Vodka is the Switzerland of spirits. But who knew something ostensibly colorless, odorless and lacking any perceptible taste could cause such a fuss. Nevertheless vodka has sparked a heated debate within the drinks community about its place in contemporary mixology.
On one side you have practitioners who say the neutral spirit contributes nothing to cocktails but ethyl alcohol and that in almost every instance there’s a more appropriate liquor choice. Furthermore, they contend its weed-like proliferation has stifled the growth of other more worthy spirits and the differences between new marques are growing indistinguishable.
Those in the other camp counter that denigrating vodka’s neutrality is like condemning an artist’s canvas for being white and unsullied. And like a blank canvas, it has afforded mixologists unlimited latitude, a free-styling creativity that has contributed greatly to the prevailing cocktail culture. Then there’s the fact vodka accounts for nearly 35% of all the distilled spirits sold in the United States, inescapable evidence of its mass popularity.
How did a spirit as delicate and nuanced as vodka become so popular? For many, the draw is drinking something essentially pure. Achieving that effect is extraordinarily challenging. Aging spirits in wood can mask flaws and blemishes, but not so with vodka. No other spirit so thoroughly exposes its failings. Alone in the glass, stripped of its packaging, marketing and hype, vodka is an open book.
Like other noble spirits, vodka is a product of its environment and constituent ingredients. Of enormous importance is the character of the water used in its production, such as spring water, artesian water or water sourced from glaciers. It’s a major point of differentiation between brands.
Equally important is what the vodka is distilled from, e.g. corn, potato, rye or winter wheat. Each will produce a distinctively different spirit. So, too, will how the spirit is distilled. Most are made in continuous stills, but increasingly more brands are being crafted in small batch alembic stills.
If you’re looking for something new and extraordinary to stock on your backbar, look no further than English import Black Death Vodka. The most striking thing about the brand is not its name, or the grinning skull on its label, but how good it is. Few brands of vodka have attracted this much critical acclaim. Black Death has earned 5 gold medals at both the prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition in London and the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. Sold in over 40 countries, the irreverent brand is now available in the United States.
Black Death is produced at the famed G&J Greenall Distillery in Warrington, England, one the oldest distilleries in the UK still in operation. It is made from premium sugar beets and spring water drawn from deep underground aquifers. While more challenging to distill than grain or potatoes, sugar beets yield an exceptionally clean, character-laden alcohol. The vodka is triple-distilled in Greenall’s pot stills and vigorously filtered through charcoal prior to being bottled at 80 proof.
In the final analysis, the real measure of a spirit’s greatness is taste. A particular brand may have a laudable pedigree and its makers may have done everything true to form. However, by the end of the process, the spirit may fade to something little more than mediocre in the glass.
Here again Black Death comes out on top. Crafted in the classic European style, the vodka has a silky textured, medium-weight body and the enticing aromas of evergreen and citrus zest. It raises little heat on the palate as it delivers the lingering flavors of citrus, cacao and vanilla. From start to finish, Black Death Vodka is a marvelous sensory experience.
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.
Barr Hill Vodka — A sterling example of craft distilling at its finest is Caledonia Spirits of Hardwick, Vermont. Caledonia Spirits and head distiller Ryan Christiansen have created a unique range of spirits, the standard bearer of which is Barr Hill Vodka. The 80-proof spirit is made from a base of 100% raw honey. The honey is slowly allowed to ferment and then distilled twice in the distillery’s custom-built pot and column still. The minimal distillation allows the delicate aromatics of the honey to shine through in the finished spirit.
Black Moth Vodka — This culinary inspired vodka is distilled from 100% wheat and barley by the Timbermill Distillery in London. It derives its singular flavor from black Périgord winter truffles sourced from France, Italy and Spain. Due to both their elusive nature and delicious flavor, truffles are among the world’s most prized culinary delicacies. The artisanal vodka is distilled 5 times and filtered 3 times. A portion of the run is then further distilled in a small, stainless steel pot still for added depth of flavor.
Corbin Vodka — How could someone not have thought of distilling vodka from sweet potatoes before this? Fact is sweet potatoes are difficult to distill and it took 4th generation farmer David John Souza to overcome the challenges involved. Corbin Vodka is distilled in California’s San Joaquin Valley from 8 varieties of estate-grown sweet potatoes in a small copper pot still. Each gallon of distillate is taste tested for consistency. The vodka has a captivating set of aromatics and a delectable palate.
Milk Money Vodka — This new import from New Zealand is distilled from 100% fresh dairy milk. More specifically, the vodka is double distilled from the lactose in the milk, a sugar that differs from conventional glucose. Because the process converts the lactose into a fermentable sugar, the vodka is completely grain-free, gluten-free and lactose-free. It is bottled at 80 proof. For a neutral vodka, there’s a great deal going on.
Moulin Vodka — This sensational vodka is handcrafted in the town of Angoulême located in the south of France. Master Distiller Jean-Marc Daucourt creates Moulin Vodka from premium wheat and limestone-filtered water sourced from the Pyrenées Mountains. The vodka is distilled a total of 7 times and charcoal filtered and aerated with a flow of oxygen to eliminate impurities. The vodka has a sensual body and an elegant set of flavors.
New Amsterdam — Here’s a brand that offers a lot of vodka for the buck. New Amsterdam is 5 times distilled from American Midwest grain and then filtered 3 times for essential purity and a luxurious mouthfeel. At a retail price less than $15, the 80-proof vodka is amazingly soft and eminently mixable.
Russian Diamond Vodka — Made in Moscow at the Rodnik Distillery, Russian Diamond is made from a blend of premium rye, winter wheat and pristine artesian water drawn from the renowned Mytishchi Springs. The mash is fermented and then distilled in a multi-column, continuous still. After the vodka exits the still it undergoes a 57-stage filtration process. While much of the methodology remains a proprietary secret, the filtration process contributes greatly to its complex character.
St. Augustine Florida Cane Vodka — St. Augustine—the oldest and coolest small city in America—is the home of one of the finest small batch vodkas. The owners of the micro-distillery set out to use exclusively artisanal distilling techniques, including hand-cutting and milling the cane and then distilling the fermented juice in small batches in a copper pot still. The vodka is made entirely from Florida-farmed sugar cane.
Vintage Vodka — Super-premium Vintage Vodka is made in Belgium from single harvest grains cultivated in the Burgundy region of France. Its art deco label bears the vintage of the grain harvest, which is affected by growing conditions like rainfall, soil composition and number of sunny days. Each year’s vintage will therefore differ slightly in character.
White Tiger Vodka — White Tiger Vodka is every bit as great as its advance billing. It is made at JSC Ussuriyskiy Balsam, which at more than a century old ranks it among the oldest distilleries in the Russian Far East. White Tiger Vodka is twice distilled from premium rye and winter wheat. The vodka is then rigorously filtered to essential purity using quartz sand and 40 feet of birchwood charcoal. Pure spring water from the nearby Sikhote-Alin Mountains is used to render the vodka to 80 proof.