Two years ago, the economy was horrid, my coffers looked like coffins, and I’d agreed begrudgingly to take on the story the other writers at a certain beverage magazine wouldn’t touch. It was entitled “Vodka – Mixologists Love It Because It’s Awesome.”
Ok, that wasn’t actually the title, but it wasn’t taking E.S.P. to infer it was the angle my editor wanted. I figured he’d probably sold a full-page ad to Sorority Girl Sugar-Pop Vodka or Axe Body Spray Citrón and needed someone (i.e. me) to wax poetic about how America’s most renowned mixologists were simply in love with these marketing-blowhard brands. I shot out an email inquiry to my contacts behind the bar, and the first response from a certain Seattle bartender summed up the state of things:
“I’m happy to tell you about vodka,” he wrote. “I clean my bar with it at the end of every shift.”
Such vehement distaste for vodka among many craft bartenders was par for the course a few years ago. It was understandable, given that the average customer had fallen prey to marketing companies telling them they could get drunk easier if they didn’t have to taste the spirit. Vodka, thus, became synonymous with something that’s sole purpose was to taste like nothing.
Today, many spirit companies are working hard to change that image, and creating vodkas not only with exceptional taste, but unique base products that haven’t been utilized before. This year at Tales of the Cocktail, one of the nation’s largest beverage industry gatherings, things certainly looked “more appetizing” where vodka was concerned. Square One Organic vodka launched a new basil flavor at Tales this year, and Fair Trade Spirits arrived to showcase a vodka made from Bolivian quinoa. Many attendees also became acquainted with Zú Bison Grass vodka, flavored from the Bison grass that’s native to Poland.
In 2012, expect to see a great number of vodka brands cropping up, with a food product at the heart, and a true sense of terroir on the palate.
“I think it’s great that companies are now trying to make something where you can actually taste what the vodka’s made from,” explains Stephanie Schneider, co-owner of Huckleberry in Brooklyn, NY. “You can actually taste the Red Delicious apples in Core vodka. If you really pay attention to smell and taste where vodka is concerned, you can get notes of grain, bread, fruit, butter, and spices — depending on the brand.”
Next time you are out on the town or dancing down the aisles of your local liquor store, try out one of the following. I know my friend in Seattle would sooner whip up a Windex Gimlet before he considered cleaning his bar with any of these.
- Zú Bison Grass
In Poland, vodka has been revered as the national spirit for hundreds of years. Bison grass vodka, made from the indigenous wild sweet grass native to Poland, was produced in the northeast region of the country as far back as the 14th century. The Zubrówka label (Zubrówka literally translates to “bison grass”) was popular stateside in the early 1970s, but in ’78, our pesky F.D.A. had a little issue with a blood-thinning agent called Coumarin, which is found in bison grass. The spirit was outlawed in America. After years of work by chemists, the company has now found a way to remove the Coumarin and has recently launched Zú Bison Grass vodka in America. Single copper columns and 14th century craftsmanship combined with ingredients sourced solely from a remote geographical region in Poland make Zú a vodka marked by grass and herbal undertones, with notes of almond, vanilla and chamomile. Definitely worth tasting, and of course, mixing.
- FAIR. Quinoa
FAIR Trade Spirits is the world’s first and only “fair-trade certified” spirits producer. This means that every person from the farmers to the harvesters to those working in the distillery is paid a fair living wage. For more than 1,200 families farming quinoa in Bolivia, producing this vodka means a way out of poverty. The spirit is marked by an intensely creamy mouth feel with the nutty, savory essence of quinoa and hints of orange peel and white pepper as well. It’s a feel-good project that happens to taste really good too.
- Karlsson’s Gold
This is a spirit with such rich, earthy flavor, it stands up to a bleeding raw steak or within a 19-ingredient Bloody Mary. The flavor comes courtesy of seven varieties of raw, virgin new potatoes at the base, harvested before they even consider growing skins, in Sweden’s southeast peninsula known as Cape Bjare. It’s distilled but a single time to retain as much flavor as possible, giving imbibers a bit of cream, and a faint hint of butter and herbs that begs to be sprinkled with black pepper.
- Core Vodka
If you drive a Ford and your Bruce Springsteen collection is serious, Core is your vodka. On a small farm in Valatie, New York, fresh, sustainably harvested apples travel a few feet to the distillery. They are run through an antique rack-and-cloth cider press, and the fermented juice is distilled three times, resulting in a vodka with a delightfully fruity nose, buttery, creamy taste and a dry, clean finish with apple notes.
- Square One Organic Basil
With basil working so strenuously on cocktail menus around the country, it was only a matter of time before it landed in a bottle. I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t arrive spelled some stupid way and bearing an overpowering faux herb finish. You can thank me for my superstitious payoff later. First, sip Square One’s latest endeavor. Their first vodka, simply labeled Square One Organic, was great. It’s no surprise they nailed this one as well. Organic essences of four basil varieties — Genovese, Thai, Lemon and Sweet — are combined with coriander, honeysuckle and lemongrass, which act as softeners for the heaviness of the basil. As an organic spirits company, they achieve genuine taste sans synthetic flavorings or added sugars.