Vodka tasting: Pure & premium

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

16 December 2020

Having the right house-pour vodka is as important as ever, but what about the price points above that? Clinton Cawood joins a panel of tasters as they explore vodka’s upselling potential

The panel

  • Nelson Bernardes, The Churchill Bar & Terrace
  • Samuel Boulton, The Pineapple Club
  • Alena Cagnato, Bassoon Bar at Corinthia Hotel
  • Anthony Callegari, The Ned
  • Clinton Cawood, freelance journalist
  • Tomáš Čistý, 12 Hay Hill
  • Kelly Harrison, The New World Trading Company
  • Alexander Taylor, Pennyroyal

As much as the world of white spirits seems dominated by gin and all of its increasingly-flavoured iterations, vodka remains an important part of any bar’s offering, not least when it comes to ubiquitous drinks like the Espresso or Pornstar Martini.

As a result, it’s good business sense to ensure that your house pour is working as hard as it can both in terms of flavour and value for money. But this is a diverse and multifaceted category, with potential when it comes to upselling and offering customers something new and interesting.

To this end, we called in a selection of vodkas priced between £20 and £28 RRP – a trade up from rail vodka, but not silly money either. These turned out to be an assorted bunch, from various countries and made from an array of raw materials. Bartenders from an equally diverse range of venues were enlisted to taste these blind.

The results reflect this diversity too – if yours is the type of venue where you’re able to upsell, and particularly if you’re selling decent amounts of Vodka Martinis, there are some interesting and potentially lucrative options to be found here.

How it works

We asked UK distributors to submit examples of vodkas priced between £20 and £28 RRP from their portfolios. Due to coronavirus restrictions, we couldn’t gather all tasters in one place, so the vodkas had to be sampled separately. We re-bottled and numbered all samples to make sure they could be tasted blind, boxed them and shipped them to our tasters, who sampled and scored the vodkas out of 100. We then averaged the marks to determine each vodka’s final score. Once all sampling was done, we virtually caught up with the tasters to discuss the outcome.

RESULTS

84 Black Cow Vodka

Our panel’s favourite vodka in this flight by quite a margin, Black Cow stood out for its bold flavour profile, starting out with some sweet, creamy notes of caramel and toffee, as well as some custard aromas. This led to a rich palate with similar sweet notes, including vanilla ice cream and candied fruit, like strawberry, a touch of spice, and even some roasted coffee. Tasters commented on its rounded mouthfeel and long finish, with one suggesting that this could be paired with food, and would even stand up in a Vodka Manhattan.

40% abv, RRP £25/700ml, Mangrove UK

78 Victory Vodka

East London-based Victory Distillery makes use of unroasted green coffee in its distillation process for this vodka, which it says contributes savoury and vegetal notes. For our panellists, this translated into herbal notes of pine and rosemary, as well as grapefruit peel, mustard seed and a touch of bread on the nose. The palate followed with some additional perfumed notes of lavender and pink peppercorn, with some additional grapefruit and spice, and a noteworthy, chewy texture, leading to a sweet finish.

43.3% abv, RRP £28/700ml, Victory London Distillery

76 Element 29 Wheat Vodka

Sustainable wheat vodka Element 29 is named after copper’s number on the periodic table, and specifically refers to its final distillation in a copper pot still at Langley Distillery. With one of the lowest price tags in this tasting, it proved to be excellent value, with some tasters correctly identifying some wheat notes, accompanied by some light citrus and vanilla aromas. A good, creamy mouthfeel followed, with a touch of liquorice and black pepper spice too.

40% abv, RRP £20.30/700ml, Identity Drinks Brands

 74 NAUD Premium French Vodka

France’s contender in this line up, produced using winter wheat, was a hit with our panellists. They praised its distinct grain and bakery notes, identifying cereal and biscotti, with a toasty element too, alongside some sweeter notes of vanilla, butterscotch and cacao, not to mention some grassy, peppery notes. The palate brought in more of those sweet vanilla notes, as well as some candied fruit, paired with some spice and light liquorice notes, and a pleasant bitterness throughout.

