Vodka is simple. You could, as one Web enthusiast points out, make it yourself by mixing drugstore ethyl alcohol (avoiding deadly methyl) with distilled water and a little glycerin—now there's some bathtub fun!
The plain nature of vodka explains its need for exquisite marketing and packaging, as well as constant twists on its basic manufacture: I've recently seen vodka made with soy isolates, vodka made from snap-frost French grapes and vodka that is certified organic. At least one brand is distilled five times and filtered nine times, reflecting the fetish for purity that drives the business: purest buzz, most pristine hangover.
But I come to pour vodka, not bury it. There is a place for this drink: the coldest corner of the deep freezer. When the heavy bottle is superbly frosted and the contents a bit thickened, vodka pours into a martini glass like a syrup of the gods—it's what Thor put on his pancakes before taking up his hammer. It coats the inside of the glass and runs down in glistening rivulets. Vodka drunk this way isn't exactly a martini—only gin makes a true martini—but it is a pure meditation on the pleasures and perils of the unmediated CH3CH2OH molecule: clinical, clear, powerful, basic. Veteran tasters claim to find many flavors and aromas from vodka to vodka, but to my palate the good ones range from the ultrasmooth and round to the more bitter and almost rough—and I prefer the latter.
Flavoring vodka with spice or fruit is a centuries-old tradition (bison grass and even garlic have been used). Recently, though, there has been a wave of exotic infusions; where mandarin sufficed, now it's Buddha's Hand Citron; where black currants, now French sour apple. These fancy flavors often end up in complicated cocktails. (Some Manhattan barmen have come entirely unglued, making drinks with fantastically long and nutty ingredient lists. Anyone for a house-infused pommelo vodka with quince syrup, melon liqueur, a bing cherry, Chambord, Everclear, gold foil, champagne, soy milk and a Nicorette?)
My tasting of flavored vodkas was far simpler: into the deep freeze for twenty-four hours, then into a martini glass and down the hatch. Would flavoring bring anything to the party or just mask the drink's pure kick?Herewith, nine flavored vodkas, best drunk icy cold and neat.
From Hangar One, a boutique distiller in California, comes Buddha's Hand Citron Vodka ($38). Flavored with a bizarre citrus that looks like a clump of yellow, warty carrots, it has a gorgeous aroma. Buddha's Hand Citron smells of lemon peel and blossoms, with a lemon tang and a slightly woody flavor that isn't too sweet. Among the citrus vodkas, this is a standout.
Grey Goose Le Citron ($35) is one of the most balanced flavored vodkas I've tasted: fresh lemon-peel zing in the aroma and on the tongue. Who knew the French made such good vodka?(See sidebar on the unflavored Ciroc.) Unlike some of the rest, this one tastes more like a vodka than like a high-test liqueur.
Hangar One Kaffir Lime ($38), a spirit inflected with the lime whose leaves are the source of the distinctive grassy, citrus flavor of certain Thai dishes, carries a flavor often left out of westernized Thai kitchens. This vodka has an aggressive lime-confection character without much exotic kaffir quality. If the thought of eighty-proof lime sorbet appeals to you, here's your drink.
Don't be put off by the vivid green-apple-candy aroma of Citadelle Apple Vodka ($33), from the French makers of the superior, complex, spicy Citadelle gin. It is exceptionally smooth and ultradrinkable, perhaps because it's distilled five times—pretty much an appletini in a bottle.
OP ($22), from the Absolut empire, is a vodka flavored with aquavit spices plus orange, peach and ginger. I associate aquavit with some very good times with Swedish friends that variously involved singing, maypoles, the glint of sun on the North Atlantic and a certain feeling that at any moment public nudity would break out. Real aquavit is a rich, sweet, spicy drink that needs the freezer to keep it from being too unctuous. OP leverages the aquavit style in a smartly designed bottle aimed at stylish bar crowds. Its dominant aroma is orange, its flavor sweetly spicy, like an orange spice cake. I like it, though I still prefer OP Anderson Aquavit.
The notion behind Dirty Olive ($25) is to infuse American vodka with the tang of the so-called dirty martini, but the effect is overdone. The result is so strong on olive flavor that drinking it is like swigging the pickling juice from the bottom of the cocktail-olive jar.
Perhaps it's the cranberry color, but I had to get past some cough-medicine associations before I could enjoy Soomska ($22), an ashberry-flavored vodka. Infused with the fruit of the mountain ash, Soomska is tangy, not sweet, and has a nice tart finish.
Imagine a drink for Russian chocoholics: a fudgesicle set on fire. That's Kremlyovskaya Chocolate Vodka ($25): alcohol wallop and a persistent mild, creamy chocolate flavor, but not overly sweet, with a remarkable chocolaty nose. I'm surprised to say I rather liked it. But the nyet effect of its polar opposite, Stolichnaya Vanilla Vodka ($27), was less salutary. To me, Stoli vanilla smells industrial-buttery, like the inside of a microwave popcorn bag. That impression dominates though the label claims genuine Madagascar and Indonesian vanilla are used. Taste?Imagine slurping vanilla pudding in a sanitarium.
Do these vodkas belong in your home bar?I say yes. There is no question that flavored vodka has a girls'-night-out reputation, but this scotch-neat partisan likes the octane and flavor of the best of the bunch in their pure, ice-syrup state. They sit somewhere between the martini and the fruity cocktail, and that's a fine place for a slow-sipping summer evening.
A Very Vine Vodka
Everyone in my Wednesday poker group who tried Ciroc—including a die-hard Stoli-rocks fan—enjoyed the new French vodka distilled from "snap frost" grapes. These "precious grapes," the distiller says, are "picked late in the season, at the time of the first snap frost, to capture their crisp and complex essence." Well, frozen grapes do have plenty of sugar, as ice-wine makers know, and sugar is what you need to make vodka. Hell, you could probably make vodka from Gummi Bears. The unflavored Ciroc does not taste grape-y the way that Calvados, distilled from apples, tastes apple-y; five distillations wring out most of its native flavor. Still, out of the freezer it's delicious, almost ginlike, slightly sweet and perfumed, with a touch of the back-of-throat harshness I like in vodka: interesting and complex rather than ghostly smooth.