New shoots

Finally getting its own craft segment, vodka is taking cues from wine and championing the terroir of its base as a flavour provider. Shay Waterworth grows the theory.


GIN IS JUST FLAVOURED VODKA'. This phrase is tossed around by people in the industry and yes, it’s largely true in terms of the process. However, not only does it irritate gin producers around the world, but vodka nuts alike. Vodka is the final large category within the spirits industry to be hit by the craft movement, which means it is being recognised more for its own characteristics, instead of as a spirit that’s drunk neat by the Russians, mixed and flavoured by everyone else. This one-liner insinuates that vodka is a flavourless, neutral spirit awaiting added flavours – but how is craft evolving it and can some vodkas be as complex as scotch whisky or a vintage Bordeaux through terroir?

The first subject to cover is the buzzword du jour – craft. Tito’s vodka in the US is a prime example of a successful craft vodka. Its branding has carried the label ‘handmade’ since the turn of the century and has now made it behind many bars in New York and the state of Texas, where it was founded. It appears, therefore that vodka is moving away from big, brightly coloured bottles in nightclubs to a more authentic approach.

However, upscaling is not good for craft. Brands which label themselves as ‘craft’ are often criticised when they expand for becoming more industrial and losing the characteristics which gained their reputation in the first place.

John McDonnell, managing director international of Tito’s, says: “We batch distill in old-fashioned pot stills. This method is less efficient than modern column stills, but allows us more control over the character and clean taste of the final product. We taste every batch to ensure our fans get only the best. Every drop is distilled and bottled in Austin, Texas.”

Of course, some of the big players, such as Smirnoff, are very happy for vodka to retain its industrial approach and stereotype as a neutral and unassuming spirit. According to Drinks International’s Millionaires’ Club, it remains the largest vodka producer in the world with 25.5m 9-litre cases being sold in 2016, largely due to its mixing capabilities. And, although a representative of the brand will never say it, its mixer appeal is no accident.


One trend which seems to be on its way out is flavoured vodkas. During a press trip to America, a local liquor store in Detroit was full of sweetly flavoured vodkas, including cake, cookie dough and even gingerbread.

McDonnell says: “There is a downward trend in flavoured vodkas in the US. Consumers understand that if they want vodka to be flavoured, they can use fresh juices or make their own infusions.”

But not every vodka brand sees the term ‘craft’ in the same light. Grey Goose UK brand ambassador Myles Donneky tells DI that, in his opinion, the term refers to the level of care and consistency that goes into a product, not its low volumes.

Donneky says: “All of our vodka is 100% traceable from grass to glass and in France we use soft winter wheat from the highest quality level available. The French have four tiers of grain quality – level four being used for cattle, and level one for the finest patisseries in Paris. We take ours from level one.”

This shows how vodka as a category is taking a different approach to the craft movement – not just making up a story about how a small batch was created over the kitchen sink of the founder’s grandmother, but taking pride in its volumes and the way it is created.

Chapel Down winery in England has released its own vodka, distilled with the redundant grape skins from its wine production. Not only is this more eco-friendly and sustainable, but tasty too. If consumers were told 10 years ago that we would be able to sip vodkas with natural wine profiles, they’d have laughed it off as ‘baloney’.

The estate is the largest wine producer in England and the Chapel Down Chardonnay vodka is an example of how vodkas can gain natural, complex taste profiles in the same way as wines do, without the need for additives to hide the base spirit flavour.

Mark Harvey, Chapel Down managing director of wine, says: “We see a significant opportunity ahead in super-premium spirits for Chapel Down. We have chosen to develop products with a simplicity of style that we think will cut through the competing noise in these high-growth segments.

“Our winemaker has developed products that faithfully reflect the balance and refreshing taste profile of the grape varieties from which they are made.”


The link between wine and vodka doesn’t end there. Terroir has emerged as the latest trend to hit the vodka category. Claire Smith-Warner, head of spirit creation for Belvedere, has been flying the flag for terroir within vodka over the past year and it’s hard to argue with her reasoning.

According to Smith-Warner, the attraction of different flavour profiles began in Poland at the start of the 20th century, when locals would choose which vodka distillery they preferred rather than which brand. However, following WWII the Communist regime in Poland stifled its vodka production until 1989 when the most popular distilleries were able to create brands, giving birth to the likes of Belvedere.

This year, the Polish brand launched two single estate vodkas, in the same way a blended scotch whisky brand would release a single malt. Belvedere says it uses the same rye and yeast in both productions, meaning the flavour differences are down to the locations where its rye is grown – now there’s confidence in its terroir.

The brand took two of the seven estates which contribute to its base spirit and produced the two estate expressions; Lake Bartezek and Smogóry Forest. The vodkas are produced using Dankowskie Diamond rye, a rare grass often used in baking and patisseries.

Smith-Warner says that the Smogóry Forest estate, based in a small town in west Poland, has low-lying terrain which allows hotter, Atlantic air access the region. Also, the low PH scale of Polish soil puts stress on the Dankowskie Diamond rye when it grows, creating more distinctive flavours within its vodka. In contrast to this, the Lake Bartezek expression embraces different challenges. This estate sits in Poland’s version of the British Lake District, with nearly 2,000 lakes in the surrounding area. The protected region is the remains of an ancient glacier which has left behind moraines – mounds of glacial deposits which Smith-Warner claims has good granularity for Belvedere’s Dankowskie Diamond rye roots to grow.

During one of the seminars on terroir in Belevedere, Smith-Warner said: “One of the best things from our exploration of terroir is that we’re now being reassured about our original belief in 1993 that there is something distinctive about rye, where it comes from and who it’s grown by that has an impact on our vodka. Terroir is not a notable concept – perhaps it needs a rebrand as it can be misleading.”

William Borrell, founder and owner of Vestal, a potato-based Polish vodka, is another advocate for the presence of terroir. “Vodka is no longer just for shooting and mixing,” he says. “It’s like a dream come true to see people sipping certain vodkas. I want people to be exposed to different styles of vodkas and understand that some can be affected in the same way that wines are by terroir, not just in grain vodkas but potato and other styles.”

But Borrell’s obsession with terroir goes as far as labelling Vestal’s bottles with vintage years. Obviously there are likely to be some wine traditionalists who will challenge the idea, but as vodka expert and International Spirits Challenge judge Ian Wisniewski says, vodka flavours can be explored in the same way as wine, so long as you have a magnifying glass.

Ironically, the definition of vodka in the majority of countries around the world reads along the lines of: “An uncontaminated alcoholic beverage created from grain spirit or potato spirit, resulting in a product without distinctive character, aroma, or taste.” Either these definitions are wildly out of date and need reviewing, or terroir-rich vodkas may have to rebrand for different markets. But that’s an issue for next year.