40% abv, RRP £22.50/700ml, Paragon Brands

74 Silent Pool Wry Vodka

Silent Pool’s entrant is made with rye grain spirit and filtered through local charcoal. Tasters thought that it stood out in this flight, with some unique flavours and a distinctive mouthfeel too. The nose opened with some nutty almond notes accompanied by white pepper and a violet note. A far richer, warming and honeyed palate followed, with a touch of green apple and a return of that peppery note, which all led one taster to picture this alongside a cheese platter.

40% abv, RRP £22/700ml, Proof Drinks

75 Wheatley Vodka

Buffalo Trace’s Wheatley Vodka, made unsurprisingly from wheat, is small-batch distilled using a micro still, a process that is evident in this spirit’s flavour profile and mouthfeel. Tasters found a deceptively restrained nose with predominant citrus notes and a touch of minerality, that led to a rounded, smooth palate packed with flavour. Panellists described a mix of savoury and sweet notes, with a mineral salinity and some earthy cardamom notes, paired with plenty of spice and some appealing grain notes too. A sipping vodka perfectly suited to neat serves.

41% abv, RRP £26/700ml, Hi-Spirits

73 Ketel One Vodka

Dutch wheat vodka Ketel One was a divisive one for our panel. There was no shortage of praise for its clean, fresh aromas and good mouthfeel. Tasters appreciated grassy notes alongside some bright citrus on the nose, and some plum fruit on the honeyed, buttery palate, with a hint of peppercorn spice. Its detractors, on the other hand, detected a synthetic note on the nose, and thought it was perhaps too dominated by citrus.

40% abv, RRP £23/700ml, Diageo

72 Absolut Vodka

Sweden’s Absolut was characterised by its approachability and light flavour profile – this is a versatile, great-value vodka. Tasters enjoyed its sweet notes of cream soda and caramel on the nose, paired with distinct grain and baked bread notes, leading to vanilla and spice on the palate, with some peppery and grassy notes to balance. Some thought this was notably sippable, while others found a touch too much alcohol on the finish.

40% abv, RRP £20/700ml, Pernod-Ricard

72 JJ Whitley Potato Vodka

Our panellists appreciated the versatility of JJ Whitley’s entry, which opened with a light, delicate nose of grated lime rind and cream soda, leading to a fuller palate with notes of salted caramel, coconut and rich tea biscuits. This was joined by some pepperiness towards the finish, combined with predominant vanilla throughout.

38% abv, RRP £20/700ml, Halewood Internationa

67 Koskenkorva

Finland’s Koskenkorva divided our panel. There was praise for its clean, approachable flavour profile, with lively citrus pith aromas combined with some vanilla notes, as well as what one taster identified as fennel. The palate brought some creamy sweetness, along with some chocolate and anise notes. But for some of our tasters, this approachability meant there wasn’t quite as much character as they were expecting.

40% abv, RRP £21.99/700ml, Indie Brands

65 East London Liquor Co Vodka

There wasn’t a negative word said about East London Liquor Co’s vodka, and for some of our panellists it was the best of the bunch, but others thought it perhaps too neutral. For its fans, however, there were some leafy notes, and a touch of mint, leading to a zesty palate with lemongrass and grapefruit flavours, and a long, delicate finish.

40% abv, RRP £21.50/700ml, East London Liquor Co

Panel comments

Nelson Bernardes, The Churchill Bar & Terrace

‘There’s nothing like doing a blind tasting, or even a Martini flight, to understand how vodkas can have such different characters from one other. When it comes to vodka there’s still a lot of guest education to be done, and it also needs brands to suggest serves that best enhance their products.

‘That said, all of our cocktails listed on the menu have a brand deal, so the opportunity we have to upsell vodka mostly relies on the Dry Martini. I think the connection you make with the brand on a personal level is very important, as is finding a way to pass that on to your guest.’

Samuel Boulton, The Pineapple Club

‘The price point really made a difference here – they definitely got better as the prices went up. None of them were at a house pour price, but there were at least three that I thought would make fantastic premium upsells. But for Pornstar and Espresso Martinis, where I make my money, it wouldn’t add value for the customer to use something more expensive than a rail vodka. If it made a big difference, like it would with something like tequila, I’d do it, but not until the customer understanding is there to make that loss of cash worth it.

