Kalak Single Malt Vodka, Sunshine Sue Credit: Julia Thiel

By definition, vodka should be odorless and flavorless. Kalak Single Malt Vodka is neither—and that’s exactly why bartender Julia Momose likes it. “What I love is the fact that the flavors really shine through,” she says. “I get notes of lemon, freshly baked brioche and croissants, hints of cacao. It’s opened up the possibilities for vodka—that it has all this flavor and complexity that can be played with [in cocktails] is really intriguing.”

Momose has served as head bartender at the Aviary, followed by a two-year stint as head bartender at GreenRiver. She was named one of the best new mixologists in the country by Food & Wine magazine in 2016 and won a Jean Banchet Award for Best Mixologist in 2017. Most recently, she’s created the beverage program at Oriole and has been working with Menu Collective, a local food and drink consulting firm, while developing plans for her own bar. All this is to say that she tastes a lot of spirits. “When writing a spirits list I try to have vodkas that are distilled from different ingredients—wheat, potato, maybe grape, corn—but now there’s an option for a barley-based vodka, and that’s really exciting,” she says.

Kalak is not the only single malt vodka in existence, but the category is vanishingly small. Like single malt whiskey, the vodka is made from a single grain—in this case, barley, which is malted (a process involving germination that turns starch into sugar) before being pot distilled four times in West Cork, Ireland. In the U.S., it’s available only in Chicago, though distribution will eventually expand to the rest of the country. “We chose Chicago as the place to launch because we see it as the food and drink capital of the USA,” brand ambassador Stephen Randles says. “It’s got all the top bartenders. We wanted to get them using [Kalak], talking about it.”

Julia MomoseCredit: Julia Thiel

Momose was drawn to the vodka as soon as she tried it, she says. “As someone who really enjoys whiskey, I can pull out all these notes I really enjoy from single malts, but it’s softer, lighter, a little more nuanced. It has this velvety texture, kind of like suede—it’s so smooth and supple. I’m not typically the type of person to pour vodka on the rocks and just sip on it, but with Kalak I’ve done that at home.”

She didn’t hesitate to put it on the menu at (soon-to-be-shuttered) GreenRiver, where she was working when Kalak was released in Chicago a little over a year ago. “It was the first bar in America to have a Kalak cocktail,” she says. Since then she’s also created one for Oriole, a play on the Vesper that involves Nikka Coffey Gin—a Japanese gin made with unusual citrus fruits and sansho, a Japanese pepper. “It was kind of like the Kalak was an extension of the gin,” she says. “The botanicals are so intense, the Kalak helped tame it just a touch so you could taste more 
of the citrus notes.”

Julia Momose’s Sunshine SueCredit: Julia Thiel

It’s the type of cocktail she hopes to make at Kumiko, the cocktail bar she’s developing with Noah and Cara Sandoval of Oriole. Her ideal, she says, is “precision in technique, staying true to classics, trying not to go overboard with ten-ingredient cocktails.” It will focus on Japanese ingredients (Momose is half Japanese and grew up in Japan), serving an omakase cocktail menu to just eight people at a time.

In fact, Momose says, Kalak vodka reminds her of one of her favorite Japanese spirits—shochu—which can be made from rice, sweet potato, or barley. Each one is an expression of the ingredient it’s distilled from, she says. Inspired by the flavors of Kalak, she recently created a bright, citrusy cocktail called Sunshine Sue designed to highlight various flavor notes in the vodka. For the chocolate notes she chose creme de cacao; for the lemon note, yuzu sake. Suze, a gentian liqueur, “plays off all the ingredients together, bumping up the bitterness of creme de cacao, really brightening it up,” she says. “It would be delicious on a dreary day in the winter or on a bright summer’s day.”

Sunshine Sue
1 teaspoon Suze Gentiane Liqueur
.25 oz Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao
1 oz Joto Yuzu Sake
1.5 oz Kalak Single Malt Irish Vodka

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass with several large ice cubes. Top with splash of Top Note Tonic Bitter Lemon and garnish with a lemon wheel cut on the bias.