Vodka explosion covers maple to Maui

The boutique vodka movement has become a global phenomenon. No longer contented with various types of potatoes and grains, boutique distillers are using everything from maple syrup to Pacific ocean water to differentiate their products.

Month after month I've been witnessing the relentless march of new brands coming on the market. Some are powered by gimmicks -- ginger-flavored Yazi in its perfume decanter-style bottle, for example. Some have honest distilled goodness -- Pekonica with its combo of grain and potato.

It is no wonder so many new entrants keep appearing. Vodka is the top-selling liquor in the U.S., bringing in $10.8 billion in sales last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Most of what I refer to as boutique brands are in the super-premium niche, selling for $24 or more per 750-milliliter bottle. That niche within a niche saw about $1.6 billion in sales last year.

Here is a sampling of some of the latest boutique entries.

• 44˚North -- This one is from the ever-widening American contingent, created by Ken Wyatt and Ron Zier, co-founders of Icon Brands in Rigby, Idaho. It's a five-column distilled potato vodka made with Rocky Mountain springwater from the Snake River Aquifer, with the added taste of huckleberries, a relative of the blueberry family, that gives it a sweet finish.

• Cold River -- This Maine potato vodka has been getting a lot of publicity since word of its impending debut leaked out last year. Now that it's on the market, it's been increasingly in demand. It's made at a new distillery in Fryeburg, ME, about 150 miles north of Boston, by Don Thibodeau, a potato farmer who owns Green Thumb Farms.

• Vermont Spirits Gold -- This is one of a trio of Vermont Spirits vodkas made at the Duncan's Spirits micro-distillery in St. Johnsbury, VT. It's handmade in small batches from the sugar of maple sap, triple distilled and lightly filtered. The Duncans refer to it as "the single malt of vodka."

• Ocean Vodka -- Hawaii is producing this entry, with the assistance of DRinc. of Idaho. Hawaii Sea Spirits of Maui will introduce it next month, touting its use of desalinated ocean water with alcohol distilled in Idaho from organic corn and rye. I'm thinking a niche within a niche within a niche. Ocean has partnered with Koyo USA Corp., maker of MaHaLo Hawaii Deep Sea Water, which markets the desalinated mineral water in Japan and operates a luxury water bar in Waikiki.

• Square One -- If Ocean Vodka is environmentally sensitive for using unpolluted water taken from 3,000 feet below the ocean surface, Square One Organic Vodka is trying to outdo it with its organic rye distillation. Founder Allison Evanow is a wine and spirits industry veteran rounded up family and friends with what she calls "socially conscious" lifestyles to back her venture: female majority ownership, a targeted percentage of after-tax profits given to nonpolitical environmental causes, and lots of touchy-feely management techniques.

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