The Koenig distillery is beautifully industrial--a steampunk's dream--and today all that gleaming, steaming, needle-twitching splendor is producing a glorious, colorless, odorless and seemingly tasteless liquid.
"This is a room that was originally designed to house our fruit brandy distillery," says Koenig, who with his brother, Andrew, runs Koenig Distillery and Winery near Caldwell. "But we decided to get into the vodka business, so a small coppersmith outside of Frankfurt, Germany, designed and built for us a copper distillery specifically for small-batch potato vodka."
Through one of those handsomely retro German portholes, I can see a thick sludge sloshing like cream of wheat in a washing machine.
"And what that is, is fermented potatoes," says Koenig, who has a healthy, alpine look that matches his Austrian ancestry. "We take Idaho russet potatoes and grind them into a fine mash into boiling water and add an enzyme which breaks the starch into sugar. When it's cool enough, we're able to add yeast, which ferments all of that available sugar into alcohol."
It's comforting to think that every russet grown in Idaho isn't fated to a French-fried future, that an ambitious spud could instead aspire to a chilled martini with a twist. After all, vodka, which was once considered cheap, Eastern European swill, is now the world's best selling booze.
Koenig and his brother Andrew started distilling their potato vodka in 2006. A year later, it was named one of the world's top 50 spirits by Wine Enthusiasts magazine.
Koenig simply thinks potatoes make better vodka. He says most of the world's vodkas are made out of grains like rye, corn or wheat, which are cheaper and easier to distill than potatoes.
"But potatoes make a particularly smooth vodka," Koenig says. "And while it's tasteless and odorless, potato vodka has a wonderful viscosity or velvety mouth feel, a smoothness that's unattainable by using other types of starch."
Other Idaho-distilled potato vodkas have also won awards. In 2003, the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago rated Eastern Idaho's Blue Ice America's No. 1 vodka and later gave Teton Glacier a high rating. Blue Ice, Teton Glacier and 44 North are all potato vodkas made by Distilled Resources Inc. in Rigby.