“As part of my research, I went to Poland on a vodka quest,” Rocket Vodka founder Dariusz Paczuski says of a 2014 sabbatical he took from Silicon Valley. “Could I find a crusty old Polish dude making some amazing vodka that nobody had heard of and that I could essentially import — and change his life and mine?”
But as with many quests, like Frodo succumbing to the power of the ring or the Griswold family breaking into Wally World, it didn’t turn out quite the way the hero intended. Paczuski is a Polish native who grew up in England and Norway while his parents, escapees from Communism who bribed their way out from behind the Iron Curtain, worked on cruise ships. He’d assumed potato vodka would be the way forward, but found his way to apples, which nobody in Poland believed could yield a satisfactory spirit because they don’t have a sufficient quantity of sugar.
“Poland was one of the largest, if not the largest, exporters of apples,” Paczuski says. “Putin had just put the kibosh on all these exports from Poland, and there’s millions of apples rotting in warehouses. I thought I could be the long-lost son who comes back to Poland and saves the apple industry.”
That didn’t quite happen, either, he says. For one, the cost and complexity of starting a new venture in Poland proved daunting, so he decided to set up shop in his own garage in Menlo Park, looking to emulate his father’s efforts at fermenting windfall apples. But the fruit itself was tricky. Sourced from the farmers market, the Fujis, Granny Smiths, and Red Delicious generated less-than-palatable results, among them a watery letdown and a white bucket full of what was probably penicillin.
Happily, the micro-distillery boom was in full swing, so to produce Rocket Vodka, he partnered with Dry Diggings Distillery in El Dorado County, which is near Apple Hill — less a single rise in elevation than a collection of ranches that constitute California’s apple-growing country — and the Sierra Nevada, from which Rocket sources its water.
“Given that my product requirements were strict about not adding sugar, the final formula the master distiller and I decided upon was a combination of apple juice and apple concentrate,” he says. “So that was sort of how we got the right amount of apple on the nose and on the palate, and enough sugar to actually make a spirit.”
Technically, adding sugar to vodka is not permitted in the U.S. anyway, but the resulting spirit is pomaceous in flavor, without floral notes or any of the freight-train quality some eaux-de-vie distilled from pears possess. SF Weekly’s home-laboratory taste tests determined that a dry martini with a twist is a solid bet.
As it happens, Dry Diggings is also near Tahoe and the winter-sports demographic that Paczuski wanted to attract. The name Rocket Vodka comes from Paczuski’s own nickname on the slopes, the Polish Rocket, with its connotation of accomplishment and excellence. A Gold Medal winner at the California Craft Spirits Competition for two years in a row, its “launchpads” — Paczuski’s term for the bars and venues that serve Rocket — leapt from 10 in 2016 to more than 80 at the end of last year, largely on the strength of its après-ski appeal.
Paczuski drinks it in a tumbler with a giant ice cube — “like whiskey,” he says — but also with grapefruit or as a Hot Rocket Toddy made with warm Martinelli’s cider. But the best seller is a variation on a Mule, with ginger ale, a splash of apple cider, and an apple-slice garnish in a copper mug.
Being of Eastern European descent, there are rituals around vodka that Paczuski would like to see make greater inroads in the U.S., specifically around food pairings. He recalls vodka shots served around the holidays alongside pickled mushrooms, smoked trout, and a kind of bacon fat with bits of bacon in it that his father would spread on toast. It’s a good way to capture some decadence for a spirit that has lost a fair amount of luster since the bourbon revolution deposed it. But Rocket, which sponsors half-marathons, projects apple-cheeked vigor, not languid indolence.
“People like me who are active and compete, we drink,” Paczuski says. “We just don’t binge-drink, and we drink quality products.”