The Vodka Report - Vodka goes vintage

Glass in hand, Fleur Disney sets off around London on a quest to track down evidence of the merging trend in exclusive vintage vodkas


WHEN THE WORD ‘VINTAGE’ IS APPLIED TO VODKA it is usually followed by puzzled looks. For a spirit that is treated with disdain by plenty of bartenders, a small number of vodkas have found favour with the most discerning palates. Having been tasked with finding out more about vintage vodkas in London, I found this a real treasure hunt, with numbers scribbled on napkins over a Martini leading to unusual encounters and some choice working lunches.

Google searches on vintage vodka throw up images of old Smirnoff bottles and Kauffman vodka. Kauffman was founded in 2000 and sells mainly in Russia – itself an endorsement. Tracking it down in London proved to be a steady trail of “we’ve run out” interspersed with the (very) occasional find. 

On the South Bank, Baltic makes a brisk trade in vodka. As the name suggests, it specialises in Russian and Polish dining and drinks. Among the latter can be found a rare Kauffman 2005 grain vodka. Bar manager Karol Terejlis takes a wine glass and pours a measure.

“Vodka isn’t vintage. It’s not possible,” he announces. It isn’t clear if he is being literal. There is a belief that the only vegetal matter sensitive enough for vintages to be distinguished are grapes and sugarcane or, if grain, only for whisky.

Dom Pérignon, of the Moët & Chandon house, only releases champagne by the vintage. If the annual crop of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that make up the blend are not up to standard, there will be no Dom Pérignon that year. In another arm of the business, however, Moët will produce millions of non-vintage bottles every year. 

Another example, concerning sugarcane, is Martinique Clément rum. While there are blends of aged rum released every year, certain vintages stand out – notably 1976, 1970 and 1952. 

Small batch provenance

Back to vodka, the Kauffman 2005 is soft and subtle – clear in both taste and appearance. Had this been towards the end of the vintage vodka treasure hunt, more precise tasting notes might have been made in recognition of the scarcity of this vintage in London – alas. 

Like Moët & Chandon, Kauffman also has non-vintage vodkas in constant production, although unlike Moët these are in small batches. They consist of the soft and hard varieties. Mention must be made here of Little Water, an excellent burger bar and vodka house in the heart of Covent Garden. 

Not only does it pair its imaginative, comforting dishes with the most complementary vodkas, it also stocks the non-vintage soft Kauffman, which is mellow with honey and lemon.

Tatiana Petrakova is brand ambassador for Roust – the second-largest provider of vodka, after Diageo. Roust’s portfolio includes Russian Standard, Zubrówka, Green Mark, Parliament and Kauffman, among many others.

She says: “Master distiller Mark Kauffman was very clever to use the concept of vintage as a marketing tool for vodka. It provides a sense of history and perspective.” 

Kauffman changed distilleries a couple of times before selling, but it now has a new home. Made in Moscow, Roust plans to release the latest vintage, from 2012, later this year. 

“People like a sense of place,” Petrakova says. “Everyone talks about single-estate because there’s a perception of provenance that people enjoy. Take Zubrówka for example – the grass is sourced from Białowieza Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site where bison still roam. 

“Vodka is 60% water. At Russian Standard they use lake water from St Petersburg, which has the softest lake water in Europe, apparently.” 

Tattie toffs

Another vodka embracing the notion of single-estate and provenance is the Swedish wheat Absolut and, by association, the Swedish potato vodka, Karlsson’s. Although the terms single-field and single-estate are loosely defined, their meaning is at risk of being diluted by bigger distillers misappropriating the words to give more commercial brands a sense of story. That said, Absolut Elyx is able to boast: “From seed to bottle, everything is done within a 15-mile radius of the distillery.”

With the launch of Karlsson’s, the tradition of producing potato vodka in Sweden was somewhat revived. In 2001 a group of local potato farmers formed a cooperative to help their businesses survive among the growing demand to put the land to use for leisure and tourism. 

