Today’s culinary vodkas yield flavors of everything from tree sap to Polish grass.
By Jenny Adams
The cocktail revolution has helped us all become reacquainted with gin. It’s also opened our eyes (and mouths) to the beauty of Chartreuse and the essence of eau de vies. Absinthe is back from its 100-year banishment, and agricole rums are emigrating from islands far and wide. But waltz into a true cocktail speakeasy and announce you love vodka, and you might get a laugh from behind the bar. Vodka took a beating these last few years where high-end cocktails were concerned. Requesting it in many places was equated with taking the road-less-flavorful. It’s understandable, given that for decades giant vodka brands marketed the liquid as tasteless and odorless. In the ’90s, many became so infused with fruit, you were sucking down a fake blueberry worthy of Willy Wonka. While a great number of vodkas still fall prey to these antics, it’s not the case with all. These five culinary-minded versions herald the truth about America’s largest-selling spirit category: Vodka can pack a sense of true terroir and exciting, natural flavor.
Maple syrup goes great with flapjacks and, apparently, with cocktails. Vermont Spirits produces three vodkas: a Gold label made from maple syrup, a White made from milk sugar and a Limited Release made entirely from early run maple sap. The Vermont Gold label is
constantly distilled and sparingly filtered to give imbibers a lightly caramelized, medium viscosity spirit. Subtle sweetness and hints of butterscotch can and likely will elicit thoughts of blowing off work and sipping it with a side of pancakes.
Hangar One was first to prove that vodka could taste like something. Their “somethings” tend to be on the exotic, almost whimsical side, and this year they took them on the road with a nationwide blimp tour. The distillers make each batch by hand, distilling the fresh fruits the same day they arrive from harvest. Each of the company’s three vodkas starts with a viognier grape base. The Kaffir Lime and Mandarin Blossom labels are stellar accomplishments, but Citron Buddha’s Hand is by far the most unique. The Southeast Asian fruit, which looks like a dangling cluster of warped fingers, is the predecessor of the common lemon. It’s got a bit deeper flavor range that skews slightly basil-jasmine-floral in character.
Zú Bison Grass Vodka
Zú is the American version brought to us by the parent Polish vodka, Zubrowka (pronounced zoo-BROV-ka). Zubrowka became popular stateside in the 1970s, but in ’78 our fanatical FDA sent it packing thanks to low levels of a blood thinner called coumarin found in the bison grass, which flavors the product’s hearty rye base. It took them years in the lab, but the company has released a coumarin-free version in America that’s a dead ringer for the original formula with the easier-to-pronounce title of “Zú.” There’s a strong aroma of hay on this spirit, and that extends in the sip. There are additional herbal undertones, creamy vanilla nuances and notes of chamomile.
Karlsson’s Gold Vodka
Karlsson’s Gold begins with an ingredient as common to vodkas as it is to dinner plates: potatoes. But for this potable, it’s not just any spud. The distillers employ a combination of seven raw varieties, harvested from the Cape Bjare region on Sweden’s southern peninsula. The liquid is then run once—and only once—through a continuous still, to leave the heart of the blend intact. Thick and viscous on the nose and tongue, the flavor’s rich and creamy, with heavy earth and butter notes. It begs to belong in a peppery Bloody Mary or on the rocks with a dash of ground black pepper.
Crop Organic Tomato
American-made and certified organic, Crop Harvest Earth’s line of vodkas achieves natural flavors through careful processes sans charcoal filtering. The yield is a balanced, aromatic line of spirits that help rather than hinder the planet, including a straightforward vodka, a cucumber flavor and the standout tomato option. One of the few tomato vodkas on the market (and one of the only that does the plump fruit justice) this liquid highlights the vegetal quality of fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, without being overbearing. And, while you might not sip it neat, it makes
fantastic, perfectly clear Bloody Marys.