What’s New with America’s Spirit of Choice
In a country that loves throaty V-8s, barbeque and bone-crunching sports, how did a spirit as delicate and nuanced as vodka so thoroughly dominate the limelight? For most consumers the draw is their purity, for others it is vodkas’ enormous diversity. While some are gloriously neutral, others are profoundly personable and laced with flavor.
Whatever the reason, these are the best of times for vodka enthusiasts. “The vodka category continues on a steep incline upwards, which is inescapable evidence of its mass popularity,” saysMichael Dennehy, of DUN Beverage Partners, importers Russian Diamond Vodka. “According to Adam’s Beverage Information Group, the vodka category grew to 72 million cases in 2013, which represents a whopping 34.1% of all distilled spirits sold in the U.S.”
The spirit’s steadily increasing popularity means that a stream of interesting new brands will continue crossing our borders looking for a home in America. Uncovering the gems amongst the multitude of vodkas can be daunting.
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 exposes its shortcomings like 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.
Like other noble spirits, premium vodkas are products of their homelands, environments and constituent ingredients and they need to be marketed as such. High-end vodkas are now being made in nearly every country, and quite possibly somewhere within easy driving distance of your establishment. Applying the concept of terrior to vodkas and stressing the link between their products and their countries of origin will help consumers see these spirits as cultural icons.
Of enormous importance is the character of the water used in its production, such as spring water, artesian water or water sourced from glaciers. An 80-proof spirit contains 60% water, which makes it a major point of differentiation between brands. All things being equal, the better the water, the better the resulting spirit.
Equally important is what the vodka is distilled from (e.g. corn, potato, rye or winter wheat). Each will produce a distinctively different spirit. Most neutral vodkas are distilled from corn, which yields the most alcohol per bushel. The most expensive and most technically challenging starch to distill is potato. But when done well, potato vodkas are a treat for the senses with characteristically oily textured bodies and vegetal bouquets. Rye vodkas are prized for their spicy, tangy flavors, while those distilled from wheat typically have delectably sweet notes on the finish.
How the vodka is distilled also makes a difference. Most vodkas are made in continuous stills, but a growing number of brands are crafted in small batches in traditional pot stills. American micro-distilled vodkas—such as Tito’s, Hangar One, Square One, Blue Ice and Death’s Door—constitute some of the fastest growing brands in the industry largely because of their focused flavors and more generous bodies.
New Top-Shelf Contenders
Many vodka drinkers are driven by the joy of discovery, the desire to experience something new and exciting. For them it’s like an urban adventure. So we’ve sifted through the new offerings and have selected our favorites. Guaranteed they’ll look great on your backbar.
New to our shores is Russian Diamond Vodka, a skillfully crafted spirit made in Moscow at the Rodnik Distillery. It is made from a blend of premium rye, hardy winter wheat and pristine artesian water drawn from deep under the renowned Mytishchi Springs. The mash is fermented and then distilled in a multi-column, continuous still.
“What really distinguishes our vodka from the field is it undergoes a rigorous, 57-stage filtration process,” says importer Michael Dennehy of DUN Beverage Partners. “The process involves filtering the vodka through precious metals and minerals, such as schungite crystals, smoke stones and rare onyx; biological filters, such as herbs, grains, Siberian pine and boreal Larch tree needles; as well as multiple filters comprised of different fabrics. In total, the 57 filters contribute greatly to its complex character.”
Another stellar import from Russia is Bear Force Vodka, which hails from the state of the art Bryanskspirtprom distillery in Bryansk, a city located about 200 miles southwest of Moscow. The vodka is crafted according to a recipe dating back to the late-18th century using premium, GMO-free rye and winter wheat and deep artesian well water. After distillation, the vodka is rested for 30 days to allow the constituent elements to become fully integrated. The vodka is then filtered through charcoal to essential purity. It is bottled at 40% alcohol (80 proof).
“The most laudable characteristic of our vodka is its softness and purity of flavor. Bear Force is a true Russian vodka and the combination of using both wheat and rye in the production gives the vodka purest something to look forward to always enjoying,” says Marina Wilson, president of importer Double Eagle Imports.
