Versatile Vodka; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Versatile vodka is the world’s second most popular spirit by volume and its leading brand, Smirnoff is the largest spirit brand of any in the world. Despite what you may think, the spirit is not neutral in taste. It continues to evolve with new flavours and artisanal production. Innovative cocktails feature the newest trends and tastes. Vanilla cake vodka martini anyone?

A number of years ago on a cold rainy day in late August I found myself driving a wheat harvester in southern Sweden as part of my research into vodka. Why Sweden? While Russia maintains it’s the mother country and Poland’s claim as vodka’s birthplace is just as compelling, Swedes too have a long tradition of vodka drinking. At one point in the 1700’s they had an estimated one still for every ten inhabitants.

The Nordic and Baltic countries show no sign of losing their love of vodka if my recent trips to Norway and Latvia were any measure. On the weekends I discovered the Norwegians let out their inner Viking and partied with a gusto that only Scandinavians can fathom, unless of course you’ve been touched by Russia.

Vodka’s life started rather ignobly in the 12th century as a disinfectant and anaesthetic that tasted dreadful. Herbs, peels, roots and spices were often added to mask the taste. At first vodka was distilled from rye. Later when the masses consumed it with bread at the start of every evening meal, the cheaper, more common potato was used.

Wheat is the choice grain of most vodka distillers today hence my visit to Sweden to see winter wheat grown in Skåne. Nearby these grain fields on the Baltic coast is the tiny harbour town of Ǻhus, the home of Absolut, one of the world’s most successful vodkas. (Absolut sold 11.5 million cases in 2012 to capture the number two spot in vodka sales after Smirnoff.) Absolut tells the farmers exactly what to plant and how to farm the crop, assuring absolute consistency. Every worker has instructions mapped out in their tractor and that’s what I followed as I – with some computer help – drove the machine. One kilo of grain goes into every litre of vodka.

The raw material is just the beginning. Much still happens from there. The premium and deluxe categories of vodka proclaim unique sources of water, special filtration methods, multiple distillations and more. They are one of the fastest growing categories for the spirit.

“Vodka is still the largest segment in the spirits category in Canada with just under five million nine litre cases annually. The major trends we see are: premiumization, flavours and small batch craft, artisanal vodkas,” said Kelly McGregor, Marketing Director, Beam Canada Inc. “Vodka makes up close to 30% of the spirits category in Canada and is the most broadly consumed spirit due to its versatility and mix-ability.”

Crystal Head VodkaKenton Tasker, VP of Sales and Marketing for Crystal Head Vodka told me that vodka has seen a constant evolution of new products being introduced which he explained in part because vodka is a simple spirit to make, requires no aging and can be easily transformed into any flavour type. However he pointed out that the flavour vodka category continues to shift from product to product as new flavours are introduced – but with so many products, most have a short life span. “This has given way to the ultra-premium vodka segment that is showing the most positive overall gains because of consumer demand for pure high quality products,” he said.

Grey Goose claims a superiority of water which has hints of minerals picked up as it filters through the limestone of Champagne, France. Ketel One vodka from the Netherlands believes it makes the perfect cocktail base by being distilled from 100% winter wheat, first in a continuous still for freshness and then a portion redistilled in traditional pot stills to add creaminess and texture. Double Cross, an ultra premium vodka from the Slovak Republic housed in an elegantly cool tall rectangular bottle is proud to be seven times distilled and seven times filtered.

Absolut Elyx VodkaStill Waters Single Malt VodkaCanada was the first country to receive Absolut Elyx when it launched in December 2010. This small batch vodka from single estate winter wheat is produced in an authentic 1929 copper rectification still.

Stolichnaya Elit from Latvia uses a freezing filtration process with sub-zero temperatures reaching a frigid -18 C to achieve the highest possible degree of purification. Luksusowa boasts specially cultivated potatoes which deliver a more intense, richer character than grain vodkas. Flyte Vodka made in Newmarket Ontario from 100 per cent Canadian corn is filtered an impressive eight times in a coconut shell carbon filter for extra smoothness. Still Waters Single Malt Vodka is handcrafted by artisan distillers in Canada.

Regarding the flavoured vodkas, the big boom came when Absolut Citron launched in North America in 1988. It took off like a rocket and blazed a trail not only for its other flavours to come such as Kurant, Mandrin, Vanilia, Raspberri, Apeach and Ruby Red but also for competitors galore. Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka has a longer history as one of the world’s oldest and most unique vodkas. It’s flavoured with a wild, naturally growing grass in the Biatoweiza Forest in northeastern Poland.

Sobieski CynamonZubrowka Bison Vodka“Craft distilling is a rapidly growing trend….And, unfortunately, crazy artificial flavors like marshmallow, whipped cream and peanut butter and jelly have become popular,” said Cameron Bogue, Beverage Director at Earl’s Restaurants Ltd. On the plus side Bogue, said “Small craft distillers are challenging the definition of vodka being devoid of flavour.  Even though vodka has to be distilled to 95% alcohol, distillers are able to retain the characteristics of the raw product through gentle, small batch runs.  To create natural flavoured vodka these small distillers are infusing, and redistilling their vodka with real fruit.  This creates some outstanding products.”

Chris Staresinic, National Brand Manager for Campari International handling Skyy Vodka in Canada told me that while flavoured vodka gets a lot of attention, with producers introducing confectionary types of vodka such as cake, it still only accounts for under 10% of total vodka sales in Canada versus 25% in the USA. We Canadian’s do not have the same taste palate for sweetness as Americans.

Stolichnaya Chocolat Razberi for example, launched in October of 2012 is already discontinued at the LCBO. Sobieski Cynamon on the other hand is considered a seasonal product and has availability. I’m definitely not the demographic for UV Cake Vodka but I’ve got to say it captures the sweet confectionary vanilla cake flavour well with notes of white frosting in the finish.

Vodka may be dominant in its market share but it’s not resting on its laurels. With craft distilling, innovative flavours and new ultra-premium brands, it’s fighting to stay relevant and is succeeding.

Cheers!

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

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