Posted on | July 21, 2014
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
Think of the most outrageous claim you’ve ever heard about a distilled spirit, and it probably pertains to vodka. From filtering with precious metals and gemstones to dozens upon dozens of distillations, marketing in the competitive vodka category would, at times, make P.T. Barnum proud.
Caley Shoemaker, a multi-talented master distiller, formerly of the whiskey world, now crafting Hangar One Vodka in Alameda, CA, says that vodka is actually a great representation of the distiller’s art, deserving of appreciation. “With vodka, there is nowhere to hide. You have to begin with high-quality ingredients and put in the effort if you want to end with a fabulous tasting spirit,” says Shoemaker.
While extravagant bottles and the edgy marketing have certainly sold their share of vodka, it is increasingly important that retailers appreciate the true differences, and commonalities, among various vodkas to aid in selection. “Consumers are getting more educated about spirits and the process that goes into making them. This was previously restricted to whiskey drinkers, but there is a new group of people who want to understand other spirits as well,” says Shoemaker.
We spoke to the women, and men, who make vodka for a living, peering behind the labels to reveal what really makes a difference in the liquid.
Vodka can be made anywhere, from virtually anything. Wheat, corn, potatoes, beets, apples, grapes—even milk and maple syrup—have all been fermented then distilled into a clear spirit of at least 80 proof that goes by the name vodka. Distillers agree that raw material is an important defining attribute of vodka—both in terms of flavor and price. “We use Midwestern wheat, which tends to be very light and we also use the Viognier grape in a smaller amount, which adds a nice fruity, perfumey fragrance that I think makes Hangar 1 distinctive,” says Shoemaker.
Shoemaker contends that vodka’s raw material is a helpful reference point in exploring the spirit: “If you like one wheat vodka, you will probably like others, because there is a common character.”
In the case of potatoes, the raw material of brands like Teton Glacier, Boyd & Blair, Chopin and Karlsson’s Gold, the cost of the raw material and limited seasonal production can add substantially to the vodka’s price—one that fans of potato vodkas are willing to pay for the resultant rich, rounded texture. “We are only using virgin new potatoes from Cape Bjäre and only as a fresh raw material, thus only distilling during the harvest season,” says Jean-Charles Mattei, head of production behind Sweden’s Karlsson’s Vodka, noting that the obtaining sugar from these low-starch potatoes is no easy task.
The cost of raw materials is also impacted anytime a distiller elects to limit themselves. Organic raw materials command a premium as the foundation of Square One, Rain, Prairie and Crop, for instance. “Rye is really only used to make bread and beer, so it has limited uses. Locating a supplier of high-quality organic rye presented a particular challenge, but Square One was committed to a unique raw material for a particular flavor profile,” says Gray Ottley, who has 26 years of experience crafting vodka as president of Idaho’s Distilled Resources Inc. (DRinc), which diversifies their products through raw materials, with other spirits made from wheat and Idaho potatoes.
Once, twice or 159 times? What is the perfect number of distillations for a vodka? “It’s hard to quantify number of distillations to begin with,” says Shoemaker. “Besides, as far as I am concerned, it does not matter how many times you distilled the spirit, as long as the final product is good.”
So, while more distillations clearly require more time and money, it’s not always a case of more is more. “We want to make a clean spirit. But how clean do you want it to be is the question? For example in Wheatley Vodka, we distill 10 times, and each time you are making it just a little more neutral,” says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace, which produces vodkas in addition to their bourbon.
Buffalo Trace’s CLIX vodka, boasts 159 distillations (CLIX is 159 in Roman numerals). But Wheatley is quick to point out it would be lunacy to distill the same liquid 159 times. Rather, CLIX is the sum of 159 distillations of many different vodkas using different raw materials and different stills, which are then blended and combined into the luxury marque. So, the number alone can be confusing.
Comparing number of distillations across brands is a classic apples to oranges situation, because every still is a very different piece of equipment, doing a very different job, explains Wheatley. “If you are a small guy in a garage with a pot still, you are going to have a very hard time getting a clean spirit, even with a dozen distillations, compared to what someone else might do with two distillations,” he says. So, while number of distillations can express the effort of the distillers, it’s not an indicator of quality.
The TTB states vodka must be “distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” making filtration a legitimate way of meeting the definition of vodka. While charcoal—or, more accurately, activated carbon—remains a popular agent, many brands promote filtering through sand, diamonds, algae, rock or precious metals.
