Real Vodka has Flavor
Once upon a time, vodka tasted of vodka. Well, 900 years or so ago when it was first made, it tasted more of what it was distilled from, like potatoes, wheat or rye. It also tasted slightly of honey, which was frequently used to add a sweetness to the smell and the flavor.
Then in the 18th century charcoal filtering was discovered, and the aim of distillers was to produce the purest vodka possible. Today, brands boast of triple-distillation and 6-times filtering, over lava rock or platinum, to give their vodka the cleanest taste imaginable.
Now, though, some distillers are going back to basics and trying to produce vodkas that taste the way vodka used to. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the recent trend for increasingly ludicrous flavored vodkas, like bacon, tomato, pickle, and horseradish. Mix those together and you’d get a cocktail that tastes like a hamburger.
Thankfully some distillers take vodka more seriously, and have been producing vodkas in old-fashioned ways, some of them not even using filtration. What? Not filtered five times over 24-carat diamonds? Well, some people argue that filtration makes little difference, and can in fact harm the taste. There have been various experiments done, some more scientific than others, such as this one on the Mother Should Know website. By using blind tastings, it concluded that most people preferred unfiltered vodka over vodka that had been charcoal filtered several times. Obviously distillers use something more elaborate than a Brita filter, but the principal’s the same.
On the other hand, TV’s Mythbusters found that experienced tasters could tell the difference between unfiltered rotgut, filtered rotgut and top-shelf vodkas, even though the program’s scientists concluded that the chemical make-up of the filtered and unfiltered vodkas was absolutely identical.
Purity Vodka is one brand that doesn’t filter its vodka, arguing that as the vodka is distilled 34 times, it doesn’t need it. Purity is a small-batch ultra-premium vodka, made in Sweden by distiller Thomas Kuuttanen in a custom-built copper and gold still. Kuuttanen was a self-confessed ‘vodka-hater’, who spent ten years refining a recipe till he found a vodka he liked. And not just him, either. Purity was recently awarded Grand Spirit Master over more than 1,000 other spirits in all categories in blind tastings at the Spirits Business 2014 Competition. It’s also the only vodka to win Grand Vodka Master four years in a row (2011-2014) and score a perfect 100-point rating in the same competition.
Also from Sweden, Absolut Elyx is another vodka made in an old-fashioned way – and which created quite a buzz among vodka-lovers when it first came out. Master Distiller Krister Asplund and his Absolut team uses a 1921 copper rectification still that’s manually-controlled. So much distilling is automated these days that an iPad could run a distillery, but you really have to know what you’re doing to control things manually. That knowledge produces the goods as Elyx is a silky-smooth vodka that received the title of Best Vodka plus a double Gold Medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
In Poland, Belvedere makes an unfiltered vodka which it calls Belvedere Unfiltered. It’s distilled four times from a baker’s grade grain called Dankowskie Diamond Rye, but left unfiltered so as to retain the flavor of the rye.
Stolichnaya has stepped into the arena, not only with Stoli Elit, their premium bottling, but with the Stoli ‘Pristine Waters’ Series ($3,000/bottle), which sources its water from exotic sources like the Himalayas.
It isn’t only the Europeans who are going back to basics, though. Aylesbury Duck Vodka is made in Canada but bottled in California. It uses three 1940s copper-plated stills, which produce a vodka that the team thinks is pure enough to need no filtration other than a particle filtration to remove impurities. The result? 91 points and Highly Recommended in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge plus a Gold Medal and Best in Class at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge.
Over in Hardwick in rural Vermont, an hour from the Canadian border, Caledonian Spirits produces their Barr Hill Vodka using honey from their own farm. Each bottle requires 4-5 lbs of raw honey, which is fermented for about 3.5 to 5.5 weeks, till it reaches 12% alcohol. It’s distilled once in a pot still and then for a second time in a column still, but is not filtered. It has a honey-like aroma and taste, not unlike those early vodkas that were flavored with honey.
A vodka that offers up real flavor is a vodka made in the classic, old world style. Unlike many modern iterations, which are meant to be “flavorless” to a degree, any one of the bottles mentioned here makes a point of showing its “terroir” — the product from which it is distilled and the soil in which that product is grown. Not only are these vodkas for sipping, but they also add distinct character to cocktails. And that beats cinnamon roll vodka hands down.