The vodka scene today is huge, with new vodka brands seemingly coming out every day. Originally produced in Poland and Russia, in the 21st Century this spirit category is produced in all corners of the world. The Nielsen Company, which measures these things, lists Smirnoff Vodka as the #1 spirit sold in America with over 25 million bottles purchased in the last 12 months. (That makes a lot of shots, screwdrivers and vodka tonics). Yet now each and every state in America has at least one working distillery and American vodkas are on the rise.
Vodkas are distilled from a variety of plants such as wheat, rye, corn, sugar cane and sugar beets, rice and oats; many are made from potatoes or even sweet potatoes; some from fruits such as peaches and apples; while other brands produce vodka from wine grapes or distilled from wine itself. Really, almost any source of sugar can be fermented and then distilled. The base ingredient often imparts slight flavor or mouthfeel into the finished spirit. Not surprisingly, many smaller producers use materials that are locally sourced like Vermont Spirits which produces vodkas from local maple sap, Vermont cow milk whey and Champlain Valley apples.
As for the flavor of good vodka, some people argue that vodka should really be entirely colorless and flavorless, while the trend today seems to be to offer a slight “character” of mild taste to the spirit. When tasting vodkas straight (as I did for this article) I considered the classic aromas, flavor profiles and finishes of this spirit. When first inhaling the “nose” of a vodka, one should discover pale aromas that can include: mild citrus, grain, moss, wet stone, perhaps a bit herbal, bready, floral notes or banana. Classic flavor profiles for good vodkas lean toward vanilla, cream, pastry dough, cocoa, pale citrus, grass, potato skin, almond, mineral, black pepper, hazelnut, powdered sugar and banana. As for mouthfeel and finish, it should be balanced, nuanced, smooth, soft and silky, with maybe a little spice. All good vodkas should be clean and fresh upon the palate. If you feel you’re drinking firewater, put that vodka down and go try a craft bottle.
Filtration is another important buzzword in the premium vodka world where the product is filtered numerous times to achieve maximum levels of purity without taking out any “good” flavors. Many vodkas today are filtered 4, 5, 6 times or more and will proudly state their filtration levels on the bottle. The highly rated Oryza Vodka, produced in Thibodaux, Louisiana is filtered 17 times! On the other hand, Charbay Vodka from St. Helena, California believes differently. Charbay uses a proprietary (and secret) water filtration system prior to distillation. Then they use a slight, polishing filter before bottling. The result is a one-time distilled vodka with a rich texture and smooth finish.
Craft vodkas are all the rage now, and enjoyed much like craft whiskies, craft beers and wines produced by small independent wineries located around the United States. According to the American Distillers Institute (ADI) craft spirits are the “products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site.” One small problem for these artisinal brands is that they may not be widely distributed while producing comparatively little product. Consumers have to hunt them down in regional markets. Additionally, craft vodkas are the drink of choice for many millennials who are looking for artisinal (and trendy) products. According to Nielsen, millennial drinkers (aged 21-34) represent about one-fourth of adults 21 and over, but they account for 32% of spirit consumption. Comparatively, they represent only 20% of wine consumption.” The American Distilling Institute (ADI) is the oldest and largest organization of small-batch, independently-owned distillers in the United States. Founded in 2003, the organization has grown from a few dozen distillers to more than 1,000 paid members. ADI Vice President Andrew Faulkner knows his spirits. When asked what makes a good vodka he replied, “First of all control over the process is the primary factor controlling the quality of vodka. You need clean fermentation which creates flavors, both good and bad that affect the way vodka tastes. Then clean distillation. Even though a vodka must begin as a neutral spirit, there are still a lot of undesirable things that can come through the still at 95% pure alcohol. Some undesirable things create off flavors and heat. The right water is a very important element in making good vodka. Vodkas made from different bases may respond differently with varying mineral content of different water sources.” Indeed the water utilized is a key selling point for many brands. Some advertise getting their water from mountain springs or glaciers.
Scott Hansen is a co-owner of Hanson Vodkas based in Sonoma, California. Hanson is a true artisinal producer making small batch vodka from locally sourced Sonoma grapes. He said, “My boys learned that the fastest growing Vodka in the world over the last five years is a French grape made vodka called Ciroc. No one was making at scale American made grape vodka. We make our vodka from Certified Organic grapes, it is certified Gluten Free, and it was the first spirit in the United States that is verified Non-GMO.” Hanson also produces its vodka in a unique process. “We have two stills. One of our stills is made specifically for vodka. It has 50 distillation plates. It is the largest column still that we know of in the US. Having 50 plates for our spirits to pass over creates a low yield compared to large manufacturers, but a very clean, pure vodka.” Indeed Hanson’s vodkas, each seven times filtered offer an incredibly clean and refreshing drink. Hanson’s cucumber vodka is light and intriguing.
