Flavored Vodka That Doesn’t Suck
Posted On: December 2, 2015
Fruity, herbal or savory, naturally flavored vodka clearly beats out the whipped cream and Swedish fish varieties.
By Ruth Tobias, CSX Contributor
Marshmallow, cookie dough, bubble gum: most flavored vodka is to spirits connoisseurs what, say, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell is to your average chowhound—an abomination fit only for coeds on a bender. Increasingly, however, there are exceptions, thanks to daredevil distillers determined to inject a little craft and class into the category.
At Brooklyn Republic (located, of course, in the namesake borough), co-owner Kary Laskin espouses a philosophy of versatile drinkability: “A big priority for us is to make our vodkas as easily sippable as they are mixed into a drink.” To that end, “we chose flavor combinations very intentionally” as a departure from the one-note majority: “For example, apple is such an iconic New York ingredient, and we wanted to use it, but there are already so many green-apple vodkas. While visiting Europe, I noticed a lot of drinks that combined elderflower with apple, so it clicked that we should try blending them. Similarly, blueberry and coconut vodkas already exist, but by combining the two flavors—one fruitier, the other nutty—we created something original that’s great on its own” [Brooklyn Republic Blueberry Coconut Vodka], but also shines mixed with, say, pineapple and lemon juice.
Speaking of originality, Alameda, California’s venerable St. George Spirits isn’t considered a pioneer for nothing. Case in point: St. George Spirits Green Chile Vodka that, says master distiller Lance Winters, “we didn’t set out to make per se. We felt that the pepper vodkas on the market were predominantly these big, ridiculous heat-bombs that people drank on a dare, not to enjoy. We wanted to explore all the facets of the chile pepper, so we test-distilled many types.” Then, he recalls, they asked themselves a key question: “What would broaden out the profile?” The multi-part answer: jalapeños for “backbone,” red and yellow bell peppers for “vegetal sweetness and mouthfeel,” serranos and habañeros for spice, lime peel for “brightness,” and cilantro for “a fresh pico de gallo character.” As for key question number two—how do you drink it?—Winters says with (unwarranted) modesty, “Call me simple and old-fashioned, but I do love it in a Bloody Mary.”
Sophisticated savory flavors may in fact prove the hallmark of craft distillers aiming to distinguish themselves from their corporate counterparts. Observes Joe Magliacco, brand owner of New York-based Crop Organic Vodka, “When you distill with organic grain, the flavor is incredibly clean, with no off-notes. So we thought it might be an amazing palette to paint flavors on. But we didn’t want to be the four-millionth vanilla vodka.” Instead, “we were the first to do Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka, which is incredible in saketinis.” Likewise, he recommends Crop Organic Tomato Vodka in Bloodless Marys: “You put in everything except the tomato juice.”
Cucumber vodka’s a signature for another organic producer, Square One in Novato, California in their Square One Cucumber Organic Vodka, as is basil—which offers a fascinating case study in flavor creation. As founder Allison Evanow explains: “I love the pepperiness of purple basil, but we were disappointed to find that it brought in too much pepper, overshadowing everything else.” The “subtle and complex” final product, Square One Basil Organic Vodka, contains four other types of basil as well as coriander, lemongrass, and honeysuckle “to bring in citrusy and floral notes and push back some of the greenness inherent” in the eponymous herb.
“The biggest challenge,” Evanow admits, is overcoming “the understandable amount of mistrust” that artificially flavored vodkas have generated. But there’s a correlating triumph: when she explains to people that real botanical ingredients trump “the flavor-of-the-month approach, you can see their expressions change to ‘Oh, wow, I get it now.’” As will you.