‘The one thing the vodka market isn’t doing, which gin has done, is marketing the differences between them. Vodka marketing has been the same for the past 30 years. But if I was buying a premium vodka, I’d be willing to go towards the higher-prices here, or above. It depends on the branding and the bottle too though – if these are in great looking bottles and I believe in the liquid, then great, I’m just going to make more money.’

Alena Cagnato, Bassoon Bar at Corinthia Hotel

‘A few of these were really good value, but I found that some weren’t. I was looking for something completely different, maybe something dry, like a rye vodka. We usually have 10 vodkas on our list, each for various reasons – some because everyone knows them, or to have something really high end, or less well known. It’s easy for us to upsell in our environment, where it’s never a problem for a guest to pay a pound or two extra.

‘It’s actually easier to direct a guest when it comes to vodka compared to something like whisky, there they know what they want. If someone asks for potato vodka you can suggest a rye vodka, but if someone wants bourbon you can’t sell them scotch.’

Anthony Callegari, The Ned

‘There was a good mix of vodkas here, and I liked the majority of them. Even though the prices weren’t much higher than house pours, there were really high standards here. When it comes to putting together a vodka list though, price isn’t really a problem – we have vodkas that range from £30 to £90, changing the selection every six months.

‘There’s interest from consumers in vodkas from small producers. Guests ask about them, about how they taste. In our restaurant they’re definitely willing to try different vodka cocktails, whereas in the club it’s more about the Espresso Martinis.’

Clinton Cawood, freelance journalist

‘There’s some really good value to be had in the vodka category at these price points, where a slightly higher price point goes a long way. And there was some excellent variety to be had in terms of flavour profile here too – if you’re serving Vodka Martinis there’s no shortage of interesting and affordable options here.

‘That’s the problem though. Vodka is predominantly sold in drinks that tend to hide the nuances we were seeing. It’s a potentially awkward price point, when there are cheaper options that do the job just as well. As our panellists mentioned, the category has been making progress in recent years, but could do with more serves that highlight the spirit itself.’

Tomáš Čistý, 12 Hay Hill

‘It’s a very interesting category. There aren’t many bad vodkas nowadays – I think the quality is definitely on the rise, and it remains a trendy category. Value in vodka is very important. As I’m in a members’ club, I have plenty of time to upsell so I like to have more premium vodkas on the shelf, while in the speedrail there’s something cheaper and a bit lighter to help with my GP. If it goes in the speedrail the value has to be great, but for the back bar the price isn’t that important.

‘Vodka has really made some massive steps forward in the last three years. We should be thinking about the raw material, and making drinks that are more focused on the spirit itself. White Russians with barley or potato vodkas would be great – it’s all about acknowledging to customers that it’s a different vodka. I also hope that one day people will be sipping vodka.’

Kelly Harrison, The New World Trading Company

‘Our vodka sales haven’t been huge, as the category is competing with the explosion in flavoured gins, and with people experimenting with other spirits. We stock a relatively premium vodka as our house pour, and the majority of the volume is through cocktails. Staff training and engagement around vodka is really key – it’s about giving people the reasoning behind a slightly higher price point, as well as the confidence and ability to share that information with customers. I think it’s not only about the brand or even the spirit, but about the serve. If the product is served to a poor standard the customers are left wondering why it cost so much.

‘When it comes to value, the vodka category can be quite challenging. Although it’s meant to be neutral, quality vodka can have a lot going on aromatically, and not always at huge price points – higher prices don’t always mean good quality. That said, I’m a believer in having at least the option of three when it comes to pricing and upselling. If you have something that’s good, better and the best, you have the ability to take the guest on a journey up the ranks.'

Alexander Taylor, Pennyroyal

‘Whether you need a premium vodka depends on your offering. If you’re the kind of venue that’s selling a lot of Martini-style drinks then having an upsell vodka makes sense, but if you’re only hammering it out in spirit and mixers, you lose the differences between different vodkas quite a lot. We sell a lot of Cosmos and Espresso Martinis, where there’s not enough of a discernible difference to warrant the upsell, but I also say that staff aren’t allowed to make Martinis with our house pour – they have to upsell.

‘In general I think vodka has a different purpose to other spirits for those that drink it, based on the concept that it’s a more neutral spirit. The drinking experience is more secondary. If you’re out drinking high-end whisky that’s a focal point for your evening, whereas vodka is really there to supplement what your evening is about.’

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