ADI’s Andrew Faulkner says, “The craft vodka scene is returning something to vodka that has been missing -character. The definition of vodka as odorless, colorless and flavorless is a post-WW II, American definition that has nothing to do with the traditions in the countries where vodka originated. I don’t know any craft producer that would describe their vodka as characterless. I think we will see a movement away from the odorless colorless and flavorless description to vodkas that reveal more of the spirits base. They will smell like apples, or honey, or grapes.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka, out of Austin, Texas is by far the largest independent vodka on the market today. They call their product “America’s First Craft Vodka.” Though far larger than most “craft” producers – having sold more than 9,000,000 bottles in the last 12 months – owner Tito Beveridge is still the sole owner, founder and master distiller. Beveridge earned degrees in geology and geophysics before turning to his true passion, vodka and stating Tito’s handmade in 1995. Utilizing a more time consuming and hands-on pot distillation process, all they produce is this one quality vodka. Nicole A Portwood, Vice President and Brand Marketing for Tito’s Handmade Vodka said, “Tito stands by the process despite the fact that it’s much more time-consuming and not as efficient column distillation. It allows us to craft the soft, rounded feel that Tito’s Handmade Vodka exhibits.” Craft or no craft, Tito’s makes an easy drinking, wonderful, very smooth vodka. “We think people are looking for quality products that also have a real human story behind them. It’s not enough to just make great vodka; people want to know the why behind it, to understand the depth and dynamics that brought it into being. That’s a shift that we don’t see going backward any time soon.”
Infused vodkas are a sub group on the vodka stage for both large and small producers. Infusions are so called when a desired flavor is blended with a neutral vodka spirit, and left to meld together over a period of time. The infused flavors available today are mind boggling and include: Oolong tea, tangerine, pineapple, black pepper, horchata, bacon, horseradish, habanero pepper, honey, bergamot, black cherry, rhubarb, vanilla, espresso bean, mushroom, hibiscus flower, kaffir lime, marshmallow, skittles, rosemary, buttered popcorn, bubble gum, Meyer lemon, tomato juice, ginger… and the list goes on. There’s even a new hop flavored vodka catering to beer loving “hop heads.” Consumers do seem to enjoy many of the infusions straight up or in mixed drinks. Personally, my favorite infused vodka is Charbay’s Blood Orange Vodka – made from real California oranges, instead of powdered chemicals or juice concentrate. This is as delicious as infused vodka can get while still tasting like vodka. “Charbay flavors are made from 100% real fruit, no essences, dyes or additives,” said Jenni Karakasevic, Director of Sales & Marketing, Charbay Distillery & Winery. They harvest organically-grown blood oranges, picked fresh & fully ripe. Within 24 hours the whole fruit arrives at the Charbay distillery. Extracting the whole fruit (skins and all) is a 6 month process to capture all the essential oils and fresh juice. The flavor is delightful.
Craft cocktails are an important part of the American bar and cocktail scene, so I went to the best bar I know, Goose & Gander in St. Helena, California. Based in the heart of Napa Valley wine country, the downstairs bar – really a cave represents the very best of bar culture. “The craft cocktail scene will always have a place for vodka. It’s really the most universal spirit. When I’m creating a new cocktail with gin, run, whiskey, tequila etc, I always have flavor profiles in my head that I know go well with those spirits. Like rum and pineapple or tequila and grapefruit,” said Adam Welch is Bar Manager, Goose & Gander. “But when asked to create a cocktail with vodka it’s almost more difficult. Vodka to a bartender is a blank canvas to an artist.” Homey, warm and experimental, the Goose & Gander bartenders are replete with spirit knowledge and get to use the finest ingredients to produce their concoctions. “Hands down my favorite vodka drink would have to be a Moscow mule. There have been many variations on this cocktail since it was created in Los Angeles circa 1941. The one we do at Goose & Gander is made with fresh pressed ginger juice and a dash of angostura bitters. The fresh ginger and lime really wakes up your palate and always leaves you wanting another sip.” Hipster mixologists around the country use some exotic flavored vodka while some prefer straight, unflavored vodkas and then amalgamate their own artisan tinctures and ingredients. Scott Hanson remarked, “As a boutique or artisan distillery we are getting attention from the growing interest in mixologists, better chefs, restaurants and from the public.”
Thibodaux, Louisiana’s Oryza Vodka, is owned by Henry Peltier. He stated, “The craft spirit industry continues to grow across the country. More and more consumers are willing to try new brands, looking for new flavors or unique styles of spirits. This is true for not only vodka, but all spirits. This trend will likely continue well into the foreseeable future.”
Americans care more and more about quality, provenance and flavor of the food and drinks we put into our bodies, and vodka is no exception. Whether local or national, craft or mega distillery, pure or infused, America’s great vodkas are here to stay and clearly worth trying. “I think consumers are looking for a vodka that tastes like vodka without biting them back,” said Charbay’s Karakasevic.
# # #
c. Bob Ecker 2016
Bob Ecker is a writer living in Napa, California