During the Middle Ages, distillers in Poland hit on the idea that wódka might taste better if it had any taste whatsoever. So they began tossing herbs, honey and numerous varieties of fruit into their stills with varying success. By the end of the 16th century, scores of
flavored vodkas existed throughout Poland and Eastern Europe, including the notorious Zmijowka, a spirit steeped with poisonous adders.
Zmijowka aside, flavored vodkas continue to enthrall consumers and practitioners alike. In addition to expanding in size and breadth of offerings, the flavored-vodka segment is maturing in quality. Increasing numbers of artisanal, small-batch vodkas are making their way onto American backbars, along with a few surprises. Sakiri, a new import, fuses French wheat with Asian spices using a Cambodian recipe. Based on a century-old Dutch recipe, Effen Cucumber is created with the essence of freshly harvested vine-ripe cucumbers. Twenty oranges are used in the making of each 750 ml bottle of 4 Orange; the vodka is made from spirits derived from four varieties of Florida oranges.
In fact, the vast majority of the new flavored vodkas are handcrafted and sport sophisticated flavors perfectly in step with contemporary tastes. For strong evidence, look no further than American-made Square One Organic Basil Vodka. Square One’s newest flavor sensation is infused with the organic essence of four varieties of garden-fresh basil: Genovese, Thai, Lemon and Sweet. Small amounts of organic coriander, honeysuckle and lemongrass are added to balance the spirit’s robust herbal nature with Square One’s signature soft finish.
“Just as a master chef layers flavors with food, mixologists today are building layers of flavors in cocktails,” explains H. Joseph Ehrmann, Square One Mixologist/Brand Ambassador and owner of San Francisco hot spot Elixir. “Tap into Square One Basil’s Genovese and Sweet basil varieties for cocktails with a Mediterranean flair, like a Caprese Martini. For Asian-cuisine-style cocktails, showcase its Thai basil with lemongrass syrup, ginger liqueur or fresh Yuzu. Or find savory balance in summer cocktails that feature sweet ripe pineapple, strawberry or melon.”
Cocktail-friendly ZU Bison Grass Flavored Vodka is a tantalizing rye vodka from Bialystok, Poland. The traditional Zubrówka is infused with the flavor of bison grass; its essential oils imbue the vodka with a greenish tint, herbaceous aroma and spicy palate. Each bottle contains a long, slender blade of bison grass. In addition to being delicious, some say the vodka has aphrodisiac properties, while others contend it increases virility, vitality and strength. Whatever the motivation, it’s a flavor experience not to be missed.
The same can be said about Belvedere Bloody Mary, the first vodka developed for use in a specific drink. The all-natural rye spirit is produced using a maceration of fresh tomatoes, black pepper, horseradish, bell and chili peppers, fresh lemons and vinegar distillate. It’s a highly aromatic vodka with a lush body and waves of smoky, spicy and palate-warming flavors. Belvedere’s savory, 80 proof treat is perfectly suited for mixing up a pitcher of patron-pleasing Bloody Marys.
Carnivores will find new Bakon Vodka absolutely irresistible. The vodka is quadruple-distilled entirely from Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes and pristine spring water drawn from a 200-foot-deep aquifer. The final step is re-distilling the vodka with a proprietary bacon infusion. The result is a silky smooth 80 proof spirit that smells and tastes like crisp peppered bacon straight off the griddle.
In terms of charm and finesse, few spirits compare to the Zen-like harmony of handcrafted Domaine Charbay Green Tea Vodka from Napa Valley. The artisanal gem is distilled in small batches from Midwestern grain and spring water, then infused with four varieties of tea each selected for its individual flavor and aroma. The vodka has appealing floral and herbal notes and the flavor of freshly brewed green tea.
Dutch import Van Gogh Açai-Blueberry Vodka is best described as luscious. The small-batch spirit is distilled from a blend of grains and then infused with fresh blueberries and açai berries from the Amazon rainforest. The lavender-tinted vodka has an alluring, citrus-laced bouquet, balanced fruit flavor and a long, brilliant finish.
The third release in distiller Lance Winter’s Alchemist Series, Hangar One Chipotle, is truly inspired. Winter disapproves of peppered spirits that offer consumers nothing but blast-furnace-like heat, so he created this vodka to showcase the smoldering flavors of chopped fresh jalapeños and Fresno chili peppers. The resulting vodka thrums with vitality and la vida loca.
