January 19, 2005
When did we go from a nation of whiskey drinkers to vodka sippers? Images of Mrs. Robinson have given way to Carrie from "Sex and the City," and so has their drink of choice. The tide may have turned sometime in the early ’80s with those slick Absolut print ads, but I’m not sure.
However it occurred, the proof is in the sales: Vodka is America’s No. 1 spirit, at more than 35 million cases sold each year. And sales show no sign of slowing. Dozens of premium boutique brands arrive each year. Some stick; others don’t.
Grey Goose from France took the trend to a whole new level about 10 years ago and accelerated our interest in ultrapremium brands. The hallmark of Grey Goose is its extraordinary smoothness, which makes it ideal for martinis. Gee, martinis — is it a coincidence?
In basic terms, vodka is a clear, neutral spirit. It’s thought that its name evolved from the Russian phrase "zhizenennia voda," or "water of life." Early vodka distillates were made from the plentiful beets and potatoes of eastern Europe, and some Polish and German brands still use spuds, though more have switched to more contemporary cereal grains such as corn, rye and wheat. I recently sampled Poland’s new Wyborowa Single Estate (in a beautiful bottle designed by famed architect Frank Gehry), made completely of native rye, and it displays an elegantly smooth texture that makes it ideal for sipping straight-up.
But it’s something of a misnomer that vodka is completely devoid of flavor, which gives it a reputation as a spirit to be mixed. Think cosmos, screwdrivers and Collins mix. No, the flavors in plain vodka are simply subtle — from fruit to minerals to herbal-vegetal impressions. And why would anyone want to disrupt the harmony found in an ice-cold glass of Ketel One with an olive? Nothing else is required, thank you.
Textures and smoothness clearly are more distinguishable among high- and low-end vodkas. Inexpensive plonk in the 1.75 liter plastic jugs at Osco is harsh to sip and will not win you many friends. It’s simply a matter of mass production versus a boutique philosophy. Top producers emphasize high-quality ingredients and filtration techniques, which smooth out the edges. Running the raw distillate through a vegetable charcoal, and in some cases quartz crystals, removes many of the impurities that affect taste and texture. In the best vodkas, this process is repeated several times to improve clarity.
Of course, all of this pampering comes at a price. The top-tier vodkas — all the aforementioned brands, Belvedere, Chopin, Hangar One, Jewel of Russia, Ultimat and a couple others — cost between $30 and $50 for a 750 ml bottle. Midrange vodkas — Absolut, Pearl, Skyy and Stolichnaya — cost about $20 and are also worth considering. All of these vodkas are produced outside the United States, except Hangar One, which is made in northern California.
Another recent find from the United States and in the $20 range is Blue Ice from Idaho. Made entirely of Burbank Russet potatoes, the vodka features a delicate flavor profile and rich texture. Its proprietary five-step filtration process pulls out most of the impurities, which makes for one smooth ride.
Are you ready for yours? How do you take your vodka, shaken or stirred?