The world’s best artisan vodkas

It's long had a reputation as a neutral spirit – great for mixing, but not a sipping drink. Now a new wave of producers is going back to the source to produce vodkas that showcase their raw ingredients – and harness greater character as a result

Words by David T. Smith

Famille Naud Distillery
It's a family affair at Famille Naud's distillery

Colourless, odourless, flavourless… vodka is often disparaged as lacking character, dismissed as tasting of nothing. While this may once have been true in some parts of the world, the view was not universal – and it is certainly not the state of things today.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, before the current gin boom, vodka was very much top dog, and producers at that time prized purity over everything else. Brands extolled the virtues of the natural water sources used to dilute their spirit, or the complicated systems of filtration – via fossils, diamonds, or gold – employed to purify the product.

More recently, there has been a reappraisal of the situation. Distillers are going back to basics and focusing on the thing that really matters: what is the vodka actually made from? And as they highlight and take more pride in the quality of their raw ingredients, so they are striving to ensure some of this character is left in the finished product.

Distillers are trying to go back to their roots, and produce vodka with a lot of character

As vodka expert and author of the upcoming book “Craft of Vodka” Veronika Karlova explains: “The world of vodka is very versatile. It’s not just about neutrality any more – distillers are trying to go back to their roots, and produce vodka with a lot of character, that will stand out from the crowd. We’re seeing the use of a wide spectrum of ingredients: wheat, barley, rye, corn, rice, potato, whey… and each of them delivers a different flavour profile.”

These more characterful vodkas are reminiscent of distillations from years gone by that would not have been highly rectified spirits made in towering column stills with dozens of plates. So while purity and neutrality can still be prized, it is now possible to embrace and enjoy some of the qualities of the base materials.

Potatoes – for a long time a staple of vodka production – provide earthy, fruity notes; skilfully handled, the resultant spirits can be incredibly complex and make great accompaniments to food. And what were previously seen as neutral grains, such as wheat and corn, popular because of their availability and yield, can also provide nuance: in the right hands, wheat yields a smooth pepperiness; corn, a gentle sweetness; and barley, a luxurious creamy note.

All were in evidence at this year’s IWSC, where the overall vodka trophy winner, from France’s Famille Naud, is wheat-based, while fellow Gold Outstanding medal-winners harness malted barley in the case of Tayport Distillery, and Corn (San Diego’s Cutwater). Tuscan Vodka from Chioccioli Altadonna, meanwhile, is distilled from grapes, which gives it a slightly floral and fruity character.

Tayport Distillery vodka Tasting

Vodka tasting at Tayport Distillery

This change of direction has led to a re-evaluation of how vodka can be enjoyed. Where once it was the base of sweet, fruity cocktails, it now finds a place in drinks where its flavours can be better sipped, savoured and appreciated. The label on the Vestal Vodka 2015 Vintage – a Gold medal-winner at this year’s IWSC – even states: “Drink it like you would your whisky over ice.” On the rocks is a brilliant way to enjoy the best vodkas: as the ice starts to melt, the dilution brings out the spirit’s nuances, while the light element of chill helps to soften its texture.

Playing around with the serving temperature of a vodka is a great way to explore the spirit. Whether a vodka is served at an ambient temperature, slightly chilled (from the refrigerator), or from the freezer can make a huge difference to its flavour and mouthfeel. Each variation brings different characteristics to the fore: vodka from the freezer has a thick and luscious texture and the warmth from the alcohol is dialled down. At room temperature, more of the spicy, peppered notes tend to come through, so it’s worth considering the dominant flavours of your chosen vodka when deliberating over how to serve it. Those profiled in the film and recommendations below showcase the diversity of both the base ingredients and the resultant character.

Click here for the top 20 British vodkas as judged in this year’s IWSC.