More Tempting Newcomers
Orange is the best-selling flavor of vodka in the United States, and Ketel One Oranje Vodka will only fan the flames. The 80 proof vodka is made in Schiedam, Holland, using Italian Mandarin oranges as well as Valencia oranges from Florida and Brazil. Ketel One Oranje — pronounced “Oh-RON-yah” in Dutch — has a zesty citrus bouquet and vibrant orange notes that persist throughout the long finish.
It certainly seems as if the folks at ABSOLUT have been working overtime: At the beginning of the year, they introduced ABSOLUT Wild Tea, a singular vodka flavored with Chinese oolong tea and Scandinavian elderflowers. It features the enticing aromas of red apples, black tea and citrus and a semisweet floral palate. Recently released, ABSOLUT Orient Apple is an exotic infusion of fresh ginger and green, red, and yellow apples. Originally debuted as limited edition ASBOLUT Brooklyn, part of the brand’s city series, the 80 proof spirit is slightly sweet with tempting fruity notes and ginger-induced spiciness.
For those looking for a superfruit experience, there’s SKYY Infusions Dragon Fruit, an alluring 70 proof vodka with an exotic, red berry character. The tangy, spicy, all-natural infusion is ideal for use in cocktails. Its lower alcohol content allows the vodka to luxuriate on the palate for an agreeably long time. The company also introduced the succulent SKYY Infusions Blood Orange, an intensely flavored vodka suited for use in Tiki cocktails.
Cold River Blueberry Vodka from Freeport, Maine, is a handcrafted pot-distilled spirit made from locally grown potatoes, spring water and Maine blueberries. The vodka has a voluminous bouquet and a finish like the holy chorus of blueberries. It’s an 80 proof homage to nature.
Further evidence of the evolving nature of flavored vodkas is Cupcake Devil’s Food. Distilled at the Cupcake Vineyards in Monterey County, Calif., it’s a creamy-textured marvel imbued with the aroma and soul-satisfying flavor of bittersweet chocolate. Other offerings include Cupcake Frosting (Vanilla Flavored Vodka) and Cupcake Chiffon (Lemon Citrus Flavored Vodka). All three were created by Adam Richardson, head winemaker for Cupcake Vineyards, and renowned spirits developer and Master Sommelier Doug Frost.
Kudos are in order, and cocktails are about to get that much more interesting. NCB
Hot New Vodkas
In a country that loves throaty V8s, barbecue and bone-crunching sports, how can a spirit as delicate and nuanced as vodka so thoroughly dominate the limelight? Whatever the reason, these are the best of times for vodka enthusiasts. The category now accounts for approximately 30% of all spirits sold in the United States, and most distillers — large and small — are thirsty for a sip or gulp of that market share. To attract it, newcomers need an edge. Recently re-introduced Purus, for example, touts its Italian organic wheat and Alpine water, while Purity highlights the fact that it’s distilled in a proprietary pot still made of copper and gold in a Swedish castle. Discovering the best and the brightest among the multitude of new vodkas can prove daunting. No worries, we live for this stuff. Here is the skinny on a few we adore:
- American Harvest — Made in Rigby, Idaho, the creamy-textured vodka is continuous-distilled from organic winter wheat and spring water. It is the quintessence of neutrality.
- Bootlegger 21 — An elegant, super-premium vodka made by Prohibition Distillery at the famed Tuthilltown facilities in the Hudson Valley. The award-winning brand is distilled in small batches from local organic grain.
- Cupcake — A handcrafted gem distilled from grain by winemaker Adam Richardson and spirits authority Doug Frost at Cupcake Vineyards in Monterey County, Calif.
- Karlsson’s Gold Vodka — Appropriately named, this Swedish potato vodka is single-distilled, a challenging process to do well but one that leaves the inherent flavor of the potato intact. The distiller also offers three vintage-dated releases, all of which are world-class.
- Triple Wheat Van Gogh Blue Vodka — This ultra-premium vodka from Holland is triple-distilled in pot stills from three varieties of wheat. Best known for producing exceptional flavored vodkas, Van Gogh Blue is delightfully neutral.
- Vesica — This Polish spirit is three-times column-distilled entirely from premium-grade potatoes in a continuous still designed to render the vodka essentially pure. Polish potato vodka is a genuine treat — even more so when priced well below the market.