You heard us right. You're gonna learn to love vodka. That reliable blank canvas of a spirit has gotten a makeover as of late, with a new wave of expressions hitting bars and shelves that will change the way you think about vodka. Known as ‘characterful vodkas’ or ‘vodkas with character’, these liquids manage to pack intensity, texture and flavour while still keeping the kick-ass neutrality that makes vodka so damn mixable. Kate Malczewski gives us the lowdown...
Before you ask, we have to clarify something. Characterful vodkas are not the same as flavoured vodkas.
Flavoured vodkas, in their modern form, are neutral spirits with flavourings added to them after distillation. If you’ve ever tried a vodka that tasted synthetic or overly fake-fruity then chances are, it’s the flavoured kind. That weird peach-tasting vodka someone brought to your Christmas party in 2008? Yeah, that's the flavoured sh*t. Technically there are some flavoured vodkas made by redistilling neutral spirit with natural botanicals, but they’re not really common.
Characterful vodkas are another thing entirely. Their individuality comes from the raw materials and methods used to make them. Traditionally, these are ingredients like potatoes, barley, rye, and wheat, but these days everything from green coffee beans to apples are on the table, too.
Distillers producing vodkas with character have the tricky job of crafting a spirit that’s neutral but also shows off the essence of its raw materials. So while they wanna keep it a blank canvas, they also want this canvas to be imbued with the texture, subtle tastes, and complexities of those base ingredients.
If this sounds a bit paradoxical to you, don’t panic – characterful vodkas are much easier to drink than they are to distil. And fortunately we’ve got people like Dawn Davies MW, head buyer of Speciality Drinks and all-round spirits badass, to explain the finer points of distillation.
‘The more times you distil a spirit, the more character and flavour you remove from it,’ Dawn tells us. ‘So if a vodka brand says it’s triple distilled or quadruple distilled or nine-million-times distilled, basically what they’re saying is they’ve just removed as much flavour as possible from the spirit. The type of still you use also matters. A big industrial still has something called a purifier, which is meant to remove flavour and character and just leave alcohol.’
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a nine-million-times-distilled, purified vodka, if you just want a little buzz. But the beauty of characterful vodkas is that they bring more to the party.
‘If it’s a vodka made from potato, I get a lot of creaminess on the palate. If it’s a rye vodka, I get spice, and if you’re using malt grain, there’s a sort of malty character to it,’ says Dawn.
These distinctive, nuanced qualities mean that characterful vodkas are really f*ckin good to sip neat, straight from the freezer. And you probably won’t be shocked to learn that they make a banging base spirit for cocktails.
‘If you want a cocktail with a little more texture and richness, why would you not use a potato vodka?’ Dawn asks. ‘We’re lucky at the moment because there are so many bartenders who are thinking about which spirits they should use to get more from their ingredients.’
To get a handle on what Dawn’s talking about, pull up a stool at London’s Artesian bar at The Langham, and order the Absolut Elyx & Muscat Grapes cocktail. The hint’s in the name – it’s a simple mix of frozen Absolut Elyx Vodka and clarified Muscat grape juice – but the flavours aren’t so simple. Elyx is made from wheat, which gives the spirit a silky, weighty mouthfeel. It boosts the sweet, floral Muscat by giving it a fuller texture and loads of depth. Dreamy.
‘When paring back cocktails, vodka can be a great carrier for other flavours. You give yourself texture and alcohol while layering in so much more,’ Dawn explains.
This is why characterful vodkas are so damn awesome in Martini-style drinks. Even steadfast gin devotees have been known to reevaluate their lives once they realise that a Martini made with a well-crafted characterful vodka delivers that round, bold, boozy punch they treasure so deeply.
Ready to start your own journey of self-discovery? Here are our picks of characterful vodkas for your next Martini order and your at-home drinks cabinet. Today A Vodka Person, tomorrow... who knows?
The guys at Black Cow come from a family of dairy farmers in West Dorset who have been making cheese for more than 300 years. They decided to take whey, the by-product of cheesemaking, and turn it into – you guessed it – vodka. Rich and creamy, it’s the perfect spirit for an Espresso Martini – plus it’s got a newly redesigned bottle that looks pretty slick on a bar cart.
The Chase family makes their vodka from potatoes grown on their Herefordshire farm. It’s clean, light, and peppery, with a hint of vanilla and a real roundness to it. We like this one in a freezer-cold, classic Vodka Martini, where it helps to lift the vermouth’s aromatics while providing depth. Simplicity at its finest!
Coming at you live from the Scotch whisky haven of Speyside, Eight Lands is crafting its vodka from malted barley and malted wheat. Though it’s still undeniably a neutral spirit, its tasting notes read like a dessert: brown butter, vanilla, and even roasted coffee beans make it our favourite of the bunch to drink neat, right out of the freezer.
This is a Polish potato vodka from the owner of London bar Ladies & Gents, and holy sh*t, it’s changing the game. It’s earthy and oily, with a vegetal sweetness that tastes like parsnips in a very good way. We happily drink it on its own, but think it would go down a treat in a Kamikaze (equal parts vodka, triple sec and lime juice) served to sip rather than to shoot.
By Kate Malczewski