MEET THE MAKER: FREDERIK PLUM

 
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We recently sat down with the formidable Frederik Plum - the man behind the Den Klodsede (Clumsy Bear) and Røgbjørnen (Smokey Bear) Vodka's as well as the brains behind Phantom Spirits. This was a much-anticipated opportunity to pick the brains of a man responsible for some of the most pioneering yet classically steeped spirits being created today. Lofty but deserving words...

FP: I started The Clumsy Bear as a company in 2013 when my son Vladimir was born (his initials are on the label: VAMP - Vladimir Asbjørn Munk Plum). I had been fermenting and distilling for a long time, but when he was born I decided to make the vodka a reality.  

SP: Who are you? What is your profession, what is your main job?     
FP: I studied 7 years of Russian literature and my interest in vodka came from this. I specialised in Russian drinking literature (Vysotsky, Erofeev, Bulgakov, et c.). The problem with vodka today is that only the industrial producers are on the market. Those are fine for fruit drinks but I wanted to make a real hand-made vodka on pure malt - with character. As they would have made it in Russia before 1917 - and as they still make it in small towns today Samogon/Moonshine/Hjemmebrænd.

SP: Where do you do it?  
FP: I make the recipes myself on an extremely small still (8 litres) and those recipes I can upscale for retail sale. I make it in Jutland with a whisky producer called Trolden. Each batch is still really small at ca. 150 bottles = 35 liters raw spirit.

SP: Do you mash in by yourself?  
FP: We are one of the very few vodka-producers in the world who make the vodka from our own mash. It is time-consuming, but I think you can taste the difference notice it in the mouthfeel. ?

SP: What do you mash in? Grain? Potatoes?S  
FP: We use a blend of Danish wheat malt and barley malt. Pure malt. So it is actually made the same way as one would make single barrel / single grain whisky. It is a pure malt vodka. 

SP: Is the grain from Denmark? Is it from commercial food crops?
FP: It is grain from Denmark and malted in Denmark. It is malted at small beer facilities for beer.
I have also made an organic version for the Michelin restaurants. 

SP: What is the percentage of wheat/barley in the mashbill?  
FP: We are doing a lot of tests with different solutions (barley, wheat, rye, spelt, etc.), and will get to more complex tastes later. Often people are a bit scared if there isn't wheat in the vod, which usually reminds most of traditional vodka's. In recipe number 6 the exact ratio is a secret, but I can say that it is more wheat than barley :)
 
SP: Do you ferment with a commercial lager/ale yeast?   
FP: We use whisky-yeast. I am planning to try and shift to spontaneous fermentation but it is a bit risky.

SP: What kind of pot still do you use?   
FP: The most simple pot still there is. No reflux, no mechanics, no automatics. Heating and cooling. Alembic copper pot still. Pure handmade.

SP: How many liters do you distill per year?  
FP: Not much. So far a total of under 1000 liters. I think the yearly production in 2015 was ca. 1000 liters.

SP: Do you know exactly what the sediment in the bottles is?  
FP: It is mostly from the wash. But in most bottles, it is barely visible and only if you turn it upside down so that it falls from the bottom in a thin cloud. In a few bottles it is very visible. It is starch and carbohydrates and small particles from the malt. Perhaps a few copper particles from the still.

SP: Is the water coming from a special spring/well, or is it simply from the 'tap' (public water supply, which in most of Australia is barely potable because of chemical additives)?  
FP: It's from the tap near Kolding, DK. In Denmark water is of much better quality from the tap than bottled spring water. We do treat it a bit. But the theory and experience after testing different types of water is that the less treatment, the better taste.

SP: Have you found any variation in older/newer bottles after resting in glass?  
FP: Not so much after resting in glass, but when you get used to the different batches, you start noticing their different characteristics. Different smells, viscosity and flavors. And the batches differ in size depending on if its summer or winter because of the temperature in the distilling room.

SP: What is your preferred vodka service? Room temperature/chilled, neat/rocks/martini?  
FP: In cocktails definitely martini - although no one drinks it anymore as it is dry - the cocktail to end all cocktails. But usually as neat/dry as possible. But I am not conservative. In Denmark we usually drink it refrigerator-cooled for fish/shellfish/caviar. Never in the freezer. I like it with ice and a dash of bitter or a slice of orange or apple. Simple martinis.

FP: In drinks, I usually make them stronger and in smaller glasses, so you can taste a scent of the sweetness and the breadiness of the vodka. 

FP: The thing I think is that in Russia vodka culture is similar to Japan's sake/shochu-culture. You can’t talk about the taste, more “the sensation”. Like a dry martini a vodka has to give a kick full of character - short, precise, pure and full of body. But as Russian/Japanese culture is often about humility, it is not a taste boasting years of wood or fifty ingredients. It is a short, precise kick like a well-written book title by Dostoyevsky or Gogol:) And the kick is pure, as the sensation has to go inward - zen.
 
SP: Would you consider moving to a larger production in the future with this brand?   
FP: Not with recipe no 6. But perhaps one day I will test a bigger batch vodka - still made on malt and copper - for bars. The main focus isn't to compete with big business though. It is to go into the experimental niche-genres. To make different small batch vodkas and the related genres. Working with Noma and Mikkeller and other spaced out places...