It’s a funny old thing is vodka. Ask most discerning drinkers and they’ll tell you that they never touch the stuff; it’s bland they say sniffily as they reach for their botanically-enhanced gin. But vodka is having the last laugh. Check the trend reports for the best-selling spirits in the world and there it is sitting proudly at the top of the list. (That’s for consumption in bars as well as the tipple of choice for drinking at home just in case you’re wondering…) Yes, boutique gins are sexy and bang-on- trend, sure, cognacs and whiskies are dark and mysterious, but the fact is, vodka sells. In very impressive quantities.

In many ways the cool, clear liquid is the kind of guest you’d want to have at your party. Thanks to its chameleon-like characteristics it integrates and plays nicely with anything you throw at it. Vegetable and fruit juices, tonic and soda water, pretty much every other spirit category – heck, you can even use it as a base for infusing herbs and spices.

Which is vodka’s greatest strength and also its biggest weakness. It’s why people claim the spirit doesn’t have any real character or personality of its own. They do have a point. The fact that vodka is such a clean spirit, multi-distilled at very high temperatures to strip out any impurities, means that by its very nature it’s pretty much devoid of any distinct aroma, colour or palate. That’s great news for bartenders who need a neutral, high-strength, alcohol-based canvas on which to build their colourful and inventive cocktails. Not so much for drinkers who are looking for something more interesting and more complex to sip.

Or so you might think. Russian and Polish drinkers wouldn’t dream of anything coming between them and their vodka or ‘little water’ to give it its Slavic translation. Not even ice.

Mind you, they drink theirs in a hardcore fashion. Who needs namby-pamby sipping when you can get the full effect of the high alcohol content in one satisfying shot? But just like gin has gained renewed respect amongst the spirit cognoscenti, vodka is also shrugging off the bland tag with a growing number of super-premium and boutique brands specially created for sipping.

Quintessentially Vodka is a case in point. “It’s made from the finest organic wheat and English water,” says Fabrice Limon, Managing Director of the glamorous liquid division of Quintessentially, the lifestyle concierge company. “It’s been created to re-engage vodka lovers with the ideals of sipping and savouring in mind. Following the recent success of artisanal gins, the consumer now understands how a smaller, premium production focusing on craftsmanship can highlight a depth of flavour and a standout character – a far cry from mass-produced aggressive vodkas – that can be enjoyed on its own like a cognac or whisky.”

Other premium brands like Belvedere, Snow Queen, Ketel One, Vestal and Beluga are proof that vodka can be smooth, bright and sophisticated, and unlike their Barbie-esque counterparts that you can mould into any profile you want, these have their own distinct character and superior taste.

What is vodka?

At its simplest, vodka is a distillate made with water and ethanol. If you want to get geeky, it’s derived from a starch of agricultural origin – commonly wheat, rye, barley, corn, potatoes, quinoa and molasses but also grapes and even milk! It’s distilled to least 96% alcohol by volume (abv) several times for smoothness and to extract impurities. And there’s the rub; in doing so the spirit can lose a lot of its personality and mouth feel. That’s all very well if you’re after something with more kick than character but not if you’re after a spirit to sip.

Here’s why you pay more for the premium products. Manufacturers go the extra mile to rectify and filter their spirit to give it the required distinctiveness that spirit lovers are looking for.

Vodkas to sip

Knocking it back in one purposeful shot is one thing, sipping slowly neat or over ice is something different altogether. But cheap shots are not the only way to ruin the spirit. “I would say the most misguided ritual would be the habit of freezing vodka,” says Claire Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology at Belvedere Vodka. “Today, this is rarely needed since vodka is of such a good quality. Good quality vodka is best served chilled from the fridge. This allows the characteristics of the vodka to be expressed.”

Take her lead and give your premium vodka the respect it deserves.

Beluga Noble Russian Vodka (Russia)
Produced from grain alcohol, this vodka undergoes a 30-day maturation process followed by a triple distillation stage where it is blended with honey, oat and milk thistle extract. The water comes from 300-metre deep wells in the bedrock of Siberia.

Belvedere (Poland)
The world’s first luxury vodka, made from Dankowskie rye and artesian water from the company’s own wells (see page 31).

Chase (UK)
English (gluten-free) potato vodka made on the family farm in Herefordshire. The only seed to bottle vodka produced in the UK.

Grey Goose (France)
Made from the same winter wheat used in French bread and pastries with spring water found in the Picardy region. It is distilled once using a continuous- column distillation.

Ketel One (Holland)
Distilled from wheat grain using a combination of multiple column distillations, copper pot distillation and charcoal filtration.

Konik’s Tail (Poland)
Made in limited quantities with a unique blend of early winter wheat, spelt and golden rye, each bearing a lot number so the grain can be traced back to the relevant farm. Filtered through silver birch charcoal.

