In June 2010 Heartland Distillers, located on Indianapolis’ northside, won the bronze medal at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. Before that, in March, it took home the gold at San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition. That’s two competitions, two medals and it’s made right here in Indy, but ave you tried it yet? I hadn’t either, until this past Friday.
Owner, operator, Master Distiller, bottler and hand-labeler Stuart Hobson has never stopped hustling his brand since launching in 2008, but I was oblivious of it until a page recommendation showed up on the sidebar of this blog’s Facebook page last Tuesday. Thinking to myself that Facebook might be right and that I might actually like Indiana Vodka, I gave it the ol’ Thumbs Up, and found out that in three days Hobson would be hosting a Meet-Up and tasting at the distillery off 96th Street just off I-69. I RSVPd ASAP.
Hobson was an excellent host, more than willing to talk about Heartland, its history, his vision, and, of course the products he is clearly, and deservedly, proud of. Heartland Distillers started with Indiana Vodka in 2008 and last spring came out with Prohibition Gin. Seven infused vodka flavors arrived last December.
I’m not much of a vodka drinker. It’s hard to fall in love with a drink that is designed to be colorless, odorless, and, well, tasteless. But, as other reviewers have already noted, and most fans of top shelf vodkas seem to already know, “vodkas are not created equal.” Source sugars (corn, wheat, potatoes,or grapes, among others) matter; type of still matters (Hobson uses a 120 gallon copper pot still); removing the head and tail from the distillation (as Heartland does) matters. Water shouldn’t matter, as most distilleries—Heartland included—filter their water until it obeys all commands. I’ll leave it to other reviewers to give you the full lowdown on Indiana Vodka but here’s what I noted at the time:
Indiana vodka (neat) has a slight alcohol nose and a hint of unidentifiable sweetness. The body is more substantial than other vodkas and moderately dry–at least compared to other high quality vodkas. It finishes with a roundness I noted as “saline,” but that Hobson says is a sweetness from the corn. On ice, the aroma dropped to practically nothing, and the sweetness dropped out as well. I repeat, I’m not an expert in vodka, but I give it high marks and luckily I have two California-based spirits contests to back me up on this one.
Indiana Vodka is bottled at 40% alc. and so are the seven infusion flavors. Again, I’m not much for flavored vodkas, but the flavor combinations here are quite good and I’m certain that many of them could prove useful in the hands of a skilled bartender. Hobson’s strategy here was to offer twin flavorings: not just cherry, but cherry-vanilla; not just lemon, but honey-lemon. The Special Lady Friend fell in love with the orange-cream. I think I tried all the flavors on offer but I was most impressed with the chocolate-espresso and the chai. The first because it was a good mix of baker’s chocolate and coffee liqueur. The second because herb infused vodkas can quickly find their way into the cough medicine or bitters flavor profiles, but Heartland’s chai-infused vodka stayed spice-forward and perfectly sweet. Similarly the cherry-vanilla infusion safely avoided cough syrupiness. So if you’re into the cough syrup thing, stay away from Indiana Infusions flavors.
The Prohibition Gin was the highlight of the Meet-Up for me. The best thing to happen to gin has been the artisanal distillery movement. As a main spirit which uses proprietary botanical mixes, gin is the spirit for a distiller to really show off his palate and nose, and Hobson’s performance here is quite good. I’ll have to wait until I get a bottle and can sit down with it before I make a full review, but again, here are my notes from the Meet-up when my palate was already blasted from testing eight vodkas and eating some potato chips in French Onion dip.
I found both the aroma and the nose musky (in a good way). Gins tend to highlight piney, citrusy, and floral qualities in their juniper and herb blend. Heartland’s traditional Prohibition-era recipe seemed both more herby and more earthy than any other gin I’ve had. I made a martini with some Martini & Rossi dry that Hobson provided–but I was unsure how to garnish it, so I didn’t. I found the gin’s lower tonality and diminished juniper profile to be more aggressive and more mature than other gins I’ve had.
After about an hour and half of lively chit-chat and Q&A with Hobson, who is the lead man of a two-man operation, by the way, we headed around the corner into what used to be the men’s shower of the Gold’s Gym I used to exercise in, to the heart of Heartland: the still. Hobson introduced his copper beauty to the 40 or so people that showed up and opened the floor to questions. You can see Hobson here walking American Craft Spirits through the same operation, but if you get a chance you should try to see the still in person.
Christian Carl makes beautiful stills and Hobson’s is a great example of the classic model. Very Jules Verne, very steampunk. Unfortunately we had dinner guests waiting for us and we had to step out before the tour was totally completed (Sorry, Stuart). But we had an excellent time and I’m very pleased to see that someone had the moxy to bring an Indiana heritage industry back home again.