The spirit of Autumn

Vodka is no longer just a clear liquid with a Russian name.

Vodka is no longer just a clear liquid with a Russian name.

No longer as brand-neutral as its colour, vodka can offer a real shot in thae arm for restaurateurs looking for to cater for patrons wanting something new

Perhaps more than any other white spirit, vodka has of late been undergoing a massive amount of brand stratification and brand proliferation. Whereas once vodka had more or less meant one of the two S’s—Smirnoff or Stolichnaya—nowadays the category has the sort of diversification one normally might associate with whisky. Drilling down in to the contemporary vodka market we can find about seven distinct sub-categories—some of them obvious, but others more interesting, particularly from an on-premise point of view. Low-price retail vodka: Our interest in this sub-category is only one of comparison. What your customers might be paying and consuming from liquor stores might help you make decisions about your own vodka inventory.

And depending on your clientele, you might want to list vodkas which are similar, yet different, or, on the other hand, wildly different. This area is dominated by some of the bigger liquor companies and brewers. Retail price points hover around $30 for 700ml bottles, and brands like Karloff and Eristoff typify the tendency of this sub-category to rely on brand names ending in “off” as much as it does price.

At the lower-priced end, vodka tends to be less the product of wheat or rye—although there are some exceptions—and more commonly made from corn, molasses, sorghum, or even crystallized sugar and yeast. Hence, the importance of the following sub-categories:

Grain and/or potato vodkas: The sub-categorization of vodka distilled from grain or potato versus vodka made from grapes or other fruit—like apples—is an interesting one. The EU has recently decreed that mash ingredients be included on labelling, and some Vodka Belt countries are lobbying to have the very word “Vodka” subject to a kind of mash ingredient appellation. The idea being that only vodka made from grains, potato, or sugarbeet be entitled to the title. This exclusivism has backfired a little, however, with producers of such grape or fruit distilled vodkas using such information as a quality pointer, despite the fact that grain mash is better suited for making a more neutral spirit.

Grape and/or fruit-based vodkas: A good example of this type of vodka is the Frenchbuilt Ciroc, (LUC $55). It’s made from white wine grapes, cold-fermented and then distilled—and distilled five times, to boot. There’s faint fruitiness in the drink, but the purity is unquestionable.

Super premium: The expensive and niche vodkas are the ones that play most heavily on ‘secret’ or ‘patented’ distillation processes—their angle being one of vodka purity. Multiple distillations are also underlined, and three, four or five distillations are not uncommon. Charcoal filtering of the final product and the use of some sort of spring water is also seen as a recommendation. Poland’s Wyborowa Single Estate (LUC $50) also emphasizes its single estate rye planting, hinting at an extra level of artisanal quality that its vodka has.

Non Vodka Belt vodkas: The Vodka Belt is that part of the world, above the -2ºC January isotherm, stretching from Norway to the Bering Strait. It includes the Nordic and Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine. Unsurprisingly the Belt drinks the greatest amount of vodka in the world, and is responsible for nearly 70 per cent of production. Yet it is non-Vodka Belt products that have been leading a quality and purity charge, and these are the mostly grain vodkas being produced in the west—such as Holland’s Ketel One. Other brands, like Grey Goose (from Cognac), 42 Below (NZ), Massenez (also from Cognac), Skyy (California) and Vincent Van Gogh (Holland) demonstrate how widely vodka manufacture has spread since the spirit came to global prominence in the 1950s. Although helped along in popular culture by blokes like James Bond, it is still incredible to imagine that by 1975 vodka was outselling bourbon in the USA.

Over-proof vodkas: Early vodka chemistry carried out in 1893 by Dmitri Mendeleev (the man who invented the Periodic Table of Elements) recommended that the best alcohol volume for vodka was 38 per cent (rounded up to 40 per cent to comply with a Russian tax excise law). At this level, vodka’s flavour and heat met at the perfect taste intersection. That hasn’t stopped some premium vodka distillers from releasing over-proof products, principally to meet a perceived demand by serious cocktail bars and their tenders. Belvedere Intense comes in at 50 per cent ABV ($60 LUC), and thankfully it’s body and texture is full and smooth enough to handle the extra bite the higher alcohol adds. Of course all vodka is distilled to very dizzying heights—maybe as high as 96 per cent ethanol—but it’s this distillation extreme that helps to remove so many of the impurities in the liquid, making for vodka’s famed low-congener count.

Flavoured vodkas: A huge growth area in recent times, most brands now seem to have flavoured versions of their standard, or proper, vodka. Apple, lemon, vanilla, peach, double espresso, blueberry, lime, mango, feijoa… the list goes on. These seem to enjoy a certain faddism among shot drinkers, or are used to heighten the literary effect of house-special cocktails. The one flavoured vodka that’s often sadly overlooked, however, is bison grass vodka, as typified by Zubrowka (LUC $30)—which is a Polish word meaning bison grass. This is a very aromatic vodka, and if smell does lead taste, then it’s a winner.

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