Here I sit in the heart of the heartland: Cincinnati, Ohio, wondering if there is life here, sort of like NASA ponders the same question about Mars. Having lived most of my adult life in Denver and San Francisco, I’ll bet your next question is what in the hell are you doing in Ohio? Actually, I have relatives here, and have been back and forth for many years. Still, it’s a peculiar place when it comes to the spirits world. No, I don’t mean ghosts. I mean hooch.

For example, you can only buy diluted hard alcohol in the grocery stores and for the real thing you have to seek out state approved liquor stores. Yup, they dilute vodka, tequila, bourbon, rum etc. down to 42 proof or 21% alcohol by volume as compared to a normal 80 to 100 proof. And, if you are a raging alcoholic and need to buy diluted booze early on a Sunday morning to stave off the DT’s, you’re just plumb out of luck because you couldn’t buy it before noon until recently when they changed it to 10:00 am. And forget about Everclear at 190 proof; it is not available anywhere in Ohio, not even in liquor stores. As a matter of fact, I just happen to really like fine old cognacs and all they have anywhere in Ohio are the usual suspects; Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin and no Hine, Delamain nor Ferrand nor any of the other almost 200 brands.

Just as I was beginning to despair about my spirit-ual plight in Ohio, a miracle happened. I was watching the local news, and they just happened to mention in passing that someone was launching a new vodka that was being produced in Dayton, Ohio and they were calling it Buckeye Vodka. Well, what do you know, there is life in Ohio after all!! I needed to check this out personally, but first I had to figure out what in the hell a buckeye was. Turns out it’s a tree and also a nickname for Ohio, the Buckeye state, and the residents of Ohio. Buckeyes is also the name of Ohio State University collegiate teams. The name Buckeye comes from the folklore of Native Americans who noticed that the nut of this tree resembles the eye of a buck deer, a buck eye. They roasted, peeled and mashed the buckeye nut which they called Hetuck into a nutritional meal. The poisonous and bitter taste can be eliminated by heating and leaching. Poisonous and bitter?? Don’t tell me these guys are making Vodka out of Buckeye nuts; that’s totally nuts!

I found their website and contact information and shot off an email requesting a visit since they were so close to where I was staying. Their CEO, Jim Finke, invited me up, even after checking out my columns online. As I pulled up to the building, I noticed the sign out front – Crystal Water Company. It kind of reminded me of a CIA safe house where what you see is not necessarily what you’ll get. The Spartan reception room was guarded by a lone woman who looked at me curiously with a look that indicated she didn’t get many visitors. I identified myself and that I was here to see the CEO and then as an afterthought inquired if they made vodka here. She laughed a conspiratorial laugh and finally admitted that they did and motioned for me to have a seat in the one and only chair that furnished the entire waiting area. As I sat down, I fully expected a trap door to open beneath me and whisk me away to a dark underground room where Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 would water board me. As my imagination was running away with me, Jim walked in through the front door, greeted me warmly and I was snapped back to reality.

He escorted me to the back of the building where I was led into a complete, sophisticated, modern, ultra-clean, brightly shining stainless steel distillery. Mighty impressive! Turns out the Crystal Water Company is right next door and connected to the distillery via a conveyor belt and hoses that supply the water for the vodka. And they have been producing ultra pure water since 1919 and Tom Rambasek who owns and operates that company is a brother-in-law to brothers Jim and Chris Finke who run the distillery. It’s literally “all in the family”. Their water is softened four times and processed through activated carbon even before it is distilled. 

It turns out that these guys eschewed the traditional pot still and opted instead to use a 20 foot tall column still. What’s the difference? Actually, quite a bit and these guys got it right. The simplest standard distillation device is a pot still. It consists of a single heated chamber, a long neck and a vessel to collect the purified alcohol. A pot still provides one condensation per batch and gives an incomplete separation, which can be desirable for the flavor of some distilled beverages like scotch, bourbon and cognac. Distillers utilizing this device will frequently run their product through two or three times to purify it and smooth it out a little more. Vodka on the other hand, according to the U.S. government’s Code of Federal Regulations, is defined as “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” A column still is a much more apropos device to achieve those results. It is also known as a fractionating column and as alcohol boils, condenses, and reboils through the column, the effective number of distillations greatly increases automatically.  And actually, on the Buckeye bottle, they claim their product is distilled 10 times, which effectively happens in one pass through the column still, but Jim indicates that they actually run it through a second time so you do the math. After all that distillation, they filter the final product 4 to 6 times through activated carbon until they get the desired taste profile.

Now, here’s where the conversation went all CIA again. I asked him just exactly what do they start with that makes the mash that they boil? It turns out that it’s a top secret proprietary process that is performed by a third party in a clandestine location with nameless “gluten free grains”. Well, based on a few clues Jim dropped during our conversation and some astute investigative work on my part over the Internet, I am about to displace Julian Assange as the top WikiLeaker. I am convinced that the Buckeye mash is concocted in the depths of the Mammoth Cave deep in the heart of the Kentucky backwoods by a direct descendant of Merlin who utilizes Kentucky’s best known gluten free fried chicken with their 11 secret herbs and spices and seasoned further by the guano of highly trained vampire bats that have been trained to fly over the giant black cauldron and with precise precision drop their secret ingredient. This process is performed only once a month under a full moon and immediately loaded into the trunks of 12 black 1932 Ford Coupes with souped up engines and sped at break neck speed in the dead of night by aspiring NASCAR drivers to Dayton Ohio and secretly off loaded at the back door of Buckeye Vodka. See Jim, this is what happens when you keep secrets from a ranting and raving writer!!

And now for that all important taste test. Jim is so sure of Buckeye Vodka that he brings out bottles of Grey Goose, Absolut and Kettle One to taste against. Now, I have to admit that I have been to my fair share of distilleries, breweries and wineries and no one has ever brought out the competition to taste against, especially more expensive competition. I first try the Buckeye and as I roll it around it produces no noticeable ethanol smell as many will do up front or for that matter any other noticeable aroma. It is neutral yet full bodied in my mouth with really no discernable flavors. As I swallow, it is very smooth and clear tasting with no burn. It is really quite good and completely embodies the definition of vodka, a neutral spirit with no discernable taste, odor or aroma and, to top that off, it’s almost as smooth as water. Next, I try the Absolut and comparatively speaking it is harsh when swallowed. The Kettle One is better than the Absolut but not as good as the Buckeye. The Grey Goose finally gives the Buckeye a run for its money, and I’m willing to bet that in a blind taste test it would be impossible to pick one out over the other; they’re both that good. However, the Buckeye becomes the clear winner when you consider that the Grey Goose is about $30.00 per bottle and the Buckeye is about $19.00. Buckeye wins the taste test hands down! I took a bottle home and eventually had some over the rocks and as a straight up martini and this hooch loves to be embraced by a bit of ice.

Buckeye just might be the contemporary top dog in a new vodka category as well as a top contender in a former category, the super premium category. In the beginning, there was just vodka and then along came ultra-premium vodkas, followed by super-premium vodkas, and today with a lingering and raging recession and super high gas prices, along comes a recently created vodka niche called the affordable luxury category also known as bargain super premiums. Why pay $30 or $40 for a super premium vodka when you can get something as good or better for $19? It’s definitely a question the Finke Brothers of Dayton Ohio have not only answered but done something about. Currently, it’s only available in Ohio but it should be coming your way soon. Look for it!

By George Brozowski

For more George’s Rants and Raves click here