The aim of Vodka for …well, forever, has been to taste neutral and soft so that it goes down easily, for rapid drunkenness. People who don’t really like the taste of grown-up drinks (booze) can get pissed on Vodka disguised as soft drinks or shotted like medicine.
Bison grass Vodka (Zubrowka is the genre of which there are many brands BTW) has historically been the exception, with the grass giving it a lovely warm vanilla flavour.
Vodka can be made from anything with a sugar content – potatoes, grapes, any fruit actually, rice, sugar beet, wheat, maize, sugar… anything. Black Cow is made entirely from milk. The base ingredient ferments; yeasts turn the sugar into alcohol. At this point the stuff is a beer or a wine but probably not one that you’d want to drink. Then it’s distilled to extract the alcohol. It will be too strong to drink after distillation, so purified water is then added to bring it back down to a drinkable strength of around 40% ABV.
At last, now that micro-distilleries are popping up like mushrooms, and drinks enthusiasts are increasingly interested in the origin and production of their spirits, the flavour of the base ingredient is suddenly desirable in Vodka.
New Vodkas are emerging that taste of something, and on purpose. They still aim to be smooth, just with proper flavour. They should be drunk neat – sipped not downed in shots – or be the star of simple, sophisticated cocktails. Ever the pioneers, Sipsmith created their Sipping Vodka a few years ago, and WOW it has to be tasted to be believed. I was a bit of a Vodka snob before tasting it TBH. I didn't really see the point of it, seeing as it didn't taste of anything, and there are plenty of spirits that taste delicious. But this Vodka is a joy to drink due to its Vodkaness, rather than its neutrality. As well as Sipsmith, you have to try Ghost Vodka - the flavour of the sugar beet from which it’s made is delicious.
Tasters at the Sipsmith Distillery, London
This shift is a paradox, as there are plenty of drinks distilled from the same things as Vodka, but because they are not neutral they have different names; Moonshine, Whisky, Fruit Eaux De Vies, Schnapps, Brandy. This means that as Vodka becomes less neutral the lines are blurring and the distinction between Vodka and unaged Brandy for example may become increasingly unclear.
These range from the traditional disgusting-cheap-industrial-alcohol-with-disgusting-cheap-industrial-flavourings, to high quality spirit with high quality natural flavourings (Cîroc, Two Birds, Zubrowka, Thunder Toffee Vodka, Pancracio Chocolate Vodka, the amazing Chase Smoked Vodka), to craft premium spirit distilled with botanicals. Gin is one of the latter (read All About Gin here), but there are Vodkas in this style without the required juniper of Gin - Blackwoods, for example.
Yuck. Nuclear Vodka shots; industrial spirit flavoured and coloured with chemicals.
Now that Vodkas have flavour profiles, they can actually bring something to cocktails. Hello Vodka.