by Malcolm Jolley

Julie Shore and Arla Johnson from PEI's Prince Edward Distillery

Julie Shore is pouring me a glass of vodka. This is not my usual after lunch drink, but I am making an exception from my double espresso rule this afternoon, at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, on the recommendation of Michael Smith, Iron Chef, Food Network star and as proud a Prince Edward Islander they come. It happens that Shore, and her partner Arla Johnson, are friends of Smith’s. It also happens that the pair, who run the Johnson Shore Inn on a rocky red cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, are making vodka, in an old fashioned copper still, using two ingredients: potatoes and water.

I know that Shore and Johnson’s Prince Edward Potato Vodka has only two ingredients, because they list their ingredients on the bottle. This astonishes me, as it is almost unheard of. For whatever reason, distillers, vintners and brewers have no obligation in this country and most others to reveal to consumers what they use to make their drinks. But for Shore and Johnson it seemed like a normal enough thing to do. Shore explained: “Why not? Everything we do is 100% natural.”

Wild Blueberry Vodka, Gin and Potato Vodka from PEI

Shore and Johnson founded the Prince Edward Distillery three years ago, and their Potato Vodka will be available to Upper Canadian tipplers this June in an LCBO Vintages release (see inventory# 164657). The duo wondered why no one was making vodka from what might be the world’s most famous spuds and decided to buy a still after consulting Google to see how hard it might be. In the past years they’ve managed to win a couple gold medals and a 92 point designation from the Chicago Beverage Institute. They also make a blueberry vodka made by steeping local wild blueberries in spirits made from local grain, and a gin made with lemongrass and ginger as well as the traditional juniper berries.

When I taste the Potato Vodka, I am shocked, albeit pleasantly. There is essentially no burn and  there’s a deep note of minerality – this vodka actually tastes like something. “A lot of people think it tastes like our dirt and the sea,” explains Shore. I see, or taste, what she means: there is an almost salty note and I immediately start dreaming of caviar. I also taste the blueberry vodka and I am surprised again: expecting a mockish, sweet synthetic flavouring my palate received, instead, a light and pure essence of wild blueberry. “That’s really all we do,” Shore says, “we just let the berries steep in the first distillation, then run it back into the still.”

Finally, I try the gin. Gin is just grain spirit flavoured with juniper and/or whatever else. As with vodka, I’m generally not a big of the stuff, limiting myself to a few G&T’s in the summer and the occasional Martini, maybe once a year. The Prince Edward Gin is different, dangerously different. There is an intense aromatic nose to the drink that delivers as a lemony, spicy subtle note on the palate. It is basically a Martini without the need of any Vermouth. Or the G in a T with no need of a wedge of lime. It’s interesting and delicious.

Shore and Johnson hope to “import” their line of spirits into Ontario this summer. Beyond the release at Vintages of the Potato Vodka, they are taking “private orders” from bars and restaurants (including Mildred’s Temple Kitchen). I ask if they are worried about having to ramp up production. “No,” Shore replies, “there are a lot of potatoes on Prince Edward Island.”

Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revolution.