Libations

Next Star Chicago Craft Vodka

David McCowan

April 04 2013 - 1:00 PM

Next Star VodkaRyan Schuster begins our meeting with the comment, “My uncle’s a crazy man.” He means it neither as an insult nor a cop-out, but more of a point of pride… and one he keeps coming back to. “He’s a builder. He’s an entrepreneur.” And, Schuster adds, “he’s a craftsman in every sense of the word.”

Schuster is cofounder of Next Star vodka where uncle Steve Ross is master distiller. As the man on the ground promoting this relatively new company, Schuster understands that vodka is a crowded spirit category even on the best of days, but believes Next Star is a unique product created with care. Unlike most of the hundreds of other vodkas claiming the same thing, though, Next Star’s followers seem to agree; the vodka was recently picked up by South Loop’s Acadia, and it has replaced Tito’s as the house vodka at Logan Square’s Lula Café where fellow distiller Brent Engel of Letherbee oversees the bar.

Next Star’s South Bend distillery – the company has an eye on one day moving operations within Chicago’s boarders – is craft through and through, starting with local Midwest corn and wheat, and distilling on a traditional Austrian hybrid still. Their process judiciously keeps only the middle cut of the distillate – the so-called “hearts” – leading to an atypically flavorful vodka that is bold yet also sweet, round and elegant. Vodka strives of course to be neutral, clean and pure, but Next Star works within those constraints to remain distinctive.

The focus for the company at the moment is to release vodka and only vodka, but Schuster is sure there are other products down the line for the distillery. “I don’t know what my uncle’s up to,” he says, citing two dozen barrels of rye whisky that have quietly been aging in a corner as well as experiments with oddities like vermouth and limoncello. “My uncle’s a crazy man.”

Next Star is great for sipping. It’s clean and free from the harsh aftertastes common to cheap vodkas, and it has a complex nose and sweet, round taste. I rarely recommend vodkas to whisky drinkers, but this spirit has whispers of the characteristics I associate with young bourbons; I pick up (as bizarre as this might sound for an ostensibly neutral vodka) tropical fruits, banana, and even frosting faintly in the background.

Considering that it’s just these delicate details that set this vodka apart, it’d be a shame to bury them in a complicated drink. Try Next Star in the Flame of Love recipe here . This cocktail jazzes up the vodka a bit, but still lets the spirit’s character shine through.

Next Star is widely available around Chicago and retails for $24.99.

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