The trend among many premium vodkas, however, is to let distilling do the heavy lifting and avoid substantial filtration. Ottley has come to believe filtration represents an unnecessary risk to the production at DRinc, with little payoff. “The standard is activated carbon, but we don’t do it because it really had no beneficial effect. We use strictly a sub-micron paper filter that just catches larger particles,” he says. Of course when a client wanted Ottley to construct a transparent filter filled with garnets, he complied. “I had a geophysicist come through and ask what was in there. When I told him garnets, he said, ‘You realize that does nothing. It’s a non-porous material.’ But that’s what the customer wanted.”
At Karlsson’s, Mattei has outright disdain for excessive filtration. “Charcoal filtration kills every flavor in the spirit, just like a Brita filter does to your tap water,” he says. Like multiple distillations, added filtration does not guarantee a better or worse vodka, just a different one.
Vodka must be distilled to a minimum of 190 proof, then bottled between 80 and 110 proof, so it’s accurate to say every single vodka is diluted with water. While noting all steps of the process are important, Thordur Sigurdsson, master distiller of Iceland’s Reyka, believes water is the most important factor. He says William Grant scouted the globe for pure water sources before arriving at Iceland as the production point for Reyka; the reason was the pure glacial spring water. “As the master distiller, in my opinion, the water is super clean and pure and there are no impurities, which makes for an incredibly smooth, well-balanced vodka,” Sigurdsson says.
In the case of Reyka, the water for dilution requires no adjustment for minerals or purity. Other brands may similarly promote their pristine water source; still others stake their purity on filtering or reverse osmosis treatment. In either case, the final bottle contains 60% water in a typical 80 proof vodka, so water is a critical attribute. “Water plays an important role in vodka production, more than in any other spirit. Since there’s no aging or adding of botanicals, there’s no way to mask water that is not pure,” says Sigurdsson.
Vodka is permitted to have small amounts of sugar and citric acid added. Beyond that, it becomes flavored vodka. Many distillers add both natural and artificial flavors to create a bounty of outrageous flavors. After Absolut Peppar broke ground in 1986, flavored vodka evolved logically for a while, branching into fruit expressions, then exploded post-2000. To a large degree, lines kept extending as a means to try to secure more shelf facings; but also, you never know…. Since Pinnacle Whipped Cream opened up the “confectionary” vodka sub-category, it’s been hard to just dismiss any new flavor out of hand.
While purists continue to poke fun at the cast of characters among flavored vodkas, mixologists have become increasingly receptive to authentic, flavor-driven vodka as a reliable route to simple yet dynamic cocktails made with fewer ingredients. Figenza is a perfect example; stocking it on the backbar opens up possibilities for cocktails that bars would never attempt using fresh figs. Ditto ZU (Zubrovka), the Polish vodka infused with bison grass, yielding a unique floral profile, primed for mixology.
Along with Pinnacle, 360, Absolut, Belvedere, Burnett’s, Grey Goose, Smirnoff, Skyy, Svedka and UV, among others, have kept the creative flavor pipeline flowing. What’s next in flavored vodka? Could it be Toasted Coconut? If so, Sobieski is ready. Or maybe Coconut Water (Three Olives “Elvis Presley”) or just Coconut (New Amsterdam, Smirnoff)? Svedka is bullish on combos, with their new Strawberry Lemonade and Mango Pineapple flavors, as is Cîroc with cherry-accented Amaretto, released in 2013. Exotic and savory vodkas are cropping up as well, The Bay (with Chesapeake crab seasoning), Oola Rosemary, Yuzi Ginger and Charbay Green Tea, for instance.
Despite their proliferation, flavored vodkas still account for less than a quarter of the overall vodka market. Moving forward, we can expect base ingredients to jockeying for more attention, even staking claims in the flavor department. Comb, made in Port Chester, NY, uses mead as a fermentation base, yielding a delicate honeyed edge. Florida-based St. Augustine Distillery is crafting pot-still vodka from sugar cane, with hints of anise and green apple along with a touch of sweetness. Chopin is essentially doubling down on their current trio of Potato, Rye and Wheat vodkas, releasing limited, once-distilled versions in 375ml bottles dubbed Chopin Single.
As the vodka multiplication continues apace, there is a temptation to challenge the genre’s actual identity. It’s easy for the line between grape vodka and grappa to get blurry, for instance, or moonshine and corn vodka. This much is certain: when selling vodka, it has never been more important to know what’s going on, both inside the bottle and out.