transparent gems: the very best in vodka
Vodkas comprise nearly 30% of all distilled spirits sold in the United States. To say that we’ve developed a taste for vodka would be an obvious understatement, yet it underscores an important point about the spirit. Most of the bestselling vodkas do indeed have easily perceptible flavors and aromas. The top-shelf brands are lushly textured and eminently drinkable, far from being without character and personality.
The largest gene pool is comprised of neutral vodkas, those without color, odor or taste. At first glance, their transparency and apparent lack of character may be misleading. The allure is primarily cerebral, for drinking something essentially pure is like sipping on cool mountain mist. Achieving that effect is extraordinarily challenging.
Aging spirits in wood can mask flaws and blemishes. Not so with vodka. No other spirit so exposes any of its shortcomings as vodka. Alone in the glass, stripped of its packaging, marketing and hype, neutral vodkas are an open book. Like a statuesque nude, essential purity is a thing of beauty.
Vodka will remain America’s spirit of choice for the foreseeable future. Its steadily increasing popularity means that a stream of interesting new brands will continue entering the market. In an attempt to shallow out the learning curve, here’s a scouting report on the best new vodkas you may not have heard of... yet.
• American Harvest — Made in Rigby, Idaho, the certified organic vodka is continuous-distilled from winter wheat and spring water. The grain is obtained from a family owned U.S. farm. The creamy textured spirit is the quintessence of neutrality. (Idaho, 80 proof, $23.99, Sidney Frank)
• Bakon — The vodka is quadruple-distilled entirely from Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes. The final step entails re-distilling the vodka with a bacon infusion. The result is a silky smooth, 80-proof spirit that smells and tastes like peppered bacon straight off the griddle. (Idaho, 80 proof, $27.95, Black Rock Spirits)
• Belvedere Bloody Mary — This all-natural rye spirit is the first vodka developed for use in a specific drink. It’s produced using a maceration of fresh tomatoes, black pepper, horseradish, bell and chili peppers, fresh lemons and vinegar distillate. The aromatic vodka has a lush body and waves of smoky, spicy and palate-warming flavors. (Poland, 80 proof, $34.95, Möet Hennessy)
• Crystal Head Vodka — Crafted in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Crystal Head is quadruple-distilled in a column still from a blend of select Canadian grains and pristine glacial water drawn from a deep underground aquifer. The vodka then is subjected to rigorous, two-stage filtration — three passes through activated charcoal and then triple-filtered through polished crystals known as Herkimer Diamonds. [Infinium Spirits]
• Cupcake — The handcrafted, 80-proof gem is distilled from grain, a touch of grape spirits and natural flavors by winemaker Adam Richardson and spirits authority Doug Frost at Cupcake Vineyards in Monterey County. (California, 80 proof, $18.95, Cupcake Vineyards)
• Fair Trade Certified Quinoa Vodka — The first and only Quinoa-based vodka and the first spirit made with Fair Trade Certified ingredients. Quinoa is a grain grown in South America. The finished spirit is lushly textured with a delectable fruit and pepper finish. (France, 80 proof, $39.99, Fair Trade Spirits Company)
• Ketel One Oranje — Made in Schiedam, Holland, the small-batch vodka is distilled with the essence of Italian Mandarin oranges and Valencia oranges from Florida and Brazil. Oranje (oh-RON-ya) has the fresh zesty orange flavor and aroma found only in nature. (Holland, 80 proof, $27.95, Nolet Spirits)
• 7X Platinum — Produced by the good folks at Buffalo Trace Distillery, this Kentucky thoroughbred is seven-times distilled from American corn and limestone-filtered spring water. The initial distillations occur in a column still, the final passes take place in a traditional pot still. The sublime spirit is a tremendous value. (USA, 80 proof, $12.95, Sazerac)
• Square One Organic Basil — Square One’s newest flavor sensation is infused with the organic essence of four varieties of garden-fresh basil: Genovese, Thai, Lemon and Sweet. Then small amounts of organic coriander, honeysuckle and lemongrass are added to balance the spirit’s robust herbal character. (USA, 80 proof, $27.95, Square One Organic Spirits)
• 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 velvety smooth and delightfully neutral. (Holland, 80 proof, $29.95, Van Gogh Imports)
• Vesica — The Polish spirit is three-times distilled entirely from premium-grade potatoes in a continuous still designed to render the vodka essentially pure. Polish potato vodka is a genuine treat. It’s even more so when priced well below the market. (Poland, 80 proof, $13.99, Adamba Imports)
• ZU — This tantalizing rye vodka from Poland is infused with the flavor of bison grass. Its essential oils imbue the vodka with a greenish tint, an herbaceous aroma and a spicy palate. In addition to being delicious, some say the vodka has aphrodisiac properties, while others contend it increases virility, vitality and strength. (Poland, 80 proof, $26.95, Remy USA)