Not so neutral: Tasting vodkas with flavour

09 June 2017

Filtered, flavourless, and distilled to within an inch of their lives? No sir, not these babies. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of bartenders for some va va vodkas with va va voom


You know a spirit sub-category is exciting when there isn’t a good name for it yet. Several modern vodka producers are moving away from the category’s odourless, flavourless, distilled-x-times and filtered-through-Patagonian-lava days, and presenting spirits they say have some flavour to them. Collectively, they are making vodkas with… character. Or maybe non-neutral vodka. The fact a name doesn’t exist yet shows how new a trend this is.

Regardless of what you might call them, this much-maligned category is making somewhat of a comeback, with flavourful examples being released by big brands and small start-ups alike.

Each has a claim for how their spirit achieves non-neutrality – whether it is the way it is distilled, or an aversion to filtration, for example. Sometimes it is a distinctive base ingredient, while others add a small amount of something, though all are conspicuously steering well clear of flavoured vodka, which certainly shall not be mentioned on these pages.

We’ll look back on the days of pure and neutral and wonder what everyone was on about. Maybe. But in the meantime there’s lots to explore, and lots with which to expand your customers’ horizons too.


How it works
We called in a selection of vodkas, some established but many new, that don’t place an emphasis on purity and neutrality. Instead, these take pride in having some character, whether that’s derived from the base material, production method or an ingredient. The vodkas were tasted blind, with panellists only aware of price. Each scored out of 20, they were averaged to give each product a percentage score. All prices are RRP.

Panel
Elliot Ball, The Cocktail Trading Co; Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower;
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Fabio Immovilli, Samarkand; Walter Neagu, Samarkand;
Lewis Parry, The Curious Cat


Results

88 Vestal Appellation Pomorze 2014, Poland, potato
Arguably the most characterful and unusual spirit in this tasting, praise for Vestal’s vintage offering was unanimous, despite it bearing the highest price tag of the day. One of two site-specific, unfiltered, vintage products in this Polish potato vodka range, Pomorze comes from the southern part of the Baltic Sea. Asterix, a red-skinned potato variety, is fermented and single distilled.

The result was a combination of fruit and spice, perhaps best described as ‘cigar dipped in cherry juice’ by one taster. Others drew parallels with mezcal’s agave notes, while more than one taster said they identified eaux de vie, kirsch-like notes.

Served neat, this would match spicy food, thought one panellist, while another considered putting it to use in a Vodka Manhattan – two words you don’t see next to each other every day.
40% abv, £32/50cl (equivalent to £44.80/70cl), vestalvodka.com

80 Absolut Elyx, Sweden, wheat
Launched back in 2013, Absolut Elyx has all the necessary credentials, distilled using a vintage copper column still from 1929, with local, single-estate winter wheat at its base. It ticked all our panellists’ boxes when it came to flavour too, with high scores across the board.

Unlike Vestal in first place, Elyx impressed tasters with some quite traditional vodka characteristics, but in rounded, generous, opulent form. ‘Deep and heavy in flavour, with a rounded mouthfeel,’ said one, while another thought this was ‘rich and appealing’. Tasters described some sweet citrus notes, honey, vanilla and marshmallow notes, finishing with a touch of liquorice.

Most of the panel described this as a sipping vodka and praised its ability to stand on its own, or do great service within a Martini.
40% abv, £38.25/70cl, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484

80 Ramsbury Vodka, England, wheat
Relatively recent entrant Ramsbury Vodka is produced on the eponymous estate in Wiltshire, where the wheat to produce it is grown, and where its water is sourced. The result was good enough to take joint second place in this line up, with our tasters generous in their praise.

This was described by our panellists as generous and rounded, from red fruit like cranberries and cherries, with a citrus and floral lift, to vanilla cream and a nutmeg-and-rice-pudding note, culminating in a velvet finish.

