Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spirits: Flavorful Vodkas

I'm on record as something of a vodka hater; despite my always-rotating spirit collection, I rarely keep vodka around, and I admit to usually turning up my nose at vodka cocktails. Part of that might be rooted in good old nerd snobbiness, but if you think of spirits as a core element of flavor in cocktails (as I do) then vodka starts to seem a bit silly. Most mass-produced vodkas are designed for and advertised by a complete lack of flavor. They'll use terms like "clarity" and "smoothness", but what producers really mean is that it will get you drunk without tasting boozy. Combine it with a mixer, and you'll just taste the mixer.

So, vodka doesn't add anything other than punch, and with a little experimentation I've found that just about any vodka drink can be enhanced flavor-wise using another white spirit. Gin can readily replace vodka in just about anything; light white rum is a good choice in fruity drinks; blanco tequila or pisco can make interesting substitutions too. All of these will bring something distinct to the mix beyond the alcohol.

Let's not even discuss the scourge of flavored vodkas, okay? They're generally heinous, almost always lower-proof and created using disgustingly artificial extracts. There are a handful of craft producers making good product, but the more readily found stuff is shit. And the flavor arms race between those big makers is reaching satirical levels of absurdity. I mean, whipped cream? Salted watermelon? Fucking Cinnabon vodka? Awful. (For the record, I have tried the salted watermelon stuff, and it is easily the worst spirit I've ever sampled. It's undrinkable. Do not buy it, not even as a gag.)

But, if you look carefully, there are diamonds in the rough. In among the mass-produced vodkas are a few spirits that distinguish themselves by actually tasting like something. Yes! Vodka can have a distinctive flavor when it's not filtered down to nothing. It can taste subtly of the grains (or potatoes) used to produce it, with a flinty and vaguely alkaline character. It can have notes of vanilla or lemon peel or spice; it can be sharp and medicinal or soft and creamy; it can taste of something more than just the filtered-down essence of ethanol. Yes please. Let's try some good stuff.


About: There's a long-running and vigorous argument between Poles and Russians over the exact origin of vodka. Personally, I haven't done enough research to say one way or the other, but I do know that Russians have a prejudice against potato vodka. On that point alone, my vote's with the Polish. Luksusowa (which translates to "luxury") is a triple-distilled potato vodka, reasonably popular in Poland, and despite some questionable marketing I can understand why. This stuff is tasty, and moreover it's very reasonably priced, usually coming in under $15 per bottle. I initially picked this up as a value brand, but now I think of it as one of the best values to be found.

Tasting Notes: Luksusowa is intensely medicinal and mineral on the note, which makes you think it'll be a lot rougher than it is. On tasting, it develops a creamy and rich texture, with distinct flavors of cocoa, vanilla, and fresh cream. That turns into a somewhat oily, peppery character with more mineral, fading into an extended medicinal finish with a gentle alcohol burn. At this price point it's a great mixing vodka with whatever you've got. I like it with tonic, cola, ginger beer, passionfruit juice... practically anything, really.


About: Reyka is a unique product, the only spirit I've ever seen that's produced in Iceland. Hell, I can't even think of any other product imported from the tiny, picturesque island nation. It's also unusually produced, using volcanic activity at multiple points in the production process. The vodka is distilled from grain through an interesting hybrid design called a Carter still, then filtered through lava rocks. It's further cut with glacier water naturally filtered through volcanic springs, and the whole operation is run on geothermal power. Neat! Green! Also pretty dang tasty.

Tasting Notes: This is also a bit medicinal on the nose, but it's also got kind of a dried-herb, floral character; think herbes de provence, maybe with some white pepper. That herb character carries over to the palate, along with a slightly flinty quality, but mostly it's stony, a bit sweet, and clean with a creamy texture. The finish develops subtle notes of vanilla bean and lemon oil, then develops into a lingering peppery quality. I like this one straight out of the freezer, where the stony texture gets reinforced by cold temperatures, and the subtle flavors all come into alignment.


About: Produced by a fellow with the unlikely name of Tito Beveridge at the first microdistillery in Texas (or so goes the marketing copy) this vodka is the only domestic product represented here, and it's got a hell of a backstory. More to the point, the bottle says that it's produced in pot stills, which produces a spirit with more character than the modern column stills used for mass-produced vodkas. That's probably why I like it so much, and why I'm not alone; this won a unanimous Double Gold Medal at the World Spirits Competition when it debuted.

Tasting Notes: This has a lightly medicinal nose with hints of orange oil and wet stone. On the palate, it's lightly sweet (kind of a lightly acidic honey character) with some candied orange notes, a grainy bourbon-esque quality, spicy cinnamon, and bitter licorice. The finish is lightly peppery, with a mild burn reminiscent of young whiskey that I really enjoy on its own. Mostly though, I like this in a Vesper, where the sweetness and the spice get along beautifully with gin and Cocchi Americano.

So there you have them! Some weirdo vodkas that I (also a weirdo) actually enjoy. All of these sell at a reasonable price point, by the way, because I think it's ridiculous to pay any more than $25 for a spirit marketed for its lack of flavor. These examples break both those rules, and for that I think they deserve a shot in your home bar.