Square One Vodka: festive cocktails that are naughty and nice

by Pamela Irving

EXCLUSIVE one-to-one with Allison Evanow Founder and CEO of Square One Organic Vodka: Passion, integrity and excellence

Out of the hundreds of media releases I received leading up to Tales of the Cocktail last summer, Square One Organic Vodka was well above the bar: I must go to New Orleans to meet Allison Evanow, the "green-ius" behind Square One Organic Vodka.

We set up a mysterious rendezvous by e-mail:

"I'll be at the Market Fresh event. I'll be the one with the hair and glasses." Expecting a female version of Groucho Marx, I was pleasantly surprised to see the blonde hair and blue glasses were as genuine as the flawless smile. I recognized Allison immediately as an ambassador to her company, pumping people with chat and tastings.

Sharing vodka, and later rum, and later, well, more vodka, and more rum, and much later, over the American Thanksgiving, Allison graciously took the time to tell the whole story behind Square One.

Pamela: Why organic vodka? Why is organic important?

Allison: As a resident of Marin County I am surrounded by people who embrace and promote an organic and greener lifestyle. As an avid farmers' market shopper who makes cocktails with fresh, organic produce, I felt it was time to match the production of the spirits with the produce I put in my cocktails.

When I started Square One, my vision was to create a portfolio of organic spirits that complement fresh produce culinary cocktails. Vodka, the "purest" expression of a spirit, was the natural "square one" for us as it provides a neutral palate on which to build culinary cocktails. From there we have developed some unusual spirit profiles that add new twists to spirits - cucumber organic vodka and a multi-botanical organic spirit.

Organic is important to us on two levels. First and foremost is the quality that it imparts in our spirit. We use 100% certified organic American rye, farmed under USDA organic standards, eschewing herbicides, pesticides and GMOs. In the distillery, our fermentation, distillation and filtering processes are operated under certified organic standards, which requires a different approach, especially in fermentation and delivers a vodka of superb quality. Our yields are lower using organics, which is why our spirits are more expensive than most non-organic vodkas, but the result is worth it.

The second reason for organic is simply one of ensuring that we are treating the land in the most natural way possible. Why would we CHOOSE to add chemicals to our land just to increase yields? The importance of organic is as much about what does NOT go in the land during farming.

Pamela: Where did you get your passion from?

Allison: I consider myself a foodie, which for me extends beyond food to the dinner table overall, including wines and spirits. I get a lot of satisfaction from taking a raw ingredient and turning it into my own creation, whether it be a dish for my dinner table, or a cocktail for my home bar. I have a blast coming up with new cocktail creations, learning from some of the best "pros" in the industry. I want to bring spirits to the cocktail that feed into that creativity, which is why our other spirits are unique in their flavour profile. I want to give professional bar chefs and home bar chefs something fun to create with.

Pamela: Were you the lead behind the company?

Allison: I literally had an "aha" moment one night about five years ago when I was reading a magazine and saw an ad for vodka that claimed its purity based on a high number of distillations and filtrations. I thought to myself, 'If it were so pure, wouldn't it be organic to start with instead of "cleaning up" the vodka at the end of the process?' I suddenly realized that I could take my passion for organic food and drink to the next level by bringing organic spirits to the market. I concepted out the business, wrote a business plan, and asked my sister (a banking executive) to be my lead investor after me. We are a family business, though I am the only one working in the business on a daily basis. I was also fortunate to have business associates who believed in what I was doing. A lot of behind the scenes work was done by some incredibly talented folks who helped me make my vision reality. It took 20 months from concept to delivery. We launched our first product, Square One Organic Vodka, in April 2006.

Pamela: Who are your primary consumers?

Allison: Our consumers span a couple of different demographic profiles. We appeal to consumers who buy products similar to their favourite brands but appreciate our values of organic and green approach to our business. We also appeal to consumers who seek out and understand high quality spirits and cocktail ingredients. You likely will not see a Square One consumer mixing it with sour apple liqueurs, for example, -made with high fructose corn syrup, faux flavours and colors.

Lastly, one of our most important groups of consumers are the bartenders.