One local resident had been prominent in the launch of Absolut and he recruited his former colleague, Börje Karlsson, to the task. Karlsson’s master blender was interested in how the variety of potato would affect the taste, as well as the significance of terroir. 

In 2008 they launched their first single-variety vintage, using Gammel Svensk Röd (old Swedish red) which, by all accounts had the best flavour of all the varieties that year and is left unfiltered to make the most of the natural flavour.

Distillation around the Karlsson’s site has been on and off since 1518. While Karlsson’s may have put Swedish potato vodka back on the map, distribution of the non-vintage Gold blend is predominantly in the US. It can be found in NYC’s Soho House, Smyth Hotel and Mario Batali’s new place, Babo. 

London is a different story. According to the manager of one London members’ club, there may still be a bottle of Karlsson’s Gold rolling around the till area over at The Red Church by Brick Lane. Heads up. Karlsson’s is just not forthcoming in London – it took a meeting with the brand ambassador to procure a sample of the 2009. This vintage uses at least 17lb of Solist potatoes per bottle and is described as rich and floral.

Karlsson’s is now a part of the portfolio of Berry Bros & Rudd Spirits, which is very comfortable with the notion of vintage as an expression of time. Karlsson’s produces a vintage almost every year, but has not launched any since the 2009, which was released in 2012/2013. But there is talk of a 2012 Princess vintage which may be released later this year.”

Epitome of craft vodka 

Another liquid that prioritises flavour and places emphasis on terroir is Vestal, which produces Polish potato vodka. Like Karlsson’s, its vintages are distilled just the once and left unfiltered. According to founder William Borrell: “The most filtration they see is a sieve.” This is the complete opposite of Kauffman which distils 14 times and filters twice, through birch coal and quartz sand. 

À la Moët, Kauffman and Karlsson’s, Vestal also produces a consistent liquid – the Black Label, a non-vintage blend of three potato varieties which makes for an excellent Martini. However, it is the small batch white label vintages that really need discussing. 

Vestal has thoroughly explored the notion of terroir and this is best demonstrated by sampling the 2010 Kaszebe against the 2013 Kaszebe, for example. Known for its forests and lakes, Kaszebe is the region where the young Vineta potatoes are grown. They have a natural creamy mouth-feel, but there are significant differences in the taste. While both come highly recommended, the 2010 was awarded 5/5 by Simon Difford, which is unprecedented – worth a sip.

Thirty kilometres away you can find the red-skinned Asterix potatoes, from the Baltic coast, which make up the 2013 Pomorze – the opposite of a flavourless odourless spirit. Baltic bar manager Terejlis claimed he was able to “taste the salt of the nearby sea”. There is a definite suggestion of blueberries on the nose, although when mixing a Pomorze Martini, Erik Lorincz – head bartender at The Savoy’s American Bar – pronounces it is all blue cheese.  

Vestal vodka is the epitome of a craft vodka – made on the family farm in Poland by the father of William Borrell, who lives in north London and first started touting the brand around in a suitcase. Luckily for the discerning spirit drinker, Vestal is more easy to obtain in London than the other vintage labels and can be found at the likes of 69 Colebrooke Row, the Groucho and Callooh Callay.

Although vodka as a category has taken a bashing of late, it is refreshing to find there is a small but committed group of producers intent on exploring vodka’s potential. Whether you prefer the infinitely subtle vintage Kauffman or the bold and charismatic flavours among Vestal’s white label vintages, it would be imprudent to write vodka off.

While always rewarding in a Bloody Mary or Martini, it is worth sampling these vintages neat. Kauffman does it the Russian way. Karlsson’s likes to serve with black pepper, as one would eat potatoes. Vestal recommends slightly chilled, but would not be shocked should you drink straight from the bottle. Given that all three labels plan to launch their latest vintage in the near future, this should prove a good year to find out for yourself what vintage means to vodka.