When John Jeffery, master distiller at Nevada’s Bently Heritage Distillery, first experimented with making estate-grown oat vodka, it was “a tremendous pain, but that’s the result of the grain, which also makes spirits from oats so interesting.”
Oats possess a high concentration of oil and protein that yields a distilled spirit with lots of fruity and floral aromas and a viscosity and structure that’s very different from the hundreds of clean, crisp vodkas that crowd backbars and store shelves. “The 100 percent oat vodka is a challenge to the vodka category, and a bit intense for the neutral vodka drinker,” says Jeffery.
Not long ago, the distillery might have been thought to be running afoul of the “flavorless, odorless, and colorless” rules for vodka set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). But in April, that government body removed those words from vodka’s definition.
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Although nothing dramatic is likely to change immediately in the vodka category, which accounts for approximately one-third of all spirit sales, the regulatory modification represents a philosophical shift and may encourage more innovation. And, of course, many distillers have emphasized the organoleptic qualities of their spirits for a long time. Now there’s no excuse for neutrality and sameness in the category.
Vodka’s Full Character Spectrum
There have always been people promulgating vodka as a spirit with a range of characters, flavors, and aromas, including Tony Abou-Ganim, partner in Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and the author of Vodka Distilled. As early as the late 1990s, Abou-Ganim hosted vodka seminars for staff that highlighted the differences in body, aroma, and flavor among brands.
“The old definition was a detriment to the category,” he says. “When the wave of vodkas flooded the market in the late 1990s to early 2000s, it seemed the pitch was always, ‘It’s pure as water’ or ‘It’s smooth as water.’ But that’s not what vodka should be! In Europe, especially Eastern Europe, vodka had character and was robust. For some reason, as it moved west, it became a more neutral spirit.”
“Premium vodkas have always had taste and odor, despite the rule, and brands that make high-quality vodka are now going to be playing on a level playing field, being able to market the unique character and flavor profiles of their brands,” says Jeff Mahoney, CEO for the Austrian rye-based Neft Vodka.
Regional Terroir and Diversity
Traditionally, European vodkas have been defined by region and ingredient: the clean, light Scandinavian style; the oily, rich Polish style; and the earthy, pungent Russian style. Source material is just as important. Wheat vodkas are often subtly crisp, corn vodkas sweet, potato vodkas creamy and robust, and rye vodkas spicy with a peppery bite.
Distiller Ken Wyatt of Idaho’s 44 North makes both wheat and potato vodka. “There is a significant difference between them, even though they are made in the same place and from the same still,” says Wyatt. “Our wheat vodka is smooth and a bit peppery, while the potato has more character, a creaminess, and a different mouthfeel that makes it stand out.” Potato’s creamy and buttery texture makes it more suitable for such vodka cocktails as Mules, but Wyatt favors the wheat in a Martini.
Polish distiller Belvedere, with two estate-grown vodkas, is one of the notable major brands that showcases such character differences.
“The incredible thing about the Single Estate Rye Series, Smogóry Forest, and Lake Bartężek is that we have not only achieved something evolutionary for the brand but crucially for the category as well,” says global brand education and training manager Alice Farquhar. “It has enabled us to facilitate and introduce a new conversation around vodka that, in fact, it is not just the anonymous spirit in your drink, and they absolutely do not all taste the same.”
Two unflavored vodkas made from the same strain of rye and produced in the same way can “taste completely different and showcase not only aromatic and tasting differences but texturally behave differently in the mouth.” Belvedere describes Smogóry as having notes of salted caramel, cereal, honey, toast, white pepper, and fudge, while the brand characterizes Lake as grainy and grassy, with almond, mint, and menthol flavors.
Mahoney notes that purity of ingredients and distillation processes have also become important to consumers as a way to differentiate a spirit. He describes Neft as having a slightly sweet taste coming from four rye strains and non-demineralized water.
Growing Demand for Vodka Character
Broken Shed, a New Zealand vodka made from whey, features notes of butterscotch, vanilla, and citrus, according to producers. Like Neft, the company points to local water as an important flavor component.
“Today’s consumer is more guided by his or her individual taste distinctions and product knowledge than any government definition,” says company president Steve Bellini. “The odorless, colorless, and tasteless designation for vodka has long faded away in everyone’s mind.”
Whether the changes to the regulatory language will have any real impact is debatable. Reid Hafer, group product director for Heaven Hill Brands’ Texas-made corn vodka Deep Eddy, says that the identity of vodka itself is unlikely to change. “The new regulations provide both more definition to the category while also allowing for a more broad take on the spirit itself. However, this does allow more of a craft aspect to play a part in the category.”
Abou-Ganim notes that distillation methods and yeasts are acknowledged as important factors in other spirits and the influence of those factors may gain awareness within vodka now as well. “We’re seeing some beautiful vodkas being made in the U.S. today,” he says.
But Wyatt points out that flavors will still be stripped out of many brands as vodka can still be distilled up to 95 percent alcohol by volume. “But over time, we’ll be seeing innovation as distillers look for opportunities. The large consumer base will still want smooth vodkas, but character will matter more, especially to the craft cocktail segment,” he adds.