All of this gave it a distinct food-friendliness, with plenty of dessert recommendations coming in from tasters, as well as one suggestion to pair this with lamb or beef skewers. ‘Beautiful in a 4°C Martini with olives,’ added one of them, precisely.
43% abv, £38/70cl, Ramsbury Brewing & Distilling Company, 01672 541407

78 Sweet Potato Vodka, England/US, sweet potato
The Sweet Potato Spirits Company has a range of products based on this previously-unglamorous root vegetable (with the base material sourced from North Carolina), including a spiced rum – combining cane and sweet potatoes – and ‘chocolate moonshine with chilli’. Its comparatively pedestrian vodka won our panellists over with its unique and out-there flavour profile.

Comparisons were drawn with grappa and mezcal, with grape and pear (not to mention pear drop) aromas joining some cassis, as well as a vegetal, celery note, rounded out by caramel, toffee and patisserie notes too. Unanimously thought of as a sipping vodka, one taster specified that this would be at its best at room temperature.
40% abv, £30/50cl (equivalent to £42/70cl), thesweetpotatospiritcompany.com

76 Black Cow, England, milk
The ‘Pure Milk Vodka’ made from a by-product of cheese-making that everyone’s talking about, Black Cow is distilled from fermented whey, while the curds create Barber’s 1833 Cheddar. Is it milky, or cheesy? Not to judge from our panel’s tasting notes, with only a couple describing the texture as creamy, and one using the word ‘buttery’.

But they loved it nevertheless, scoring this smooth, bold, classic vodka highly for its clean, pithy character, which was rounded out by caramel and demerara notes, not to mention a touch of spice. Regarded by many on the panel to be very well suited to a Martini.
40% abv, £34.99/70cl, Mangrove, 020 3409 6565

76 Virtuous Blond, Sweden, rye
Brand new to our shores, Virtuous does what it says on its minimalist label, with organic rye as a base ingredient, and indeed organic ingredients throughout the extensive range of flavours, as well as a sustainable business model. The vodka itself isn’t bad either…

It might not have had as much overt character as some of the others in this flight, but what it did, it did well, from a soft, slightly herbal minty nose, lifted by a touch of lemon, to its soft and sweet palate reminiscent of salted fudge, according to one taster. This led to a sweet finish with a touch of liquorice, the combination making for a great sipping spirit. And at a cracking price too.
38% abv, £23.75/70cl, virtuousspirits.com

75 Belvedere Unfiltered, Poland, rye
A category pioneer, Belvedere Unfiltered was launched back in 2011, setting sail into the ocean of either exceedingly neutral or gaudily flavoured vodkas of the time. True to its name, this vodka is distilled rye, without filtration, creating what the brand describes as ‘the whiskey drinker’s vodka’.

Unsurprising, then, that a relatively restrained nose led to a bold, creamy palate, with an appealing salinity to liven things up and a good, long finish, with some grain and liquorice notes.

For some, this vodka was a touch too sweet on the palate, but others thought this made it an ideal match for desserts, while others thought this should just be enjoyed neat or alternatively, in Martini.
43% abv, £42/70cl, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400

71 Sauvelle, France, wheat
French vodka Sauvelle is all about the filtration, although in this case it’s not about stripping out flavour, but rather about giving it some character. The process, which leaves the vodka ‘oak smoothed’, involves passing the wheat spirit through three types of wood, including charred oak.

Tasters certainly noticed, with almost every one commenting on Sauvelle’s soft, silky mouthfeel, which built gently towards some peppery, spicy heat. Along the way there was a light floral note, some caramel, and an array of herbal notes like sage, fennel and
anise. A Martini candidate.
41% abv, £35/70cl, Identity Drinks Brands, 07890 277024

67 Beluga Noble, Russia, barley malt
Each of the expressions within Russian vodka Beluga’s range, produced at the Mariinsky Distillery in Siberia, undergo a different filtration process, and have a small number of additional ingred-ients added before each undergoes a different amount of resting time. In the case of Beluga Noble, additions include honey, oats and milk thistle, before a resting period of 30 days.

