Liquids: Flavored Vodkas

When Ray Isle, managing editor of Wine & Spirits magazine, asked me if I would take part in a tasting panel, I jumped at the chance—even before I knew what we were going to taste. Then Isle told me that the tasting he had in mind was of a selection of flavored vodkas. My heart fell. I had little respect for such libations; I believed them the vodka-world equivalent of wine coolers. After all, I fancy myself a purist—a defender of clean, crisp, unadulterated vodka, the kind that makes a perfect martini. Little did I know.

Isle put my misguided notion quickly to rest when the panel convened and he explained to us that, though the U.S. government defines vodka as colorless, flavorless, and odorless, vodka’s beginnings were entirely the opposite. Apparently, back in the 1300s, vodka pioneers were unable to fully remove impurities (and you can just imagine the impurities back in those times), so they added honey and spices, such as anise and cloves, to sweeten and cloak the spirit with aromatics—much like today’s cheap gin. “With that tradition in mind,” said Isle, “it doesn’t come as quite so much a surprise that the 19th century saw even more flavored vodkas on the market than today.” Who knew?

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States knew. “Flavored vodkas are keeping the [vodka] category number one among other spirits,” says the council’s spokesman, Shawn Starbuck Kelley. While the entire vodka market grew by 5.1 percent last year (meaning we Americans bought about 373 million one-liter bottles), 11.3 percent of the vodka sold was flavored, up from 9.9 percent the year before.

This doesn’t surprise David van de Velde (of Ketel One fame) who came out of retirement five years ago to create and import another Dutch brand, Van Gogh Vodkas, specifically with flavored vodkas in mind. “There are so many regular vodkas that we are not pushing our regular vodka as much,” says van de Velde. “Instead, we’re concentrating on what we specialize in, which are flavored vodkas.” Thanks to the popularity of its Wild Appel, Dutch chocolate, melon, pineapple, and coconut varieties, Van Gogh’s sales are up 63 percent over last year, van de Velde says proudly. And that doesn’t include last month’s introduction of an 11th flavor, mango, which is expected to be the next “it” category; Finlandia Vodka already has a mango-flavored vodka on the market, introduced four months ago. Meanwhile, Britt West, brand manager at Grey Goose Vodka, has his sights set on vanilla. “Interest in our La Vanille is on fire as the vanilla craze continues to grow in the United States,” West says, though Grey Goose’s L’Orange is currently its most popular variety. And Allied Domecq Spirits USA recently threw a colorful party at Saint to celebrate the shipment of its millionth nine-liter case of Stoli Razberi to America.

Talking about all of these mouth-watering flavors begs the question: How do manufacturers get the flavor into the flavorless vodka? As Isle explained at our tasting, a simple method for keeping up with the demand for flavored vodkas “is the straightforward addition of aromatic oils to the clear spirit.” The most traditional method, however, is to steep the flavoring ingredients in the spirit, usually for several weeks.

A slightly more industrial version, says Isle, involves spreading herbal ingredients across a steel sieve or net inside a tank; the spirit in the tank is filtered past the net every eight hours or so for several days. Another approach involves putting fruit ingredients into vodka, distilling the result, then adding the flavored distillate to flavorless spirit.

The makers of these vodkas would probably prefer that we use them to enhance our favorite cocktails normally made with plain old flavorless vodka, but my tasting panel tried about 30 of them straight up (though mercifully chilled). The most impressive selections included nearly every flavored vodka produced by Van Gogh; the consensus of the panel was that Stoli Limonaya (which has since been replaced by Stoli Citros) and Smirnoff Citrus Twist were quite good, too.

Had we tried them all in cocktails, I’m sure many of these vodkas would have tasted better. Which is why at this month’s Thanksgiving festivities, I’ll be shaking up Happy Pilgrim apéritifs made with Stoli Cranberi flavored vodka, which, as my own tasting panel at home will tell you, tastes a heck of a lot better than that cranberry stuff from the can.

Happy Pilgrim
1 ounces Stoli Cranberi
1/2 ounce Triple Sec
Splash of Chambord
Squirt of Rose’s Lime Juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Cover and shake thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.