The craft spirit world is cottoning on to the attributes of well-made vodka, a spirit so simple yet so complex in the passion it generates. We take a look at vodka’s origins, its virtues and the new wave of folk who are embracing it
Words by Nikki Birrell
Vodka is made from potatoes and comes from Russia, right? That’s the common assumption about this famed distilled clear spirit, however the story of its origin is a lot more murky. What we do know is that the word itself comes from the Slavic word for water, voda. Its production has been attributed to both Poland and Russia as early as the 8th and 9th centuries. And, yes, vodka can be made from potatoes but the majority in production today isn’t and it certainly wasn’t originally made from them, as potatoes only turned up in Europe in the 16th century. (Pictured below, Barman Brendon Smith pours a vodka in the frozen interior of the Minus 5 Ice Bar on Princes Wharf in Auckland)
Most modern vodka is grain-based, using rye, wheat or corn, though molasses, grapes, rice, sugar beets and even milk whey can be used. Understanding how vodka is made helps to explain why the source can be so varied. The base ingredient is used for fermentation, the process of which produces ethanol (alcohol) but vodka is distilled, purified and filtered, making it a neutral spirit, meaning it doesn’t necessarily carry much distinctive aroma, taste or colour. It is often distilled at least three times, for purity, though some many more. After distillation, the vodka is filtered, often through charcoal, and then cut with water to dilute its alcohol, usually to around 40 per cent.
While it is a neutral spirit, the base does affect the product in subtly perceptible ways: potato vodkas are said to be creamier and fuller; wheat vodkas may contain subtle aniseed or peppery characteristics; rye vodkas could impart a nutty sweetness; while vodkas made from grapes may have a slight citrus zest character. The purity of the water used can affect the flavour profile too.
The countries most associated with vodka are known as the “vodka belt”, which comprises Russia (Moscow’s Red Square pictured above), Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. But there’s no denying the predominant association of vodka to Russia, where the spirit is an inseparable part of social life. There, vodka is almost always served as a shot, downed in one, preceded by a toast, and usually with tapas-like snacks, such as pickles, herrings, boiled potatoes and black bread (pictured below). It is served cold, often straight from the freezer, which isn’t just about masking some of that alcoholic heat; it also makes the vodka thicker giving it a more pleasantly rich mouthfeel. Of course, if straight isn’t your thing, vodka is the perfect mixer and is a key ingredient in many famous cocktails.
Vodka in the New World
In Russia, vodka is drunk everywhere, as a means to break down inhibitions, create a conviviality – known as dusha-dushe, meaning soul to soul – and is also credited with curative capabilities. It is perhaps this romanticised perspective that has created a renewed interest. New Zealand is no exception, with a raft of producers turning out some exceptional examples.
Dancing Sands vodka made by Ben and Sarah Bonoma in beautiful Golden Bay (above, left), was awarded a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits competition in 2017 for its crisp, clear example, attributed to the pure water used from the nearby Te Waikoropupu Springs. Cardrona Distillery in the South Island (above, second left) has produced The Reid, a fresh, clean spirit made from a lesser-used vodka grain, malt. This malt, along with alpine water and seven distillations, is said to produce a super smooth drinking experience, with a distinctive biscuit aroma on the nose and hints of banana and caramel on the palate. Karven (above, centre), a craft distillery in Riverhead, Auckland, has produced their own take on “starka”, a sweeter style that hails from Eastern Europe. The amber-hued spirit is infused with manuka honey and kawakawa. Broken Shed (above, second right), from the lower South Island, uses whey to distill their pure New Zealand vodka, which results in a smooth and well-balanced example. However, before all these brands broke into the local market, there was 42 Below (above, right) – the vodka created by Geoff Ross, on a bit of a whim as the story goes, that ended up internationally renowned and highly awarded at all the major spirits competitions. It pioneered vodka production in New Zealand. Now owned by Bacardi, it is a staple on drinks shelves.
Vdka 6100 Triple Distilled
Made near Lake Taupo, this vodka is made from whey with a taste that hints at citrus and white pepper and is ultra smooth. RRP$69.99, 750ml
This Swedish wheat vodka is 100 per cent natural: rich, and complex, yet smooth and mellow with a grain character followed by a hint of dried fruit. RRP$35.99, 700ml
This brand originated from Holland but is now US-based. It has a crisp lively tingle to its flavour, a silky soft texture and a long finish. RRP$57.99, 700ml
As the name suggests, this is one of Finland’s vodka offerings. It’s a superbly clean example with a pleasing grainy character on the palate and a faint bread dough sweetness. RRP$40.99, 1L
Founded in Moscow by Ivan Smirnov, now it’s produced in America. Delivers subtle charcoal and black pepper aromas and a faint peppermint freshness on the palate. RRP$42.99, 1L
This corn vodka, from Texas, is made in old-fashioned pot stills. It’s certified gluten-free and has sweet, corn, oily and black pepper flavour notes. RRP$57.99, 750ml
Quadruple distilled and triple filtered, this wheat-based vodka delivers a dry, medium body with creamy mouthfeel and coriander and anise notes with a faint peppery finish. RRP$46.99, 1L
This is Russia’s premium vodka with a delicious bready aroma, a rich mouthfeel and a super smooth taste with hints of herbs, caramel and mint. RRP$39.99, 1L