In the one-room Sound Spirits Distillery on an industrial stretch of Queen Anne, Steven Stone, pictured above, carefully checks the day’s output. His product? A unique vodka he calls Ebb + Flow, Seattle’s first locally-produced vodka. It starts as a mash of 100% Washington-grown barley that ferments for one week and ends as a liquor that pushes the boundaries of what can be called vodka. Sure, it’s a clear, high-proof distillate without any added flavors, though to call Ebb & Flow “neutral” would be inaccurate. In a word, the stuff is flavorful. It hits the tongue with an immediate warmth then blossoms into a sweet, strangely full-bodied tincture that evokes sweet nuts, Kalamata olives and finished wood, though it spends no time in any barrel.

Two things contribute to the unusual taste and feel of Ebb + Flow. First, it isn’t common practice to make vodka entirely out of barley. Vodka is more often made of wheat these days (potato vodka, while still available, has more or less fallen out of fashion). The reason most 21st century vodkas are made of wheat is because it isn’t as distinct or sweet as other grains. This blandness allows distillates to be as neutral as possible. Ebb & Flow’s barley character really comes through, though it’s more like a brandy before aging and less like beer.

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The second factor in Ebb & Flow’s flavor is its peculiar lack of filtration. Modern vodka tends to be filtered within an inch of its life, running through everything from vegetable charcoal to quartz and cheesecloth to remove any impurities or pesky esters than might imbue the solution with any foreign tastes. Ebb & Flow forgoes the filtration process in order to deliver a more insistent, old-style vodka. The final product still tastes clean and smooth, it just brings a lot of character to the party.

Aside from an out-of-the-ordinary sipping experience, Ebb + Flow will need to find a special niche for cocktails. It won’t make the sharp Martini Americans have been enjoying for decades and it won’t play well with most sweet liqueurs, especially those used in cream drinks. Ebb & Flow wants something older and more spicy, like a splash of Lillet or Fernet Branca for the heady punch of those cocktails found on the original Savoy menu. It should also perform well with any bitter orange flavors, though it would also be exciting to see what it does with a crushed, unsweetened blackberry.

One thing about Ebb + Flow is for certain: It’s unlike any other vodka on the shelf, so it’ll need some keen experimentation to flourish behind the bar. Considering Seattle’s love affair with cocktails both classic and innovative, this is as good a town as any to send Ebb & Flow on its maiden voyage. You can get it on special order through most Seattle-area liquor stores and it’s set to appear in some of the city’s more proficient cocktail lounges over the next few months. Of course, if you’re dying for a taste today you can always pop down to the distillery and purchase a bottle (or a case) from Steven Stone himself.  Look for the apothecary-style bottle with the octopus tentacle on the neck label.

Photos: Michael Sarko