One of the more interesting Russian-style vodkas new to the market actually hails from the Premiere Distillery in Gurnee, IL, which is located just outside of Chicago. Real Russian Vodka is a handcrafted spirit distilled entirely from winter wheat in a copper pot still. In 1905, the grandfather of the brand owner and master distiller was granted special permission from the Tsar to make vodka. Real Russian is distilled according to the same heirloom recipe.
“Our family’s vodka is distilled a total of 6 times and then filtered 10 times,” says Inna Feldman-Gerber, president and co-founder of Real Russian Vodka. “My father is a skilled craftsman. He pulls all of the oils and impurities from the alcohol, making it pure and smooth and yet retaining some body and aroma. As a result it can be sipped and enjoyed on its own. Each bottle has great love and history behind it.”
Ultra-premium Reyka Vodka is distilled in Borgarnes, Iceland from local grain and glacial water drawn the Grabok Spring, which when tested was found to contain no impurities. The vodka is distilled only once in extremely small batches of less than 1000 liters per distillation. The distillery uses a Carter-Head pot still, one of only 6 such stills in the world and the only such still used to make vodka.
“We are also the only spirit to use crushed lava rocks to filter our distillate,” notes Reyka Vodka’s NY ambassador, Shem Blum. “It is an extremely effective method of filtration. Fortunately there are old lava fields surrounding our little distillery. We are also one of the few distilleries in the world that is completely powered by geothermal energy.”
North American Entries
Made in Austin, Texas, Deep Eddy Vodka is distilled 10 times in a state of the art column still from locally grown corn and pure artesian water drawn from a Texas aquifer. Prior to bottling it is rigorously filtered through charcoal for purity. The range includes Deep Eddy Sweet Tea, Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit and Deep Eddy Cranberry flavored vodkas.
According to co-founder Chad Auler there are two things that distinguish Deep Eddy from the competition—the liquid and the brand. “Our vodkas are made exclusively with high quality, real ingredients. We then pair the premium liquid with a brand look-and-feel that harkens back to quality, purity and innocent excitement of the 1950s. Every aspect of the brand experience from liquid to marketing says that it stands for quality, authenticity and just plain fun.”
Award-winning RWB Vodka is made in Idaho from a blend of 4 premium varieties of potatoes and pure mountain spring water. The vodka is distilled in a 4-column continuous still and subjected to a 5-stage filtration process. The satiny textured, 80-proof vodka is 100% gluten free.
Also new on the market is LUST Vodka, a premium spirit made from GMO-free corn, wheat and pure water drawn from deep underground aquifers. It contains no artificial additives or preservatives and is produced with continuous column distillation and charcoal filtration to ensure the integrity and purity of the spirit. LUST Vodka is produced and bottled in Arbundale, Florida.
Located in La Vista, Nebraska, the Cut Spike Distillery specializes in distilling premium spirits. A prime example is Cut Spike Vodka, which is distilled from a proprietary blend of barley, wheat and corn. The finished distillate is slowly charcoal filtered and rendered to 80-proof with limestone-filtered spring water sourced from the nearby Sandhills.
“The name Cut Spike is a nod to Omaha's rich railroad history,” notes Jason Payne, president and founder of Cut Spike Distillery and Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. “Nebraska also has a history of distilling that dates back before Prohibition. We here at Cut Spike are proud to bring back that tradition of creating high-quality, small batch spirits.”
Wine-makers Trinchero Family Estates of Napa Valley has entered the fray with top-shelf Ménage à Trois Vodka, a super-premium spirit distilled from corn and pristine California mountain spring water.
“Like our Ménage à Trois wine, we believe the best things come in threes,” says Chris Nicks, vice president of spirits & imports at Trinchero Family Estates. “Ménage à Trois Vodka undergoes a proprietary triple filtration process and is available in three expressions – Straight, Triple Berry and Triple Citrus. The all-natural flavors are also triple derivatives: Citrus is produced from a blend of lemons, limes and oranges, while Berry is made with raspberries, cranberries and pomegranate.”
Wrapping up our new vodka review is Boker Vodka from the makers of Tequila Corralejo. Founded in 1775 outside of Guadalajara in the town of Pénjamo, Hacienda Corralejo is among the oldest and most established North American distilleries. Boker is distilled four times in small batches using corn and spring water.
Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails. He can be reached at www.AmericanCocktails.com or by e-mail at [email protected].