A new trend is supposedly sweeping college campuses: "eyeballing" vodka. It consists of, much as you might dare to imagine, drinking a shot through your eyeball as a testament, presumably, to your tolerance to pain and alcohol and disregard for ocular and mental health. The trend is likely more of a media-hyped YouTube phenomenon than actual craze, but it still demonstrates how vodka is used these days: as not much more than a means to get drunk. Simply add it to any sugary juice or soda and—voila!—a relatively painless (until morning) way to get blitzed. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), vodka is an odorless, colorless, tasteless spirit, and among cocktail enthusiasts it has earned a reputation as the de facto drink of choice for those who don't like the taste of alcohol.
But not every vodka falls into the odorless, flavorless category. And not every bartender worth his salt belongs to the vodka-bashing brigade.
One of the least likely supporters of vodka's removal from cocktail blacklists is Jim Meehan of bacon-infused bourbon-peddling PDT in New York's East Village. He recently added the first vodka drink to his cocktail menu since opening the bar in 2007. It's made with Karlsson's Gold Swedish vodka, Carlshamns Flaggpunsch (a Swedish arrack), simple syrup, fresh dill, and black pepper essence. Meehan says he came to change his mind about vodka after traveling to Scandinavia and seeing how it was consumed there: straight and with food. He says Karlsson's is among the few vodkas he would use at his bar. At a recent tasting of Karlsson's Gold in Lower Manhattan, I overheard another spirits journalist ask, after sipping the vodka chilled and neat, what else was in his glass besides vodka. The answer, of course, was nothing.
Börje Karlsson, the master distiller of Karlsson's Gold, is known as the "father of Absolut" for his role in the creation of the mega brand. At the tasting, he said he wanted to produce a vodka that made use of his country's best virgin potatoes, which can be found on Cape Bjäre, a peninsula in Sweden's southernmost province. The distillery's marketing agency has dubbed the spuds "Sweden's golden grapes of the soil."
He noted: "We asked ourselves, 'If you use different types of potato and ferment them, will you have a different type of product?' I said, 'I don't know.'" The master distiller drank red wine while the rest of us sipped his vodka.
Karlsson experimented with several different breeds of potato, he said, each picked green and leafy, some no bigger than a quail's egg. It takes 171 pounds of new potatoes to produce a single bottle of Karlsson's Gold, versus 31 pounds of wheat for a bottle of Absolut. Distilled just once, as opposed to the multiple times touted by other vodkas, Karlsson's is designed to retain the essence of its original ingredient. The result is a lightly sweet yet also savory liquid with notes of earth, grass, and ripe fruit, and a certain creamy viscosity rarely associated with a pure distillate. The best way to understand how this is achieved is by tasting the individual parts of the final product. Like Scotch, Karlsson's is blended, in this case from seven different potato distillates made from Solist, Gammel Svensk Röd, Princess, Marine, Sankta Thora, Hamlet, and Celine potato varieties. For the past few years, the distillery has been bottling single-variety, vintage editions of the vodka, in the hopes of one day releasing them for sale to the public.
To hear Swedes discuss their vodka in terms of terroir feels like granting them an undue indulgence, until you try a vertical (chronological, by year) tasting of it. Solist, the base for Karlsson's, was earthy and yeasty with a touch of vanilla in 2004, but showed more fruit and spice in 2005. In 2006, the fruit was leaner and citrus came through. The Gammel Svensk Röd 2006 had its own character (was that a note of lingonberry I detected?); the Minerva 2004 was the starchiest and most pungent, perhaps to add backbone to the blend; and the Frieslander 2004 was sweeter and softer in tone, suggesting it may be used for overall roundness.
The vintage vodkas were indeed colorless, but their aromas and flavors certainly knocked them out of the running for qualifying as vodka by the ATF's standards. In fact, this is precisely the problem with releasing the single-variety vintage bottlings: that they might not qualify as vodka. They would likely be considered potato eau-de-vie, and the word vodka would probably have to be struck from the label. But would that be such a bad thing? "Premium vodka" has come to be associated with hyper-marketed, hyper-distilled neutral spirits that come in such over-designed vessels that they've become nothing more than status symbols for those who frequent VIP rooms and order bottle service. Karlsson's Gold, in its short, squat bottle meant to recall a potato, has little to do with its fellow premium brands. Even though it may be more vodka than any of them.