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Vodka Brands Galore

Crystal clear and no two alike Navigating the ice-cold world of super-premium vodka

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Story by Bre Hamilton

From James Bond to Carrie Bradshaw to the Saturday-night crowds at the latest chic lounge: everyone, it seems, is in love with vodka. Rarely consumed outside Europe until the 1950s, vodka is now the world’s most popular distilled beverage, easily outselling other hard liquors including rum, gin, whiskey, bourbon and tequila. This once-humble tipple, created by the distillation and filtration of a fermented substance such as grain, potatoes, beets or molasses, dates back to the early Middle Ages and has its origins in the “vodka belt” countries of central, eastern and northern Europe.

While those countries continue to consume more vodka per capita than elsewhere in the world, the United States is the epicentre of a new global market trend: the consumption of premium and super-premium vodkas. Were he to walk into Manhattan’s Waverly Inn this evening and order a cocktail, it would surely not be enough for James Bond to ask that his vodka martini be “shaken, not stirred”; he would be expected to request a super-premium vodka brand. While we don’t know Bond’s choice (for now, at least; product placement being what it is, the next film installment might reveal all) today’s discerning consumer has a full range of premium and super-premium vodkas from which to choose.

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The question is, how to choose? Vodka is a neutral spirit which under US and European law must have no distinctive aroma, character, colour or flavour. In theory, therefore, all vodkas should taste the same. Yet the variety of ways in which vodka can be distilled, the materials through which it can be filtered, the plant matter from which it is produced and even the water used in the distillation process may account for each brand’s distinctive smell, flavour, mouth-feel and aftertaste.

But that’s just the clear vodkas. While most vodkas are unflavoured, flavoured vodkas also enjoy a long tradition, either to improve their taste or for medicinal purposes. While red pepper, ginger, cinnamon and St. John’s Wort-flavoured vodkas date back centuries, today’s vanilla, pomegranate, espresso and other flavours account for most of the innovation in vodka production and the real source of growth and differentiation among consumers. So in the quest for the perfect drink, is merely choosing any premium or super-premium vodka, rather than a lower-priced brand, the answer? “Premium” and “super-premium” are not regulated categories; any vodka producer may use either designation.

As Nick Passmore reminds us in, “Despite all the hype and promotional gush about [super premium brands] using estate-grown potatoes and water from glacier-fed mountain streams, making vodka is ridiculously easy.” And highly profitable. Unlike whiskey or cognac production, vodka is simple, inexpensive and quick to make, requiring no oak barrels or long aging. The costs are low, the margins high, the brands elite: this perhaps might explain the sudden influx of such celebrity entries to the super premium market (recently estimated at $1.3 billion USD per year) as Donald Trump, Roberto Cavalli and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

What’s really responsible for the boom in premium and super-premium vodka, is, according to Passmore, is not what’s in the bottle but the bottle itself. Etched glass, edgy designs, eye-catching shapes and even celebrity designers (such as Frank Gehry for Wyborowa) are all called upon in the enormous—and yes, this part is costly—effort to position a brand as a status symbol in a gorgeous glass container

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Interestingly, the luxurious images and high price points set by the major distillers have paved the way for the next wave in high-end vodka: artisanal vodkas, hand-crafted by an ever-growing number of micro-distilleries. With consumers now willing to pay upwards of $50 for a bottle of super premium vodka by a major producer, tiny distillers such as Vermont Spirits (which distills a vodka from maple sap and was recently acquired by the behemoth Anheuser-Busch) and Washington State’s Dry Fly Distilling have been able to gain a cult following among the same in-the-know connoisseurs who previously brought Napa Valley wines, microbrewed lagers, and organic and artisanal food products into the mainstream. The answer, it seems, when it comes to choosing a super-premium vodka, is to look beyond the bottle and the hype and to simply taste, taste and taste again.

While the general rule is that super-premium vodkas tend to be smooth and full-tasting and are drunk straight or on the rocks, while premiums are suitable only for mixed drinks, only your palate can tell you which vodka distinguishes itself as your personal super-premium brand. Consider hosting an evening vodka-tasting party: purchase several brands of vodka, set out chilled shot glasses and platters of zakuski the pickles, blini, smoked fish, black bread, caviar and other Russian small-dishes which traditionally accompany sips of ice cold vodka then taste the vodkas blind. This way, the next time you find yourself at the bar of the Waverly Inn, shaken or stirred will prove your only difficult choice

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