Base material is an increasingly important selling point for vodka brands, but how much effect does this really have on the finished product? There’s only one way to find out, says Clinton Cawood…
It used to be about how many times it had been distilled, or through what exotic, expensive material it had been filtered, but nowadays it’s increasingly important to know your wheat from your barley when it comes to vodka.
However with vodka’s traditional reliance on brand image and marketing, you’d be forgiven some scepticism when it comes to just how much influence these base materials really have. Are potato vodkas all creamy? Does rye really impart a distinctive spiciness? And is it worth getting excited about that new entrant made from something no one’s ever distilled before?
We called in over a dozen varied vodkas, as well as a panel of willing bartenders who were determined to get to the bottom of base materials.
| How it works
Only vodkas made from a single base ingredient were included.
All samples were tasted blind, in random order, and were all 40% abv.
The tasters rated four characteristics (sweet, spicy, fruity, creamy) out of 10, then tried to guess what each was made from, and provided more detailed tasting notes.
The first in a significant number of grain vodkas presented, barley’s entries in this tasting were reduced from two down to one after an unfortunate run-in between our Sipsmith sample bottle and some TCA (cork taint). This left it up to Finlandia to define the style alone.
Tasters ranked Finlandia relatively low in terms of sweetness, fruitiness and creaminess, leaving only spiciness as a defining characteristic, up there with the rye entries, and leading more than one panellist to believe this is what it was made from. One summed it up as not having ‘bags of flavour, but well-balanced and pleasant to drink’, while supposed ‘wheat’ aromas were detected by many.
How to spot it: Restrained, but with a combination of wheat flavours and rye spiciness.
Finlandia; 40% abv; RRP £14.68;
Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762100
Sipsmith; 40% abv; RRP £22.99; Sipsmith, 020 8741 2034
Another material with only one representative, this time hailing from France – Cîroc, made from Mauzac Blanc and Ugni Blanc grapes. Somewhat predictably, it was rated the fruitiest vodka in this tasting by a country mile. It was also judged the least creamy, and almost the least spicy.
Other descriptors included lemon, lemon sherbet and orange zest, with a resulting freshness, and quite a degree of sweetness.
How to spot it: An abundance of fruit flavours – a variety of citrus in particular.
Cîroc; 40% abv; RRP £37.99; Diageo, 0845 751 5701
There was a strong showing on the potato vodka front, with Chase, Luksusowa and Karlsson’s representing England, Poland and Sweden, respectively. There was a consistency between these brands in some respects, but significant diversity in others.
For example, Chase had a distinctive sweetness, while the two from further afield ranked as the two spirits here with the least sweetness. In the spiciness stakes, the three bunched together in mid-ranks, while their fruitiness scores were nothing short of erratic, with Luksusowa at the back of the pack, Chase in the middle, and Karlsson’s rating one of the highest. Creaminess is thought to be a giveaway for potato vodkas, and this was indeed the case for all but Karlsson’s.
Karlsson’s was, however, certainly distinctive – a result, no doubt, of its single distillation. Notes included chilli, black pepper, berries, chocolate, smoked roast potatoes, and an earthy, savoury rusticity.
Chase didn’t come on quite so strong, but nevertheless elicited some appealing descriptors such as violet and liquorice, as well as showing some saltiness and minerality alongside its sweetness.
Finally, Luksusowa was described by almost every panellist as either creamy or buttery, with some mentioning citrus or anise, and a few describing a pungency to the nose.
How to spot it: Creaminess usually suggests potato, often accompanied by a rustic, pungent aroma.
Chase; 40% abv; RRP £32.95; chasedistillery.co.uk
Karlsson’s; 40% abv; RRP £32.99; Spirits of Gold, 07854 619563
Luksusowa; 40% abv; RRP £13.99; Marblehead, 0141 955 9091
The wildcard of the tasting, Fair is produced from Fairtrade quinoa grown in Bolivia. It’s safe to say that there are few preconceptions when it comes to the characteristics of a quinoa-based spirit. Between them, tasters guessed that this was produced from every other base material present in the tasting. Judged to be medium in spice and fruit, and high in sweetness and creaminess, it’s no surprise that panellists mistook it for a potato vodka.
Fair was variously described as fruity, floral, rich and woody, with tasters identifying buttered toast, pastry and molasses. More than one comparison was made to tequila.
How to spot it: A full-flavoured, sweet and creamy vodka, with a floral, perfumed nose.
Fair; 40% abv; RRP £ 37,99; Fair Trade Spirits, 020 7235 5020
Whether we’re talking whisky or vodka, rye-based spirits are expected to be characteristically spicy, and are arguably best at retaining the character of their base material.
Rye’s two representatives here, both hailing from Poland, certainly kept up the spice side of the bargain, with Belvedere being ranked highest in this category, with Wyborowa not far behind. When it came to sweetness and creaminess, these were both judged to be in the middle of the road, and marginally less fruity than that.