We have an incredibly loyal following among some of the top bartenders in the world where we have distribution - U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They are the gatekeepers for the success of new spirits. That so many of them embrace Square One is testament to our quality and origins.

I chose to make our spirits from organic rye instead of wheat or corn, because I knew that this grain commands respect from mixologists. Some of our most loyal trade customers are whiskey/classic cocktail bars that use very little vodka, but who have one or two vodkas in stock for those consumers who prefer it over whiskey cocktails. We are their choice vodka, which is a real feather in our cap.

Pamela: How do you maintain your marketing advantage?

Allison: Staying ahead of the competition is and always will be a big challenge for us given our decision to remain privately held in the face of companies with venture capital/angel investors and commercial bank financing. While there were some organic spirits in the market when we launched, I can honestly say that it was Square One that put organic spirits on the map. We continue to have an advantage because we have deeper insight into how the spirits are used by the influencers - the bartenders - and have been more innovative than most of our competitors. You won't see us doing organic versions of general market products.

Our Cucumber vodka and our Botanical spirit (playing in the world of gin and aquavit, but with a completely different botanical profile than those categories) are stand-alones in the marketplace. Many of the other white spirits companies are offering organic versions of existing categories of flavoured vodkas and gins. We aim to not just be organic and green, but to bring a culinary distinctiveness to our spirit development.

There is another angle that is an intangible advantage. I came from the wine and spirits industry and brought that background together with my passion for organic, seasonal food and cocktails. Because we actually "live the lifestyle" we bring an authenticity that is not easily copied by a big corporate company jumping into organics. Big companies can make organic spirits, but they cannot fully understand, embrace and live the lifestyle.

On the other hand, some of the smaller organic spirits players are from outside of the industry. They have passion but the learning curve of understanding the commercial dynamics of a highly competitive three-tier distribution system in the US, or the liquor control systems in Canada, is very steep. For those players, it is a slow build as they learn the industry ropes.

Pamela: Canada-are we buying it?

Allison: We have been embraced by some of Canada's top bartenders and accounts, which is a third party endorsement to the consumer. Before we launched in Canada, we received emails every week asking us when we were going to start selling in Canada. The main challenge we have is pricing in the Canadian market. Our margins are much lower than non-organic spirits and it is difficult for us to be competitive in Canada because the liquor boards have very high mark-ups. We may simply be out of some peoples' price consideration, no matter how attractive our brand is to them.

Pamela: What about the distilling process-is it special?

Allison: The most important part of our distilling process that is unique to organics is the fermentation process. Rye is a difficult grain to process efficiently because it has more protein and fibre and less starch than wheat and corn, the other grains traditionally used in vodka production. We employ a proprietary organic fermentation and as a result, we have 50% lower yield than non-organic processes, but thankfully, a better tasting spirit as a result. We only filter once through a micron paper filter - no activated charcoal as done with non-organic spirits. Thus our spirit is truly a minimally processed product from farm to bottle.

All processing aids must either be organic or allowed under organic standards. The distillery is certified organic by Oregon Tilth and our products are certified organic under their umbrella. Non-organic fermentation can use synthetic yeasts whereas ours have to be natural yeasts. Rye requires an enzymatic catalyst to jump start fermentation. We had to work with our organic certifier to find an allowable catalyst. Because the fermentation process uses less aggressive aids than non-organic fermentation, we can't get as much extraction from the grain as non-organic fermentation. Thus our yields are 50 % lower. The added benefit of a lighter processing of the grain is seen in the final product.

Pamela: What about the taste? Paul Pacult gives Square One Vodka a four star rating, which is well deserved, but how do you describe it?

Allison: With our original organic vodka, our taste profile retains the nuttiness one would expect from rye, along with some of the spiciness usually found with rye. Due to the fermentation process and superior distilling, our rye vodka tends to be lighter and silkier than other rye vodkas, especially East European ones. We retain the unique flavour of rye with a slightly less robust flavour profile where yields are higher. We favour this lighter style with our flavoured spirits because we want the rye flavour to be present but not overly dominate the other flavours in the spirit.

