Alaska distiller has high hopes for salmon vodka

REACTION: Some are skeptical; others enjoy the smoky flavor.

June 29, 2010 

Imagine drinking rather than eating a big lunker salmon.

Toby Foster did and then he made the unusual choice of distilling it into vodka.

"The first three or four times, it was gag city," he said.

In all, it took the Wasilla distiller nearly 50 attempts to perfect the recipe for his new Smoked Salmon Flavored Vodka, now available in liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Alaska and in some locations in the Lower 48.

Salmon vodka is the costliest and most stressful product that Foster's 2-year-old company, the Alaska Distillery, has produced since its inception, he said.

The existence of a salmon-flavored vodka prompts a reasonable person to ask many questions, starting with "Why?"

Foster believes salmon vodka is Alaska's contribution to the large variety of boutique vodkas that have flooded the liquor market over the past decade or so, including bacon-flavored vodka from Seattle.

Salmon vodka is a way to build quick national recognition for the Alaska Distillery that it wouldn't otherwise get from other flavored varieties, Foster contends.

"I would like to be national," Foster said of his local distillery, which uses both Alaska and non-Alaska ingredients. For example, the distillery uses Alaska-grown potatoes for its premium-brand vodka, Permafrost, but imported grain for the salmon vodka and some of its other varieties. For now, at least, the smoked salmon is purchased from local stores.

By Foster's thinking, if he's going to make a big break in the vodka world, "It's probably going to be smoked salmon. Because it's so silly."

Which leads to another question. Who would drink such a thing?

"First of all, ick. Second of all, I haven't served one," said Amber Sheffield, a server at Humpy's Great Alaskan Ale House downtown.

The owner of another popular bar downtown, Bernie's Bungalow Lounge, Bernie Souphanavong, said he doesn't think he's sold any of it either.

Foster said his product has been out for a month and the marketing at local bars will begin soon. His team is considering a launch party and promotional events.

For now, there are a few salmon vodka enthusiasts on the local restaurant scene: Amy Mack, a manager at the Bear Tooth Grill who dabbles in cocktail recipe creation, is one of them.

"Toby and myself, we've had a really good relationship since the beginning of their business," Mack said.

When Foster brought the salmon vodka to her restaurant, Mack sampled it and considered how she would use it in a mixed drink.

"It doesn't taste like you are drinking a fish," she said. Instead, it tastes smoky, with a "very light underlayer of the salmon."

"It's like you are sitting around a campfire and someone just lit a charcoal grill. I can almost taste bacon when I think about it," she said.

She created a chipotle Bloody Mary mix to go with the vodka.

"We ran that special for two weeks. The customers' first reaction was the wrinkled brow look. But they were still curious," she said.

During the special, the restaurant sold a couple per day, more during brunch on weekends, when the salmon-tinged Bloody Mary outsold the usual brunch cocktail, the orange juice-champagne mimosa.

"One guy wanted a martini made out of it. He loved it. He had three of them," she said.

A taste test by a reporter confirmed Mack's description of the salmon vodka flavor. The salmon taste was very light, to the point that it could have been mistaken for another smoky-flavored meat that leans sweet rather than peppery.

Which leads to a third question. How does one make salmon-flavored vodka?

Foster gets the question so often that he likes to tell people that he gets a group of Italian women to crush salmon fillets in oaken barrels with their bare feet.

He's a little less loquacious about the exact steps for his recipe. He has to protect trade secrets, he said.

But here's the basic rundown.

The distillery buy a bunch of smoked salmon from local stores. "We skin it, debone it, defat it, shred it," Foster said

Then the workers put the shredded salmon into ethanol and let the ethanol absorb the flavors for a while. Then they strain the ethanol and add a small amount of the ethanol -- roughly 10 milliliters -- to a bottle.

"It's very little. I can speak from experience how much not to use," Foster said.

He doesn't view the vodka as something to drink straight up, and his team is marketing it, for now, solely as a Bloody Mary concoction.

"My goal is to revolutionize Bloody Marys," said Heather Turning, the company's marketing coordinator.

For now, the vodka is available at local liquor stores and roughly 30 local bars and restaurants.

Foster says the salmon vodka outsold his national award-winning brand, called Permafrost, by about 30 percent in its first month.

"We've produced 400 cases and sold 350," he said. Each case contains 12 salmon vodka bottles.

"Actually I just sold my biggest order yet to Texas," he said.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.


Have you tried the new salmon-flavored vodka? Tell us what you think and put in a vote for your favorite flavored vodka in the story comments below.

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