquid. With the right heating, the bad chemicals, such as methanol, in fermented liquid will not rise. Gluten is too heavy a molecule to rise alongside the alcohol and should, theoretically, remain down with the fermented non-drinkable stuff.
The gluten threat is tangential, at best. Most vodkas are made from potato — a starch, not glutenous — but sometimes cross-contamination can occur between potatoes and wheat products before fermentation. Cardinal’s use of white grape rules this out from the get-go.
After the tour, I got a chance to taste Cardinal’s standard vodka, the black raspberry-infused Bramble vodka and the botanical Terra gin, recognized nationally as the “best contemporary gin.”
Each was powerfully smooth. The white grape really makes a difference in the smoothness and consistency in the vodkas. The Bramble was a delight, and the wild mint and lemongrass really shined through in the gin.
What surprised me was the placement of the “gluten free” certification — yes, it is a federally-approved seal. Cardinal placed the words in fine print on the back of the label. While important for those with allergies, the certification actually matters more for products that could contain gluten such as the barrel-aged whiskey and beer-based spirits, Quirk said.
Food and beverage companies overuse and misuse terms like “natural” and “handcrafted.” Quirk said Cardinal weighs the importance of marketing with consumer’s need for knowledge about a product.
Placing the “gluten free” on the back of the bottle was a good compromise, one Quirk said was made on gut and instinct. I think it was the right choice. Customers like me care more about honesty than buzzwords.
Cardinal made 200 Class of 2017 bottles with the slogan “distilled in the best college town on earth” and accompanied by a Cardinal-designed shot glass. The bottle and glass cost $25. As of Tuesday afternoon, Cardinal had already sold 80 bottles, Quirk said.
Cardinal hopes the commemorative bottles will be a way to connect with students and become a part of the IU experience.
“We rely on IU as a Bloomington business, as do all other Bloomington businesses,” Quirk said.
But business has expanded outside Indiana. Quirk told me they’re about to send bottles to Chicago, and later this year to Washington, D.C., and Boston. As a Bloomington native who’s not afraid to endorse truly “handcrafted” products, I hope Bloomington’s oldest distillery is here to stay.
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