The Irish have been honing their distillation skills for oh, about a millennium or so. During most of that time, whiskey has been the tipple of choice, but it’s no real surprise that the Irish would turn their attention to vodka one of these days—and that when they did, they’d knock it out of the park.
Kalak Single Malt Vodka is one of the most distinctive and delicious vodkas we’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, which is one reason we shared it with vodka club members. Named for the Celtic goddess of nature, Kalak Single Malt Vodka is quadruple distilled from malted barley on traditional pot stills, the same kind of equipment used to make whiskey. This full-bodied Irish vodka is what we like to call “off-neutral”—still clean, but with a deep, resonant flavor all its own.
Vodka from the Home of Whiskey
By many accounts, Ireland is the true home of whiskey, the very first place the spirit was ever distilled. While the origins of distilling are shrouded in mystery, there’s good evidence it was Irish monks who first brought distilling technology, previously the domain of medicine and alchemy, to Ireland from the Mediterranean in about 1000 AD. Later, they traveled to Scotland to spread the good word, taking distillation along with them and inadvertently founding the Scotch whisky industry.
By 1200, whiskey—uisce beatha, in Gaelic—was alive and well in Ireland as well as Scotland, although it didn’t bear much resemblance to what we think of as Irish whiskey today. Untouched by oak and heavily spiced, uisce beatha was nevertheless the first major instance of grains like malted barley being used to create a beverage much more potent than ale.
Whiskey and beer are inarguably the two most prominent beverages to be produced with malted barley, but there’s no reason the grain can’t be used to produce vodka as well. Patrick Shelley, Kalak Single Malt Vodka’s CEO and founder, says that a career working for some of the world’s top single malt whisky brands like Ardbeg and Glenmorangie led him to wonder if malted barley couldn’t also be used to produce a vodka of similar stature.
Developing Kalak Single Malt Vodka
“From my experience in the drinks industry, I felt that vodka was often more about packaging than substance,” says Patrick. “I was not a vodka drinker until recently, as I generally found it to be odourless and tasteless. I wanted to create a vodka that I could enjoy, one with taste, character and depth as well as purity and smoothness”
Fertile soils, mild temperatures, an oceanic climate, and a long growing season mean southern Ireland is one of the best places in the world to grow malting barley. Yet Irish distillers, long accustomed to creating whiskey with that barley, had little experience producing a more neutral spirit. Add Patrick’s insistence that distillation be accomplished with whiskey-style pot stills, not the more traditional column still typically used for vodka, and the development process grew even more challenging.
It took nearly three years to create Kalak Single Malt Vodka, and three different spirits consultants worked on the project, including the legendary Dr. Jim Swan. “Our principal challenge was capturing the distinctive flavor profile of malted barley in a pure spirit which is distilled to 96% alcohol. We wanted it to have the pureness of a vodka and the character of a whiskey,” says Patrick.
Finally, after countless prototypes and test runs, the team created a vodka with the distinctive character and gravitas that Patrick had hoped for by using locally grown malting barley, mashing it with pristine Irish water, and distilling it four times on copper pot stills.
Paying Homage to Heritage
The name Kalak is a phonetic spelling of Cailleach, an ancient Celtic goddess who Patrick says is the closest analog to a Celtic “mother nature.” Yet Kalak is a bit more moody than we might imagine, the kind of goddess who’s more icy cold winter and brutal tempest than springtime flowers and twittering birds. The brand chose the name to pay homage to the “darker, more powerful side of nature”—a side that’s easy to see in storm-swept Southern Ireland, where rugged coastlines meet the turbulent north Atlantic.
Even the packaging pays homage to Kalak’s spiritual origins (pun intended). You’ll notice a long, slim shape topped with a deer’s horn on the bottle. This is Kalak’s staff, which she used to strike the ground and pull the veil of winter across the land. Herds of wild Irish deer were said to be Kalak’s army as well as a symbol of her power, which is why her staff is topped with an antler. Even the shape of the label ties back to legends of Kalak. At the end of her reign, it’s said she was transformed into a stone, giving rise to Kalak Single Malt Vodka’s distinctive label shape.
“We have had an incredible reaction to Kalak around the world, and we are slowly managing to change perceptions of what vodka is, or indeed, can be,” says Patrick. “As a single malt vodka, Kalak appeals to both premium vodka and whiskey drinkers. It is also gaining a reputation as the whiskey drinker’s vodka.”
With more flavor than your average vodka, Kalak Single Malt Vodka is particularly fun to mix with. It pairs beautifully with citrus in long drinks, but has enough character to produce a vodka martini that even gin drinkers will love. Yet Patrick says Kalak, like whiskey, also holds its own in an Old Fashioned-type cocktail, and is even delicious sipped on its own over ice, perhaps accented with a twist of lemon or dressed up with a cinnamon stick.
Patrick set out to build on Ireland’s remarkable distilling heritage while breaking new ground for today’s drinker. We’re delighted to say that he succeeded. For anyone who thinks that vodka isn’t for them, or who assumes that all vodka needs to taste like nothing at all, Kalak Single Malt Vodka offers an intriguing alternative, one steeped in the wild spirit and authentic distilling heritage of Southern Ireland.
www.kalakvodka.com Available in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, as well as international markets, with an expansion planned for next year.