Spirit guidance: The catch is in the rye for Square One vodka’s Allison Evanow

Allison Evanow used her marketing savvy to launch Square One Organic Spirits and put some heat on a lackluster vodka industry with her eco-conscious, 100 percent American rye vodkas. Image: Eze Amos Allison Evanow used her marketing savvy to launch Square One Organic Spirits and put some heat on a lackluster vodka industry with her eco-conscious, 100 percent American rye vodkas. Image: Eze Amos

It was the middle of the night in 2004 when Square One organic vodka founder Allison Evanow saw her future. Evanow’s career, marketing fine beverages had taken the Waynesboro native to Spain, Mexico, and California, working for the Jose Cuervo family before entering the wine industry in Napa.

Maybe it was insomnia, maybe it was the over-exhaustion that stems from new parenthood—or maybe it was a spirit guide. But Evanow, then the mother of 6-month-old twins, describes waking with a bolt of inspiration that caused her to start planning a new business, her mind flashing back to an advertising campaign she’d come across in Food & Wine magazine earlier that day.

“There was an ad for an American vodka with an old farmer that touted ‘all natural’ and I remember thinking, if it’s all natural why wouldn’t they just go all the way to organic,” says Evanow. “You can cheat all natural.”

She was living in northern California at the time, immersed in the movement toward organic, green, and eco-friendly consumption. Evanow describes the realization that no one was distilling organic spirits as “going off like a bell.” That bell sounded an idea that would alter the spirits business and define her as an innovator in a niche industry.

“I wrote down the name Square One,” says Evanow. “The idea that if you start at square one you’re doing it the right way. No herbicides, no pesticides, no fake stuff. You’re telling the truth in your marketing—and no sexy bikini marketing!”

Initially, she thought she’d run the table and produce organic vodka, rum, and gin. After writing the business plan, she says reality set in, and the challenges of building her own distillery caused her to focus solely on vodka.

“People ask if I started a vodka company because I like vodka and I say, ‘No I started it because I hated vodka,’” laughs Evanow. Vodka’s bad image on the cocktail scene at the time stemmed from using less expensive, synthetic ingredients, and Evanow says she decided to “focus on the category that needs the most help because they’ve done the most fake stuff.”

Sixteen years after that fitful night, the Square One brand operates from Evanow’s home office in Ivy and features five labels of vodka: clear, cucumber, bergamot, botanical, and basil, plus a line of mixers and ready-to-drink canned cocktails—all of them organic. Evanow’s farming, fermentation, and distillation processes are certified organic, and use 100 percent organic American rye. This is far more difficult to pull off than the conventional distilling process, but Evanow never deviated from her goal.

“That was the idea, all organic, all real botanicals, plant-based infusions,” she says. “Deriving the extracts or essences from the real plant instead of some guy in a lab coat pretending he made strawberry out of chemicals.”

Evanow made two other key decisions. She used rye to make her vodka and she took a culinary approach to the science of distillation. Get her going on botanical formulas and she utters poetic streams of ingredients: Pear, rose, lavender, chamomile, lemon verbena, coriander, rosemary, and citrus peel…mandarin, navel, and tangerine…juniper, ginger and coriander. “Our original distiller said, ‘No one has ever talked to me about their spirits the way you do. You come at it like you’re a cook,’” says Evanow.

She chose rye because she didn’t want a sweet style like you get with corn, or an “uber neutral” vodka, typical when using wheat or potato. “What I love about rye is it’s got character,” she says, also quick to note that working with rye is not easy, due to its lower yield and a tougher process to make it certified organic. After getting her formula down, the next step was to expand the product’s flavor profile.

Square One’s real cucumber flavored vodka was another industry first and it became a bestseller. “That was a beast to make,” says Evanow. “It tasted like pickles, it was so bad.” The flavor solution came from the world of fine perfumes. “My distiller had been in the perfume biz before…and went out and worked with six different perfume and flavor companies to find stable extraction essences.” The result tastes fresh from the garden.

At first, the bartending community was lukewarm about putting a new vodka into the lineup. But the use of rye, and the authenticity of Square One’s mission, made it a valid addition to the craft cocktail movement.

Now the vodka is a fixture on cocktail lists at high-end restaurants like Morton’s The Steakhouse and boutique hot spot Goose & Gander in Napa Valley. Jason McKechnie at The Ivy Inn tries to feature a new cocktail with Square One vodka seasonally “because the flavors are unique, bold yet balanced, and it’s a product I can trust through and through,” he says.

As with the ingredients and process she uses in her Square One spirits, integrity and authenticity are important to Evanow personally. She’s one of the first women to start her own distilled spirits company, and it’s an industry in which the glass ceiling is still very high. “I’m asked, ‘Did you do this with your husband?’ and I say, ‘No, I started the company and he does not work for me,’” says Evanow.

More women in leadership roles can expand the industry creatively, says Evanow. She makes sure her brand and marketing is never “dumbed down” and that people know Square One is founded by a woman. “Because, I don’t think a bro would do this,” she says as she carefully inhales the essence of a basil vodka. “I don’t think a bro would care about the quality in this way.”

 


How-tos for tasting the hard stuff

Start from scratch
Before tasting, be sure your palate is clean and neutral. Drink water and avoid spicy foods and strong flavors.

Hold the rocks
Sip the spirit at room temperature, neat.

Don’t nose it
Wave the glass gently to get the aromatics. Hold the glass slightly away from your face, with the nose outside the glass as you inhale, in order to avoid the “burn” of the alcohol.   

Double dip
Don’t judge by the first sip. Take it slow, and take a few.

Savor the flavors
Depending on the base ingredient, you’ll discover bready/yeasty/cereal notes
(vodkas made from grain), vanilla/caramel/butterscotch notes (oak-aged spirits),
smoke/brine/peat (scotches), herbal/vegetal/earthy (tequilas), and citrus/botanicals
of all kinds (flavored spirits like vodka, gin, and aquavit).


From the Ivy Inn
Perfect pear

 1 oz. Square One Organic vodka

 1.25 oz. spiced pear liqueur (preferably St. George Distillery Spiced Pear
Liqueur or Rothman & Winter Orchard Pear, infused with 2 cinnamon sticks and
14 clove pods for 36-48 hours)

 .25 oz. elderflower liqueur

 .25 oz. maple syrup

 .5 oz. lemon juice

Shake with ice for 20 seconds and strain into a chilled coupe/martini glass. Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon or a pear wheel, or both!

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