Vodka, by definition of our own Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, is “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”
It seems curious that a hyper-competitive, multi-billion dollar industry with scores of major players evolved around a product that can be easy and inexpensive to produce, and should, by law, have no distinctive attributes. In reality, many vodka, particularly the premium international brands, have significant flavor and aroma characteristics. They might just be a bit harder to discern than those in other spirits.
A recent and growing trend toward small batch, artisan spirits puts the focus on those subtle but compelling differences in character between premium vodkas and the methods and base materials used to produce them.
Little documented information is available on the exact ancestry of the beverage, with some scholars attributing its origins to as early as ninth-century Russia. Despite this historical pedigree, vodka became more about image than substance. Its history and rise in the United States reveal how that came to be so.
Vodka was first commercially imported to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, but sales languished in a culture made up primarily of whiskey drinkers. Subsequently, a Russian ban on the production and sale of alcohol in 1914 and the strengthening domestic temperance movement caused vodka to become virtually nonexistent here even before prohibition in 1919.
After prohibition, the Smirnoff brand was eventually reintroduced to the United States, marketing itself as “Smirnoff White Whiskey” with tag lines like “No smell, no taste,” and the double entendre “It leaves you breathless.” This strategy led to a dramatic increase in sales of vodka as consumers began mixing it with everyday beverages such as milk or orange juice.
The American cocktail culture that emerged in the post-World War II 1950s was tailor made for the “neutral” spirit, and vodka became the base of countless new cocktails. In the ’60s, vodka eclipsed gin in popularity as the base of a cleaner tasting martini, “endorsed” on the big screen by one of the decade’s style icons, James Bond. His preferred brand? Smirnoff. Quite literally, from Russia… with love.
In the hard partying ’70s and ’80s, vodka developed a reputation as a spirit that could pack a punch without leaving the drinker knocked out the following morning. Vodka typically has lower levels of fusel oils and congeners than other spirits. While these chemical compounds add aromas and flavors, they also contribute to hangover symptoms. Producers, using industrial column stills, strived to create an even more inert, congener-free spirit and allowed product placement and marketing campaigns to drive consumer preference. By the latter part of the 20th century, vodka had become the nation’s top selling spirit, but the market was dominated by a roll call of mass-produced, nondescript, corporate monikers.
At the dawn of the 21st century however, a new wave of producers are realizing a position in the market for more distinctive, stimulating and piquant vodkas. In an effort to contribute flavor, character and body to their spirits, they place a premium on raw materials, water sources, and a return to traditional distillation techniques. Many of these vodkas are lightly filtered or unfiltered to allow the character of the base distillates to come to the fore. Undoubtedly, they add interest to both classic and modern cocktails, yet they are crafted to be drunk straight, or in Martinis and other drinks that focus on the spirit in the glass, not the mixer.
While there is no shortage of producers established in or entering this category, a few recommended starting points for further reconnaissance are profiled below. All of the listed vodkas are bottled at 80 proof, and similarly priced around $30 to $40 for a 750 ml bottle.
Purity is small batch distilled 34 times in a proprietary copper and gold pot still from organic, estate grown winter wheat and barley by Master Blender Thomas Kuttanen. The multiple distillation process leaves behind the most refined spirit, and eliminates the need for filtration, elevating the intense character of the base distillates. Crisp yet creamy, with hints of malt, vanilla and anise. Refined, beautiful, and perfect as the base of a characterful and immensely pleasurable bone-dry martini.
Karlsson’s “Gold,” Sweden
Handcrafted from heirloom Virgin New Potatoes from the dramatic coast of Cape Bjäre Sweden, by Börje Karlsson, the master blender who created Absolut. Single distilled and unfiltered, Karlsson’s is truly expressive of the delicate raw materials from which it is made. Bold and earthy with a complex minerality and rich, viscous body. Purists enjoy Karlsson’s on the rocks or up with a few twists of fresh cracked black pepper. It has become popular in restaurants and bars in a savory Bloody Mary, or to add character to and change the geographical inclination of a “Swedish” Mule.
Charbay “Clear,” United States
Distilled in a classic, Alembic pot still by 12th generation master distiller Miles Karakasevic and his son Marko from American Midwest corn and rye and gently filtered without the use of charcoal, limestone or other common filter agents. Aromas of fresh baked loaf bread and biscuits float on the nose with lingering notes of sweet corn and cream on the savory, soft palate. Try it on the rocks, or add a splash of soda water or cranberry.
FAIR “Quinoa,” France
FAIR is the world’s first line of spirits to be “Fair Trade” certified. Developed as a collaboration between South American farmers and European distillers, FAIR is distilled in the Cognac region of France from organic Quinoa seeds sourced at 10,000 ft. in the Bolivian Andes. Distinctly mineral with subtle spices and toasted cereals intertwined with crisp citrus fruits on the nose and palate. Try in a classic, vodka martini with a quality French vermouth such as Noilly Prat.
Drink, enjoy, and be socially if not morally responsible. Santé!