For the craft spirits consumer, vodka can be a tricky proposition. You want to fill your home bar with products of provenance and authenticity; products with flavors and aromas that tell a story; products by small artisans with faces and names that you can attach to the liquid inside the bottle. However, vodka has long been seen as a product without heritage. Its very identity is to literally be stripped of defining characters. So, maybe the craft buyer should just skip the vodka aisle altogether, right? Not so fast! Maybe there’s a chance for craft vodka to come into its own artisan existence.
As small distilleries continue to open their doors, an increasing number are interested in the possibilities that craft vodka presents. For these distillers, vodka is not just another portfolio filler to sell a few bottles while the “real stuff” ages. No, these distillers recognize that vodka has its own fascinating history and was not always bottled as bland, conceptually vanilla liquid. Vodka can indeed have character. It can express terroir. It can tell a story. And it can still be vodka.
The Truth About Most Vodka Brands
The majority of vodka brands on the shelf today are produced on large column stills. These stills use all manners of technical innovations to remove as much character as possible from the source material. Vodka — above all other spirits — benefits from an immense amount of scale economy. Big guys can do it cheaper and more efficiently than the little guy can. Sure, there may be subtle differences between a mega-market corn vodka and a French wheat vodka, but craft vodka examples they are not. They are largely interchangeable when it comes time for a drink.
Hanson of Sonoma’s custom-built still /Photo Credit: Hanson of Sonoma
Even many small producers — in efforts to make some much needed money while their spirit ages — will source 95% ABV-neutral spirit from one of these large distilleries and “make” a vodka from it. They do this either by redistillation (which may or may not have much of an impact) or simply diluting the neutral spirit down to bottling strength. BAM! You’ve got vodka. There’s nothing wrong with either practice so long as the distiller is honest in its methods and intentions. There’s plenty of room for these products on the shelves and many consumers are happy to buy them.
Putting in the Work
There is a new breed of distillers out there who are attempting to bring vodka into the modern era. These folks are eschewing the advice of the market-pulse-taking bean counters and distilling vodka from scratch. This means they are taking control of every step of the process from raw materials to processing, fermenting and distilling. By doing this, they are producing craft vodka with personality that belongs to more drinking occasions than a simple vodka soda.
Woody Creek Distillery’s potato harvest /Photo Credit: Woody Creek Distillery
Like any other spirit, vodka starts out with something fermentable. But unlike other spirits, it isn’t necessarily defined by what that fermentable is. Vodka can be made from grain, potatoes, sugar cane, grapes, apples, and even agave. There are vodkas made from leftover bakery breads, and vodkas produced from spent whey that comes from cheesemaking.
Flavorful (Not Flavored) Vodka
All of these things, if handled properly during fermentation and distillation will produce vodkas with different characters. Many of these products are distilled on modified “hybrid” batch column systems that allow more of the base fermentable character to come across into the final neutral spirit. And keep in mind that the royal “neutral” in the world of alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean devoid of flavor. Potato vodkas often have a bigger mouthfeel with subtle hints of vanilla. Apple based vodkas contain nuanced fruit and peel notes. Sugarcane vodkas can be lightly grassy in their presentations. Placed side by side, well-made craft vodkas can present a striking amount of testimony to the concept of nuanced spirit character.
The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau, alcohol’s governing body in the United States, recently made things easier for these producers by updating some of its regulations regarding vodka. After a lengthy public comment period on proposed regulations during late 2019 and early 2020, the following pronouncement was made:
“TTB agrees that the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color no longer reflects consumer expectations and should be eliminated.”
And spirits producers and consumers quietly sang “Hallelujah” to the gossamer tones of spirit trickling off ofthe still.
Ask The Maker
There is a growing number of these new craft vodka brands out there worthy of your working dollar. Not sure where to start? Look for distillers that are fermenting and distilling their vodka from raw materials they actually bring in themselves. Ask the distiller or one of their representatives. They’ll be happy to tell you. And if they are being the least bit cagey on the whole process, look for the fine print on the bottle.
If they are simply purchasing neutral spirit from another supplier, somewhere on the label will be something to the effect of “made” or “produced” with “neutral grain spirit”. These statements will also typically be preceded by a percentage number (it’s usually 100% in the case of vodka) which is a dead giveaway. The distillers that are making everything from scratch will use a phrasing like “distilled from corn” or “distilled from potatoes” and nothing more.
So, can vodka be craft? Most assuredly yes. There are so many interesting and authentic producers of this modern vodka style. For these producers, vodka is not a throwaway product. They take pride in their efforts and will happily chat with you about why their craft vodka can stand shoulder to glass shoulder with the other craft spirits in your home bar. These are the characters behind the character, and they are making the vodka space a much more flavorful place to be.
Ready to try craft vodka?
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