Drink Smart

A nautically inspired distiller sets sail in Newport


Vodka is the Switzerland of spirits.

For me, this seemingly tepid endorsement is actually quite a turnabout, following a near lifetime of antipathy against the stuff. Sporadic tastes had proven it to be ho-hum at best and piercingly ascetic at worst, but my grudge wasn’t strictly personal: as a friend and fellow loather declared, vodka (along with disco music) “nearly killed the American cocktail.” And, yet, despite continued lack of ardor for either vodka or disco music, I have seen the light and budged a fraction of a fraction of an inch.

My centrist reckoning happened thanks to a holiday with a friend who doesn’t share my “old mannish” taste in drinks, to use her phrase. Seconds after I touched down on the runway, my host messaged the sweetest question known to a professional boozehound: “What kind of hard stuff do you want waiting for you?”

To answer required serious diplomacy. Gin and whiskey are my choice poisons, but they’re too widely reviled by those outside the “old-mannish” drinking circle. I crossed off rum and tequila, too, since they’re known to bully unseasoned livers. “Vodka could work,” I typed in the end.

Most people like vodka, plain and simple. It’s hands-down the most imbibed liquor not only worldwide but also at home, rinsing American gullets to the tally of some 192 million liters each year.

Numbers aren’t the full picture, though, and we shouldn’t confuse vodka’s overwhelming popularity with passionate enthusiasm. Whereas Scotch drinkers are notorious zealots, for instance, rarely have I encountered a vodka enthusiast who matches their fervor. Conversely, apart from a few rabid antagonists (including my pre-reformed self), most non-fans won’t refuse a vodka drink if served one. At the end of the day, vodka is widely drinkable, earning it a spot at the center of our collective-boozing-habits Venn diagram.

Now, that’s not to deny the semi-plausible claims that vodka is not the blank slate it’s often alleged to be. I’m told there are artisanal versions, regional variations, and the like, and I’m willing to test all of them in the name of thorough research. But for now, I’ll stop short and celebrate vodka’s neutrality rather than damning it. In certain scenarios, after all, there’s something to be said for a spirit that’s quintessentially unobtrusive and amiable.

Just ask the Swiss. Or, ask the founders of Keel Vodka, a fledgling and winsome local company based in Middletown. For them, “balance” is the watchword for vodka, and it’s the chief theme that threads from A to Z in their operations.

“Balance” is not the usual quality one pins on vodka, whether in Siberian contexts or U.S. ones. Rather, one tends to draw a line from the spirit to Frat House Row, egregiously expensive bottle service at nightclubs, or Tolstoy-esque bouts of raging alcoholism. (Not that any other high-proof spirit has it much better.) Keel’s founders, however, aim to cultivate an easier, breezier vodka culture, one that’s rooted in Newport’s sailing traditions and laidback bar culture. “Stay balanced” is in fact their slogan, tying to a sailing philosophy that speaks as much to boat angles as it does to coastal lifestyles.

Bill Dessel and Tom McGowan, both sailing enthusiasts and barmen, founded Keel two years ago and rolled out their first offering this past March. Matt Light, a former New England Patriot, has also signed on board. In McGowan’s telling, Keel came about from “one of those great nights when we were solving the problems of the world, discussing the meaning of life, and decided we should create a new type of vodka.” Presumably a little boozing was involved, too, but unlike the countless plans that are hatched and then scrapped in similar scenarios, the Keel team stayed the course. This past March, they released their first offering, a clean-tasting vodka with nautical packaging and a reduced calorie count. Yes, you read that right: sailors are responsible for a “light” vodka.

Is it magic? Science? Who knows, besides Keel’s patented developers and their Iowa-based distillery team. The point, again, is balance – similar to the principle behind what’s called “summer session” drinking in Britain, in which the nation’s beer drinkers take up lighter, lower-alcohol brews for longer sessions of sipping and socializing. That the Keel crew pursued a drink that’s not just less head-thumping but also less waist-expanding reads like an all-American, athletic twist.

Do the boys’ vision justice, and pick up a bottle for oceanic sipping. (Stow it in an igloo cooler and serve in solo cups for true mariner style.) No sailboat to speak of? Barflies sans sea legs can find it at select bars and restaurants throughout the state.