While some thought this a bit too clean and pure in this particular line-up of vodkas, its proponents waxed lyrical about a creamy, buttery spirit with an appealing savoury edge and a touch of spice, making it not only a very versatile spirit, but ‘an obvious choice for a Martini’.
40% abv, £35/70cl, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

65 Arbikie, Scotland, potato
Scotland’s single-estate farm-to-bottle potato distiller Arbikie’s vodka divided our panel. It had plenty of character, but for some this wasn’t quite in balance.

For its fans, however, there was an abundance of fruit here – from lime Starburst sweets to grape and melon – as well as a soft perfume and a slightly savoury palate, with some spice to keep things interesting. An overall malty sweetness made this a potential after-dinner sipper.
43% abv, £38/70cl, Gordon & MacPhail, 01343 554801

58 Slingsby , England, wheat
Harrogate is known for its spring water, so it’s no surprise that Slingsby makes a point of using it for its spirits.

Its vodka is made with English wheat, resulting in a peppery, spicy character at first, building to some creaminess, and with a pithy finish. This is a good-quality, versatile vodka that would work well for cocktails – paired with cucumber and mint, thought one taster – but is also a candidate for being served on its own, for fans of cleaner flavour profiles in their vodka.
40% abv, £32.99/70cl, spiritofharrogate.co.uk

Many thanks to the team at Samarkand for hosting, and for their help on the day.


Conclusions

There was real excitement from our tasting panel about these spirits, sometimes giving the impression that they were tasting a new and undiscovered category – and to some extent they were.
Almost all the products here placed an emphasis on their raw material, and it showed.

In some cases, the base ingredient was particularly evident, giving these a unique flavour profile that helped them stand out.

Some of the more characterful examples would require some hand selling according to our panel, but it was agreed the products they were tasting were worth the effort.

You had to be willing to pay a bit more for all this flavour though. The top four all came in well above £35 for 70cl, although there was some great value to be had in the middle of the field. And our panel was generally willing to pay the higher prices for the best vodkas here.

Most surprisingly, tasters talked about food-friendliness across the board, and this is an area worth exploring further.

When it comes to neat serves, temperature is an important consideration, with some better suited to a somewhat chilled serve, while others would perform better at room temperature.


Panel comments

Elliot Ball, The Cocktail Trading Co
‘There were examples here where, if I was asked to make a drink that brought out the flavour of the spirit, I wouldn’t roll my eyes. And there were a couple that were utterly mental. For some, price was an issue, but I’d rather be working with those that had some character.’

Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower
‘Vodka is a category that’s overlooked by bartenders – but not consumers. This range showed that you can have exciting flavours in vodka. Although I don’t know how we can turn consumers onto some of the less neutral examples here.’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘From a category famed for its neutrality, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in this flight. It’s great to see vodka producers putting an emphasis on their raw ingredients, and achieving such excellent results at the same time. Now to convince customers that vodka can indeed have flavour...’

Fabio Immovilli, Samarkand
‘It’s definitely vodka’s moment. There were a lot here that would be really good for mixing, but overall I’d be going more for neat serves, and matching with food, either room temperature or 4°C from the fridge. People are trying to drink less nowadays, so it has to be something a customer is going to remember.’

Walter Neagu, Samarkand
‘For me the ones that stand out are the ones that highlight their raw material – it’s interesting how much you can differentiate that. Some here were a bit too neutral to be used as sipping vodkas, but the category in general is clearly going towards more interesting ones with flavour.’

Lewis Parry, The Curious Cat
‘People are coming around to the idea of a vodka drink that isn’t a fruit-based vodka drink. We have a Vodka Martini menu, and people ask for heavy vermouth, so you need a robust vodka to balance that. There were some here, however, that made me wonder when a vodka stops being a vodka.’

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