Specifically, Belvedere started with citrus and cereal aromas, developing peppery notes, and finishing with leather and spice. Overall, it was thought to be quite easy and non-controversial. Wyborowa was judged to be relatively sweeter, particularly at the start, with an additional salty toastiness.
How to spot it: A high degree of spiciness, accompanied by bready, actual rye characters, and maybe some sweetness too.
Belvedere; 40% abv; RRP £29.99; Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7235 9411
Wyborowa; 40% abv; RRP £16.99; Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
Iceberg single-handedly represented the admittedly small sweetcorn vodka category, with the vegetable living up to its name by being named the spirit with the most apparent sweetness in this line-up. It was also identified as one of the least creamy vodkas in this line-up, as well as one of the most fruity.
This continued in the more detailed tasting notes given by the panel, with descriptions of fruit being the order of the day, particularly on the palate, with a clean restrained nose.
How to spot it: A distinctive sweetness, accompanied by a lot of citrus- and stone-fruit.
Iceberg; 40% abv; RRP £26-30; Signature Lifestyles, 07917 819 131
With four brands in this line-up, wheat was the most well represented ingredient here, and also the most diverse. Ketel One, for example, only gained a high ranking for creaminess, while Akvinta was thought to have only average sweetness, fruit and creaminess, with the lowest degree of spiciness of the tasting. Russian Standard came out in the middle ranks for all categories, while Grey Goose came out aws one of the sweetest and spiciest on the day, with average fruit and creaminess.
One taster described Akvinta as having ‘a little light liquorice, with a grassy finish’, with others describing it as balanced and delicate, and identifying lemon, cereal and nutty aromas. Ketel One was primarily defined by its restraint, with additional comments about its creaminess on the palate.
Russian Standard was described mainly in terms of its fruit, stone-fruit in particular, and by a spiciness, tempered by a bit of sweetness. Grey Goose, in addition to its ‘sweet and spice’ description, was seen by more than one taster as well rounded, reminding one of sponge cake.
How to spot it: While the flavour profile of these vodkas varied, all were described as delicate and restrained, and many had a bready, grain-like character.
Akvinta; 40% abv; RRP £32.99; John Jeffrey, 07885 972206
Grey Goose; 40% abv; RRP £32.99; Bacardi-Martini, 01962 762296
Ketel One; 40% abv; RRP £21.99; Diageo, 0845 751 5701
Russian Standard; 40% abv; RRP £14.49; First Drinks, 02380 312000
Thanks to Galvin La Chapelle in London for hosting the tasting, and for all their help on the day.
| Popularity contest
While this tasting wasn’t primarily about ranking one brand over another, we did ask the tasters to select their three
favourite vodkas out of the 14 presented here. The most
popular vodkas on the day, in order, were:
1 Wyborowa (rye)
So that’s one of each of the main materials tasted, with a
Riccardo Andreotti, Galvin Restaurants
‘Guessing the base material is really difficult, except for a couple of cases. There was definitely complexity here though. Base materials might be a point of difference, and I don’t know about other bars, but I never have a chance to talk to customers about vodka.’
Paul Bradley, Citizen Smith
‘I’ve always chosen vodkas based on this – I’d have one wheat, one rye, etc, so that there’s something distinctive about each one. But here I didn’t pick that up. It makes me assume that to some extent the profiles are in my head. There’s more complexity in vodka than we give the category credit for, but it’s very subtle.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘The base material undoubtedly has an effect on the vodka produced, particularly with some of the more unconventional ingredients. How much these differences matter to consumers, or the degree to which such subtleties can be detected in a drink, is another issue entirely.’
Stuart Hudson, Kanaloa
‘I thought 90% of these were well-balanced. If you don’t have a good taste profile, but have a good brand image, you can be in some bars, but not in others. I think it’s about maintaining that balance.’
Julien Lafond, The Brompton Club
‘For my bar, it’s important to have more than a few vodkas because we do a lot of Martinis, and I think people ask for a particular brand because they like its profile. But if I asked 10 customers, only one would know the base of Grey Goose.’
Warren Lee, Viajante
‘Although there were quite a few similarities overall, I thought that there were some here that were different – that stood out. There’s that distinctive wheat and rye spiciness, for example. Vodka’s usually just about adding an alcoholic hit to a drink though.’
Andy Mil, London Cocktail Club
‘There’s a niche for vodkas with a different flavour. You’ll have eight vodkas on the backbar, but only three that really taste different. A lot of these were the kind that you mix with cranberry, and you feel like you’re drinking cranberry. For me, mouthfeel is really important in vodka.’
Chistian Ozzati, JuJu
‘I think customers are more interested in the brand. No-one knows what a particular vodka is made from. You could have just a speedrail vodka and Grey Goose – it’s almost like you only have to have a decent back bar in case one of us walk into each other’s venue.’
Dan Priseman, Bitters & Twisted
‘I was surprised at not being able to distinguish more between these. I suppose that confirms that it’s a pretty neutral spirit, or at least more subtle. There were a few that stood out as being well made – like the ones that showed spiciness without the alcohol burn of a poorly-made spirit.’