Regarding our Cucumber organic vodka, it is often said by consumers and mixologists that our cucumber organic vodka tastes just like a couple of slices of cucumber dropped into our vodka. Everyone says it tastes so fresh and so true to cucumber, that it is unlike any other flavoured vodka. Our distillation techniques for creating our cucumber essences took three years to perfect, and the end result is spectacular.

As for Botanical, it is Eden in a Bottle. It is all the complexity one seeks in a botanical spirit like a gin or aquavit, but with a uniquely floral and light spice profile. It is lighter in style and more friendly for mixing. It is best showcased with just a small addition of a complementing spirit or liqueur so that our botanical profile will be highlighted and stand alone. Botanical was definitely a labour of love for me. I am a big fan of gin, but sometimes I want something with a different flavour profile, yet with the complexity of gin. It was very risky for us to step out of the box and create a "botanical spirit" that is neither a flavoured vodka nor a gin, but something that really is going to start, in my humble opinion, a whole new category. But the idea to give consumers a garden of eden flavour profile in a spirit was one whose time I felt had come.

Pamela: What about your suppliers? Tell us a little about your farmers.

Allison: We enjoy an incredibly close relationship with our distillery partner. They may be an independently owned company, but we operate so closely, as if they are my in-house operations/distillation department.

We were sourcing our rye from North Dakota, as the Dakotas grow the most organic rye in the US. But as we are now starting to export to Europe, we had to find a farm or cooperative that was growing both USDA and EU organic certified grain and couldn't find that in North Dakota. We both just started picking up the phone and calling farmers all over the northern plains until we found an organic farming co-operative in Montana that is now contract growing all of the rye for us. Our distiller maintains the relationships with the farmers and millers so that he can ensure the quality is to his specifications on behalf of and as an extension of my company.

Pamela: Where to in 2010 for Square One?

Allison: 2010 is predicted to be our biggest year ever. We have certainly felt the effects of the economic crisis but have weathered the storm quite well. We have a few new things up our sleeve that we hope will add even more excitement to our business in 2010, and our expansion into Europe is an important part of our ongoing development. Canada was our first export market, followed by English-speaking Australia and New Zealand. With the growth of organics and the acceptance of small, independent spirits companies, we see opportunities for even more growth in many countries. We also hope to introduce our Square One Cucumber to Canada in 2010.

Pamela: Any Solstice message to our readers?

Allison: My only message would be to toast the slow crawl back to the longer days of the year with a shot of bracingly cold Square One Organic Vodka!

I took her up on that message. Even though Solstice is still three weeks away, I needed to reacquaint my palate to Square One for authenticity to my readers (that's my excuse and I am sticking to it.) Bonus: The bottle when chilled and frosted is beautiful and sculptural and will be a gorgeous vase when the vodka is regrettably finished.

At Caledonia Organic Farm, our home in Saskatchewan, we roundly toasted the setting sun over the flat prairies with a bracingly cold shot of Square One Organic Vodka. The cold vodka, has a lovely viscosity to it that no other vodka has in my experience. I rolled it over on my tongue and savoured the shot. The spiciness lingered boldly on my palate long after the sensation spread and warmed my chest against the night prairie winds. We toasted Allison's vision and excellence. Slainje! May your Solstice be naughty and nice with plenty of Square One to make it so.

For Canadians with discerning taste...

SQ1 is distributed in Canada by the Whitefish Beverage Agency, an importer and distributor of beverage alcohol. The Whitefish Group is a fifteen year old brand management company. Whitefish Beverage is a four year old agency that focuses on boutique producers (often family owned) of wine and spirits and imported beer.

Alan Nisbet, General Manager of Whitefish Beverage in Vancouver says that consumers can buy SQ1 Organic Vodka in the provinces of BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia at government and private stores and find it in fine dining establishments in those provinces.   "We reached out to SQ1 because of the quality and integrity of their brand. Allison, Margie and their team are true professionals who have to work twice as hard as all their competitors due to the nature of the business. We enjoy doing business with them as it is a true partnership."