Quintessentially (UK)
Comprising organic winter wheat and English water, with the addition of rowanberry extracts to give it a subtle sweetness. It is filtered through ancient pebble beds.

Reyka (Iceland)
Small batch clean ‘green’ vodka distilled from wheat and barley and made from the purest Icelandic spring water filtered through ancient lava rocks.

Snow Queen (Kazakhstan)
The product of organic wheat and spring water from the foothills of the Himalayas; distilled five times.

Vestal (Poland)
Potato vodka with different tastes, textures and characteristics according to terroirs – think the different personalities of wine and you’ve got the right idea.

A word from the first lady of vodka, Claire Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology, Belvedere Vodka.

“Vodka is the very essence of its raw ingredients — no other spirit is more immediate. The difference between an average spirit and one that is extraordinary however, is the expertise with which these humble ingredients are transformed.

Distinct because of its simplicity, Belvedere started by selecting defining ingredients – water and rye; specifically, Dankowskie Gold rye for Belvedere and Dankowskie Diamond rye for Unfiltered. Both possess exceptional textural and flavour characteristics that are celebrated by way of distillation. Water sourced from our very own artesian wells completes the recipe. It is this modest combination of exceptional rye, a proprietary water source and over a century of vodka craftsmanship that lies at the very heart of Belvedere Vodka.

The distillation is transformative, more than just a mechanical procedure our four column distillation process is intended to shape a vivid and distinctive spirit that retains the character of its ingredients. Belvedere’s je ne sais quoi is achieved through a careful distillation and finishing process, treating the ingredients with skill and sensitivity, devising something greater than the sum of its parts. Exceptional vodka is having the confidence to know when to take a step back and allow the craftsmanship of those elements to shine.

Belvedere is special not because of one thing, but because many elements are expertly interwoven to create something dazzling and inimitable. History, tradition and Polish savoir-fare are celebrated within every bottle of Belvedere Vodka.

What to look out for when buying quality vodka

Country of origin: Poland is the only country in the world with a vodka appellation which serves to protect centuries-old traditions. Vodkas from Poland must be made from ‘noble’ ingredients such as Polish grain or potatoes, and importantly no sugar, glycerin or additives of any kind may be used in the finishing of the spirit. There are no short-cuts in the production of a well-made vodka, using additives is a warning sign that all may not be above board with the quality of raw materials, fermentation, or even distillation. Sadly however, distillers are not required to let you know whether they use additives or not. If in doubt, buy Polish! Gluten allergies? Think you can only drink vodka made from gluten-free ingredients? Think again! There is no gluten in distilled spirits, unless it has been added after the distillation process (which is unlikely). So if you’re avoiding wheat, rye or barley vodka to avoid gluten, you don’t need to. It is worth mentioning however that alcohol can still cause irritation, so if you’re sensitive, be cautious. However, any aggravation will not be caused by stealth gluten, it is simply too big a particle to get through the distillation process.

Number of distillations: These numbers are often misleading and can lead you to believe that the higher the number, the better the vodka. Not true. In general, the higher the number, the more ‘neutral’ the vodka will be. One might think that neutrality is the main aim for a vodka, however it is much better to choose a vodka that retains an echo of the raw ingredients it is distilled from. Consider this too; what differentiates all those ‘neutral’ vodkas? If they’re all tasteless, and odourless, then aren’t they all the same? I always recommend choosing a vodka that talks less about the number of distillations it’s gone through, and instead makes a hero of the raw ingredients that the vodka is distillated from. For Belvedere, our hero is rye and we distill across four columns to pull out the positive characteristics of this grain. The number ‘four’ is not important; rather it is the sensitivity of this process and a respect for the rye, which will deliver exceptional vodka.

Gimmicky bottles: As a general rule of thumb, a bottle in the shape of a naked lady, machine gun or hamburger (all real examples) will rarely contain exceptional vodka.

Top tips for enjoying vodka

Enjoy premium vodkas at the same temperature as Champagne, so out of the fridge rather than the freezer. Freezing vodka creates a thick, viscous spirit that is good for a sensationalist ‘hit’ of alcohol, however those in the know sip and savour a chilled shot. Chilling (rather than freezing) will allow all of the characteristics of the spirit to shine. Rarely does a super-premium vodka really benefit from freezing. If it does, you’ve probably paid too much for it.

Experiment with the garnishes you use in a classic Vodka Martini. Lemon twists and olives are traditional choices, however anchovy stuffed olives work incredibly well with Belvedere Unfiltered (the salinity of the vodka is perfectly matched by the fishy, salty bite of the anchovy), or even a humble grapefruit twist can add a softer, more aromatic lift to your Belvedere Vodka Martini.

Taken from issue 10 of The Cocktail Lovers magazine.

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