Today the vodka scene is huge, with new vodka brands seemingly coming out every day. 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. Originally produced in Poland and Russia, this spirit is now produced in all corners of the world. Every state in the US 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 profiles for good vodkas lean toward such flavors as vanilla, cream, cocoa, pale citrus, grass, potato skin, black pepper, to name a few.
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 purity without taking out any “good” flavors. Many are filtered 4, 5, 6 times or more and 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, CA, 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 in vogue now, and enjoyed much like craft whiskies or craft beers. 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, so consumers have to hunt them down in regional markets. Additionally, craft vodkas are the drink of choice for many Millennials who are looking for trendy products. According to Nielsen, Millennial drinkers (aged 21-34) represent about one-fourth of adults 21 and over, but they account for 32 percent of spirit 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 replies, “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 percent pure alcohol. Some undesirable things create off flavors and heat. The right water is a very important element in making good vodka.”
Indeed water is a key selling point for many brands. Some advertise getting their water from mountain springs or glaciers.
Scott Hanson is a co-owner of Hanson Vodkas based in Sonoma, CA, which makes small batch vodka from locally sourced Sonoma grapes. 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.
“The craft vodka scene is returning something to vodka that has been missing – character,” Faulkner says, “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.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka, started in 1995 out of Austin, TX, 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 million bottles in the last 12 months – owner Tito Beveridge is still the sole owner, founder and master distiller.
Utilizing a more time consuming and hands-on pot distillation process, all Tito’s produces is this one quality vodka. “Tito stands by the process despite the fact that it’s much more time-consuming and not as efficient column distillation,” says Nicole A Portwood, vice president and brand marketing. “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,” Portwood adds.
Infused vodkas are a sub-group for both large and small producers, where a desired flavor is blended with a neutral vodka spirit and left to meld together over a period of time. Infused flavors include surprising additions such as oolong tea, tangerine, bacon, habanero pepper, rhubarb and Skittles … and the list goes on.
Personally, my favorite infused vodka is Charbay’s Blood Orange Vodka – made from real organically-grown blood oranges. Extracting the whole fruit (skins and all) is a 6 month process to capture all the essential oils and fresh juice.
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, CA. 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,” says Adam Welch the Goose & Gander’s bar manager. “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. 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.”
Hipster mixologists around the country are finding new recipes with exotic flavored vodka while others prefer straight, unflavored vodkas to amalgamate their own artisan tinctures and ingredients. “As a boutique or artisan distillery we are getting attention from the growing interest in mixologists, better chefs, restaurants and from the public.” Scott Hanson notes.
Whether from a craft or mega distillery, America’s vodkas are here to stay and clearly worth trying. As Charbay’s Karakasevic says: “I think consumers are looking for a vodka that tastes like vodka without biting them back.”