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Vodka is the most popular liquor in the country, accounting for more than 30 percent of total spirits sales by volume. It’s also widely thought of as the most boring spirit. By definition, vodka in the U.S. must “be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,”according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Yet vodka makers big and small are pushing a different narrative, one in which vodka is distinguished by its raw materials, whether that be grapes, wheat, potatoes, rice, corn or even whey. It’s something that Alex and Monica Villicana, the owners of Villicana winery and Re:Find distillery in Paso Robles, Calif., quickly learned after making vodka from wine.
“We were surprised by the textural component, as well as the mouthfeel, of the vodka,” says Alex Villicana. “A lot of that has to do with the chemical glycerol, which is produced during fermentation.”
Glycerol is a sugar alcohol with a sweet taste. It’s present in fermented grains and potatoes as well, but the amount of glycerol depends on the amount of sugar in the initial product. “If you think about your traditional grain or potato vodka, those start with a relatively low initial alcohol, like a beer,” says Villicana. “With wine, you have a lot of sugar to ferment, so in the production of the initial wine, you produce a lot of this chemical called glycerol.”
Some of that comes across in distillation (although an excessive number of distillations and filtration will lead to a more neutral spirit), and it softens some of the harsh edges. It’s not the only compound that impacts taste either.
A 2010 study from the University of Cincinnati and Moscow State University looked into the molecular composition of popular vodkas to find why people prefer some brands over others. It found that a varying concentration of hydrates surround ethanol molecules in different brands, and “these ethanol clusters undoubtedly stimulate the palate differently,” meaning “vodka drinkers could express preference for a particular structure.”
“Each grain has its own unique characteristics,” says Umberto Luchini, the founder of Blood x Sweat x Tears vodka. “However, within the same grain, there are no major differences. For us, the soft winter white wheat from the different farms didn’t have major differences.”
For consumers, taste is just one factor influencing a purchasing decision. Sustainability, novelty and a good story are also important. Re:Find’s vodka, for example, is made from wine that’s bled off to concentrate a red. The excess wine would otherwise be turned into a rosé in the best case scenario or dumped in the all-too-common worst case scenario. Vodka is a sustainable, and profitable, alternative.
Paul Hughes, an assistant professor of distilled spirits at Oregon State University, also approached vodka from a sustainability standpoint by making vodka from whey, a byproduct of cheese production. Each pound of cheese results in nine pounds of whey. Small creameries have a hard time getting rid of it, and turning it into vodka solves that problem while also creating another revenue stream.
“I think some of the flavors in whey spirit we’re not quite so used to, but we had no difficulty getting something that was pretty good on the whole,” says Hughes. Though he admits it won’t compete with super premium brands when it comes to the most neutral flavor.
Increasingly, however, neutral isn’t the goal. As the number of craft distillers in the U.S. grows, brands have to find a way to stand out. So vodkas are highlighting origin and ingredients. There’s Belvedere’s Single Estate series and Chopin’s distinctive potato, rye and wheat vodkas. Others lean on what’s local, like Suntory’s Haku vodka, which is made with rice and filtered through bamboo charcoal for a slight cotton-candy sweet taste.
Sometimes, the choice of what to make a vodka from is twofold. Dixie Southern vodka uses corn. “Corn gives a sweeter flavor, softer mouthfeel and gentler finish than wheat or potato,” says founder Matti Anttila. “One easy way to think about this is cornbread versus wheat bread versus potato; all have distinctive flavors.”
Few know these differences as intimately as people who work in vodka bars. Sub Zero Vodka Bar, in St. Louis, has one of the largest collections in the U.S., with more than 500 labels. “There’s a lot of difference to be found in ‘straight’ vodkas,” says owner Derek Gamlin. “It’s not just a cocktail base; there are a lot of great flavor profiles that can be explored and enjoyed through sipping vodka.”
Stoli Elit and winter wheat vodkas served chilled are a go-to when drinking it straight for Gamlin, and he suggests a rye vodka like Belvedere’s Lake Bartężek for a Gimlet to let the spicy notes of the rye play off the citrus.
The only way to really understand the differences is to taste them for yourself. It won’t take long to find that the most neutral spirit by definition does indeed have a distinctive character, aroma and taste.