Vodka is the spirit of subtlety. It’s the spirit of nuanced flavours and smooth textures. It’s also the spirit that’s hardest to discern the differences in quality. For this issue of explore DRINKS, we want to highlight what leads to some of the refined differences in flavour between some of the leading vodkas of the world.
WORDS BEN DAVIDSON
Vodka is still the spirit of choice for summer drinks. Its understated flavour is perfect for blending with fresh juices, fruits, herbs and sodas, to make thirst quenching and refreshing summer drinks and cocktails.
However you drink it, whether it’s in an iconic vodka lime and soda, a vodka tonic or in a classic summer cocktail like the Moscow Mule, Caipiroska or the Bloody Mary, vodka provides a discreet flavour pro le that is loved and adored by stylish fashionistas and discerning connoisseurs alike.
With vodka, it’s definitely worth paying a little extra for a brand that’s highly regarded, because the difference between a good taste experience versus a disappointing one can be less than $20 a bottle.
From traditional vodkas to new world vodkas, from craft vodkas to super premium vodkas, we’ve got the low down on what’s what in the world of vodka.
WHAT IS VODKA?
Vodka can be produced from a wide variety of raw materials, including different types of grain, such as wheat, rye, barley, and maize, as well as other ingredients, such as sugarcane, potatoes or grapes. These ingredients are distilled usually to a strength of up to 96% ABV. The resulting spirit is diluted with water to reach the bottling strength, typically around 40% ABV for premium and super-premium vodkas and a little less for standard vodka. As a final step, various filtration methods are used to prepare the vodka for bottling.
During the Golden Age of vodka in Russia and Poland, it was discovered that grains produced a vodka with a superior taste profile, and most super premium vodkas are still made from such ingredients.
Regulations for producing vodka vary around the world, with the USA, Russia and the EU, having separate regulations.
The flavour pro le for different vodkas can range from thin to full-bodied, and from harsh to smooth in texture and ‘mouth-feel’.
With the wide variety of raw materials that can be used, the method of distillation and source of water play a huge role in defining the subtle differences in taste and texture of the finished vodkas. To help you fully enjoy the experience, we’ve broken down for you how best to taste your vodka.
THINGS TO NOTE:
Is the aroma subtle and elegant or rounder and fuller bodied? Is there one dominant aroma or a sequence of individual notes? Does it have a pleasant grainy aroma?
The aroma can provide a good indication of what to expect on the palate, in terms of the weight of flavour or the range of characteristics. The aroma can’t indicate levels of sweetness and dryness or the texture of the vodka.
Take a sip from the glass and let it sit on the tongue. Move the vodka around your palate, taking in a little air from the side of your mouth to help aerate and ‘open-up’ the flavour.
The first thing that comes across is the texture, which is an important part of a vodka’s character. Texture varies enormously amongst vodkas, from light, delicate and elegant, to medium-bodied, as well as richer, rounder, creamier and full-bodied. As texture carries flavours, it’s also an essential part of the experience of tasting.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
As the flavours appear, what is the intensity of each flavour?
Is there spice or pepper? Are these notes mellow and luscious, or more assertive?
How do the flavours interact with each other? Are they in balance?
Sweetness levels may be upfront and appear as a primary characteristic. Similarly, dryness can be an underlying influence that helps to bring out the primary characteristics and give the vodka a clean and crisp finish. The levels of sweetness and dryness can also change as the palate evolves.
The finish, or after-taste, can reveal similar characteristics that appear on the palate. This is the final flavour of the vodka and will be what you remember the most about the spirit.
BASES AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON FLAVOUR
Different raw materials give rise to particular flavour characteristics:
Wheat vodkas tend to have peppery, spicy, aniseed and wheat bread notes.
Rye vodkas commonly have nutty, mineral, rye bread notes.
Barley vodkas tend to give rise to sweet, grainy and creamy barley notes.
Potato vodkas often taste of creamy mashed potato or boiled potato.
MAIZE OR CORN
Maize or corn vodkas tend to have notes of corn on the cob and caramel.
Grape vodkas tend to give rise to raisin and citrus notes. The intensity of these flavours, whether elegant and mellow or richer and upfront, depends on the house style of the vodka.