A bottle of Misadventure Vodka looks pretty out of place among its brethren. It eschews the glimmering and frosted enclosures of its peers in favor of a green wine bottle. That comparatively glum looking bottle is paired with an equally stark black label that likewise bucks convention. Instead of using its limited print real estate to ooze over the smooth luxuriousness of its contents, it espouses the virtues of “dramas with broken bones, steaming windows, or farm animals.” This bottle primes you in every way to regard it as something altogether different. And it should.
Vodka is somewhat unique in the world of spirits in that virtually any sugar-bearing substrate can be used to produce it. Wheat, rye, and potatoes are the most popular options, but it can also be summoned from things as diverse as soybeans or sugar beets. That simple biochemical premise is what lends Misadventure Vodka its most defining factor: it is made entirely from unused baked goods.
As Willy Wonka-esque as using cupcakes to make booze may sound, this is no flight of fancy. Misadventure Vodka is the product of four years of R&D and collaboration between Misadventure & Company co-founders Samuel Chereskin and Whit Rigali. They were something of unlikely duo, with Chereskin, an academic focused on things like economic development and agricultural projects in east Africa, and Rigali, a fine arts student making his way as a bartender. However, united by a uncommon fascination with craft distillation, their partnership ultimately began as so many other risky and potentially ill-advised ventures do: with a glug of whiskey.
“We got a little too drunk drinking Wild Turkey over a campfire [and] decided, you know what, let’s give it a shot,” said Chereskin.
The decision to use post-consumer baked goods as feedstock for a vodka was in equal parts a “Eureka!” moment and an expression of their core values. They express it on their website as the philosophy of “Hedonistic sustainability”. While that sounds vaguely like a dicey sex toy recycling program, it is really a statement that you needn’t punish yourself to do good in the world. It’s one thing to recycle and compost because it’s the right thing to do, it’s altogether another to enjoy a sip of artisanal vodka from a bottle that directly prevented two pounds of food from taking up residence in a landfill.
Misadventure Vodka sources 100 percent of its raw materials from local food banks. These are items that the food bank themselves can no longer use and would otherwise go to waste. It’s comprised of virtually anything you can imagine from your local grocery store bakery aisle, from jalapeño cheese bagels to Twinkies. While this partnership is still relatively new, Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank CEO James Floros is optimistic about its potential.
“We forecast that this will save the Food Bank thousands of dollars every year in landfill fees which we can direct to our hunger-relief programs,” he said. “This is a model of sustainability because not only are we preventing waste, we’re supporting a local business and local jobs.”
That panoply of pastries may seem a curious blend, but quantity is more important to their process than uniformity. It takes roughly double the weight of baked goods compared to what they’d use in grain to reap the same amount of fermentable sugars. And the sheer volume of raw materials isn’t the only complication. Unlike grain orders, post-consumer baked goods don’t arrive pre-milled and ready for dumping into a boil. Every item is individually wrapped and requires hands-on separation to proceed. Long story short, they aren’t doing things the easy way.
While the consumer market is no stranger to confection-infused vodkas, it’s important to note that Misadventure vodka is intended to be, as Chereskin notes, “vodka-flavored vodka”. Their process assures a reliable result despite the variety inherent in their inputs.
“When we take [Misadventure Vodka] to neutral, ninety-six percent ABV, we’ve stripped away almost everything that came from the original feedstock,” said Chereskin.
The key word in that statement is “almost”. Given that the vast majority of that ingredient list is still comprised of refined wheat flour, they believe there is still a predominating flavor profile that emerges from their spirit. It’s just a matter of technique and focus to bring it to bear.
Rather than distill in a continuous column, as is common among larger volume vodka producers, they do batch distillation in a pot still. Doing discrete batches is time intensive, but allows them to more precisely trim off the less desirable fermentation compounds like acetone that, in Cherekin’s estimation, “makes your vodka taste like college.”
Achieving their elevated ABV required even further tinkering. Despite working with a robust Mueller still with a seven plate column, it wasn’t capable of refining to their target. The solution required adding a taller, narrower column with ceramic raschig rings on top of the existing one to facilitate thousands of additional nucleation sites for distillation. That would be a complicated enough endeavor on equipment they owned, but was a bit more of a hurdle given that they were leasing it from local distiller and collaborative distillery incubator California Spirits Company. Thankfully, Chereskin’s expertly crafted inquiry of “Hey, can I fundamentally alter the way your $250,000 piece of machinery works?” was met with enthusiasm rather than terror, and the program proceeded.
Filtration is another key element of their approach. Consumer brand vodkas often seek to thrill consumers by touting exotic filtration mediums like diamonds, which is a perfectly valid activity if your endgame is making a bucket full of vodka-scented diamonds. But if your primary goal is a vodka devoid of astringent byproducts, applying a multi-hour batch filtration through activated charcoal as Misadventure & Co. does is definitely preferred.
Once all of that work is brought to bear, the real question is what does a vodka borne of discarded sheet cake and baguettes taste like? The question itself seems a little counter-intuitive, given the common impression that vodka is at its best when rendered completely without flavor and odor. It’s a notion that even Uncle Sam embraces, since TTB regulations stipulate vodka is a “neutral spirit” that should be treated to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”. So it’s not just a trope – it’s the LAW. Regardless, Misadventure & Co. encourages you to save the Red Bull for cramming for finals and enjoy their creation in isolation.
“I think there is some sweet notes of vanilla in there,” said Rigali. “I get reminisces of cupcake or graham cracker kind of flavors from it.”
I’m by no means a vodka diehard, but I certainly detected the merest crusty note in its aroma and a flavor I can best describe as essence of Whoppers (the chocolate malt-ball candy, not the charbroiled burger). It’s totally devoid of the medicinal tone common with mass-market vodkas. It finishes with a silky texture and a lightly sweet tone of crusty wheat bread. It’s undeniably subtle, but a surprising and enriching experience.
If you prefer to nerf your vodka experience with a mixer, there’s nothing wrong with that. Misadventure Vodka is tuned to blend particularly well with citrus or a strong acid note, given its inherent, albeit mild, sweetness.
As remarkable as the genesis story for Misadventure & Co.’s vodka is, they have zero intention of being a gimmick-based distiller. Misadventure Vodka is only their first project to come to fruition. They’ve cooked up the foundations of a bourbon that they’re pretty giddy about and likewise have an amaro (an herbal Italian liqueur) in development. Both are a ways out, but have always been at the core of the company.
“We never left the desire to make things that are as flavorful as possible,” said Chereskin.
Today Misadventure & Co. is still bar-focused company. You can find their vodka in roughly 25 locations scattered throughout North County (visit misadventure.co for details), but a few retail outlets like Holiday Wine Cellar, La Fiesta Liquor, and Seaside Market carry it as well. My personal recommendation would be to try it at California Spirits Company in San Marcos, where it can enjoyed alongside the hand-crafted spirits of their San Diego peers.
In the final analysis, a diet rich in Misadventure Vodka is an elegant way to address the miscalculations in our food supply chain and perhaps produce a few miscalculations of your own. It’s best enjoyed while creating interesting scars, belting out unabashedly atonal karaoke, or among friends who enjoy tales of the same.