by Noah Rothbaum
As the vodka category gets increasingly crowded, a number of brands are using non-traditional ingredients to stand out.
Last spring Duncan Holaday and his family collected 120,000 gallons of local Vermont maple sap. But unlike just about every other Vermonter tapping trees, Holaday’s sap wasn’t going to be turned into
sickly sweet sugar candies or even delicious amber
pancake syrup. Instead the maple sap was used to make an even rarer and more unusual product: a $70 super-premium vodka. Since 2003, Holaday’s business, Vermont Spirits, has been producing unique small batch premium vodkas from maple sugar.
Holaday’s vodka is a far cry from the spirit’s origins. People living in Eastern Europe have been making vodka from grains and purified water for hundreds of years. But you can now add grapes, soy and even something called “milk sugar” to that rapidly growing list of ingredients. As an increasing number of premium vodkas fight for shelf space and attention, how a spirit tastes has become increasingly important and a way for a brand to distinguish itself. One way to achieve this is to make vodka from an untraditional base ingredient. This movement has broadened the category and has allowed distillers around the world to produce vodka with a local spin.
Not Really Neutral
This focus on flavor is a shift away from neutrality, which long served as the barometer of vodka quality. At first it might seem odd that vodka makers would be so concerned about taste given that by definition the spirit should be flavorless, odorless and tasteless. But, of course, vodkas aren’t completely neutral and it is possible to tell one from another in a taste test. Almost from its inception ten years ago, Grey Goose has been promoting itself as the “the world’s best tasting vodka.” The company backs up the claim with its top place finish in a Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute vodka competition. The catchy moniker helped the company convince consumers that premium vodkas were worth the extra money and, ever since, taste has been a key component of most vodka promotional campaigns.
But not everybody is happy about these unusual and interesting vodkas entering the market. Today most vodka produced is still made from wheat and, to a lesser extent, potatoes or rye. Companies based mostly in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, which make the spirit from traditional ingredients, recently tried to get the European Union to limit the definition of what a vodka can be made from. In opposition, something called the European Vodka Alliance formed _ “Championing Europe’s Diverse Vodka Traditions.” Regardless if the EU rules are changed, this was clearly an attempt to force upstart and untraditional brands from the category and removed from store shelves. It also showed that even the biggest vodka brands are taking these irreverent spirits seriously.
However, distillers maintain these unique ingredients aren’t just a promotional stunt and actually affect the way a spirit tastes. For example, in 2003 Diageo, which owns the biggest vodka brand in the world, Smirnoff, introduced the innovative Cîroc vodka made in France from local Mauzac Blanc and Ugni Blanc grapes. The company maintains that because of how the spirit is produced, Cîroc retains the grapes’ sweetness, aroma and character. And, as a result, it is supposed to work particularly well in cocktails.
Retaining Its Unique Flavor
Vodka gets its purity and smoothness from the distillation process. The common wisdom is that the more times a spirit is distilled and filtered the purer it will become. Many brands proudly boast how many times their vodka has been distilled. Reyka Vodka, which is made with unfiltered Arctic spring water drawn from a 4,000 year old lava field, is actually filtered through lava rock to attain the highest level of purity possible. But some master distillers are purposefully distilling and filtering their vodka fewer times to retain more of its taste. One example is the Vermont Spirits Gold Vodka that is triple distilled and “lightly filtered.” This allows for actually being able to taste the fermented maple in the finished spirit. Making the spirit more neutral “would be foolish,” says Holaday, the company’s founder and master distiller. “The vodka is unflavored, but carries the character of what it’s made from,” he says.
Some of the potato vodkas are also purposely retaining more flavor. For example, Cold River Vodka (around $32), from Maine, is made in small batches to produce what the company calls a “subtle sweetness.” Blue Ice Vodka ($20), from Idaho, is made using a fractional distillation process that strips out impurities but preserves what the brand calls a “delicate flavor profile and rich texture.” According to Gray Ottley, director of Distilled Resources which makes the vodka for Blue Ice, this was no accident. “We leave the flavor in,” he says. “It matters what it tastes like.”
In addition to just taste, some of these vodkas made from esoteric ingredients are trying to appeal to a whole new category of health conscious shoppers who are increasingly interested in organic products. For example, Square One Vodka is the first certified American organic rye vodka. 3 Vodka, made from soy, not only appeals to so called “green” drinkers, but also to people who suffer from celiac disease and cannot process gluten, which is found in many grains. The vodka is certified by both the vegetarian and celiac foundations.
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