Vodka: Neutral But Not Boring
Posted On: August 31, 2015
By Ruth Tobias, CSX Contributor
For years, vodka was to craft bartenders what Pinot Grigio is to sommeliers: without much flavor, character or excitement. But today its reputation is on the mend, thanks to a new wave of distillers who’ve proven themselves committed—no less than fine winemakers—to showcasing the typicity and even terroir of their base ingredients in true sipping vodkas.
Unlike winemakers, though, distillers have a wealth of raw materials available to them. From quinoa and beets to sugarcane and, yes, grapes, vodka can be made from myriad agricultural products, each making its own subtle but undeniable mark. (Admittedly, sticklers argue that fruit vodkas are just brandies with a higher ABV.) Still, producers who stick with traditional crops may provide the clearest proof (no pun intended) that craft vodka is inherently distinctive.
Take Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt, Colorado. For its acclaimed vodkas, founders Mark Kleckner and Pat and Mary Scanlan grow potatoes on their own farm—indigenous Rio Grande russets for the flagship label and Strobrawa, a high-starch Polish type they had to get governmental approval to grow on American soil, for the reserve bottling. The results, says Kleckner, have “an earthiness, a touch of sweetness, and a creamy mouth feel” that minimalist production methods help reveal.
What Kleckner calls the “ten times distilled, nine times filtered” approach is, per Dave Willis, co-founder of Boston’s Bully Boy Distillers, “really more a product of marketing than actual efficiency these days. If you distill and filter correctly the first time,” further processing is not only unnecessary but potentially personality-stripping.
In that light, you can imagine how comparing Bully Boy’s wheat vodka to, say, the rye vodka made by Novato, California’s Square One Organic Spirits would be like sampling fresh-baked white and rye bread side by side—the former offering a light, smooth sweetness, the latter “spicier, nuttier flavors and a full-bodied complexity,” in Square One CEO Allison Evanow’s words. You can also imagine what to do with them: where the nuances of wheat vodka might light up a simple Martini, its rye counterpart could stand up to a Bloody Mary, and Kleckner suggests balancing zingy ginger beer with buttery potato vodka in a Moscow Mule.
But first, says Willis, try them “straight on ice.” These days, that’s all in good taste.