A man cannot live on fermented grape juice alone. Sometimes he needs something a bit more serious. I am not a whisky or scotch man, and rum conjures up visions of beach-themed frat parties. For me, it’s either gin or vodka. And guess what? We just happen to have a distiller of premium vodka right here in Virginia, an hour’s drive down I-64.
Cirrus Vodka, established in 2004, is distilled in a small warehouse the color of the sky on a bad day in Siberia, in an unfashionable industrial cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Richmond. Cirrus is unique in two ways, one being that it’s handcrafted in small batches. A lot of vodka out there is purchased from large distilleries and then rebottled, separated from the herd only by its marketing. Cirrus is also different from 99 percent of the vodka out there because it isn’t made from grains, but from potatoes.
One hour from Charlottesville, many hours from Moscow: Cirrus Vodka is distilled in a small warehouse on the outskirts of Richmond.
Hold on. What exactly is vodka? Basically, it’s a beverage made from a neutral spirit. It’s almost straight ethanol, with water added to bring it down to the traditional 40 percent alcohol level, and traditionally it’s colorless, odorless and tasteless. Which is where the potatoes come in. Potatoes add some odor and flavor. In the case of Cirrus, the odor is described as slightly vanilla-esque, and the flavor as “creamy, slightly sweet, and very smooth” by the San Francisco World Spirit Competition (where Cirrus has won a silver and a gold medal). It is harder and more expensive to use potatoes, but to many vodka aficionados, they’re the only way to go.
Paul McCann is the founder, CEO, head distiller, secretary and sales representative. Sometimes his brother drives down from the Northern Neck to help, but basically McCann is Cirrus Vodka. The 50-year-old, Virginia-born McCann, who got his bachelor’s in biology and his master’s in environmental health and industrial hygiene, used to work for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. “I just can’t do this for the rest of my life,” he thought one day. So he decided to make vodka instead, which may seem weird, but isn’t really. When he explains the process of making vodka to me, he sounds like a scientist (he even pulls out a thick textbook on distillation and excitedly goes over diagrams), and he sounds like he could make this stuff in his sleep.
I ask McCann if his product benefits at all from the whole “local food” thing. “Yes and no,” he replies. Although Richmond is his biggest market, “it almost hurts you being a Virginia product.” There is still a stigma, it seems, against more exotic hometown goods (local wineries can relate), so “Made In Virginia” is often the last thing McCann says in his sales pitch. He tries to let the quality speak for itself.
And how does McCann take his vodka? “Straight, usually. Maybe with a jalapeño or a stuffed olive.” Never mixed. Cirrus is meant to be drunk straight, maybe even sniffed and savored like wine. And I am ready, at 11am in Richmond, to do so. But no! I cannot! It is apparently illegal for a liquor distillery to offer tastes on the premises. McCann’s business is called Parched Group LLC, and parched is how I leave him standing in his funky, peeling warehouse. I do not tell McCann that I like my vodka with a twist of Bloody Mary.