I've never been much of a mixer—at least not when it comes to hard liquor. I learned my lesson young, as most people do. But later, when I began to want actual flavor and even subtlety in what I drank, I saw a higher logic to "never mix, never worry." The peat smoke and toasted barley in a single-malt Islay whisky; the sweet corn and new-charred white oak in Tennessee whiskey; the pure pear perfume of Poire William, with the whole fruit miraculously preserved inside the bottle—why do anything but savor the spirit neat, or with a bit of water to make it bloom?
Distillers wield an impressive array of techniques and secret potions to make their liquors mysteriously deep-flavored. They age them for years in barrels to achieve rich caramel color and complex flavors. But what of clear liquors that are often meant to be the basis of a martini or a gimlet—or the inexplicably popular vinyl-pink cosmopolitan? What, specifically, of vodka, the liquor I relied on in college for its minimal aftereffects?
Vodka is supposed to be flavorless. According to the official U.S. government definition, it is a neutral spirit "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." A good vodka or gin is considered to be one without the harsh, rubbing-alcohol fumes of ethanol, which can be overpowering in a high-proof clear liquor. Gin has an herbal base that effectively masks the ethanol: its chief component is juniper berries, whose principal use in the kitchen, after all, is to camouflage gaminess. It was logical for gin makers to cash in on the "premium" and "super-premium" craze and promote their own exclusive blends of roots and herbs. Vodka was a less likely candidate.
Stolichnaya paved the way, as William Grimes recounts in his witty Straight Up or on the Rocks (2001). By 1976 vodka had overtaken gin and whiskey as the top-selling spirit in this country—a position it has mostly continued to hold in the nearly three decades since. But Stolichnaya stumbled after the Soviet downing of Flight 007, in 1982, hurt sales of Russian products and left a ready market for the Swedish premium-priced Absolut. (Like "colossal" as applied to olives, "premium" and "super-premium" have little immediately discernible meaning. The general rule is that vodkas costing $20 to $25 a bottle are premium, $25 and up super-premium.) In the late 1980s I visited the Absolut factory, in a particularly beautiful part of southern Sweden near Malmö. The news then was flavorings like citron and pepper, which lent themselves to Absolut's colorful Pop Art—influenced ads. Flavorings made a virtue of the need to soften the harshness of nearly pure alcohol, and captured a big new market. But on my visit I came to appreciate qualities my guides never emphasized: the texture and taste of unflavored vodka.
Every vodka does have a flavor, I discovered, and the base ingredient determines it. Vodka can be made from any starch or sugar that will ferment into alcohol. It originated (in Poland or Russia, depending on who's writing the history) as a rustic homemade spirit distilled from any sugar source at hand, such as beets or molasses; the ethanol was masked by honey, pepper, citrus peel, and the like. With the arrival of industrial stills and charcoal filters, in the early 1800s, the defining technique became the filtering and dilution of 190-proof alcohol into a smoother but still potent liquor, usually 80 proof.
When I returned from Scandinavia, I began tasting many kinds of vodka, and found potato vodka to be the cleanest-tasting; examples are the reigning Chopin, pure and fiery, and Glacier. If I had to drink straight shots at, say, a Russian meeting where the rule of no eating after the first round was being observed, I would want them to be a good potato vodka—even though the Russians, surprisingly, scorn it.
Most vodkas, in Russia and elsewhere, are distilled not from potatoes but from grains. Few grains can compare with wheat for balance and sweetness (as I discovered again when sampling many small-batch bourbons). Rye, for example, is a bit rough and sour to my taste, whether in whiskey or in vodka (Belvedere and Wyborowa are rye vodkas).
But it is exotic flavorings, with exotic variant spellings (kurant, peppar), that have kept market attention on high-priced vodkas—along with frosted and odd bottles. None of this has much to do with the way the vodka is distilled, the quality of the ingredients, or whether it is what to my mind would actually merit a "super-premium" designation: something produced in small quantities under close supervision, using local ingredients.
The rise of connoisseur vodkas opened an unexpected vista to two artisan distillers, Ansley Coale and Jörg Rupf, who inhabit two corners of northern-California paradise. Coale redefined American brandy with his Germain-Robin, distilled from the best Mendocino County wines that he and Hubert Germain-Robin, the descendant of a long line of French cognac producers, can find. Germain-Robin is aged in barrels in the matchless climate of far northern California, and critics regularly call it the best in the world (see my "Don't Call It Cognac," December 1995 Atlantic). Rupf, too, is descended from generations of distillers, in his case makers of Alsatian eau de vie; he has pursued his inherited art in Alameda, in the Bay Area next to Oakland. His Aqua Perfecta eaux de vie, distilled from raspberries, pears, cherries, and other fruit that is never processed or even refrigerated, are highly regarded here and more so in Europe.
Until a few years ago Coale and Rupf had never worked together, but they shared a great deal. Both made their reputations by practicing a hallowed European craft to transform top-quality California ingredients in European artisan stills, giant copper contraptions that look like something from Jan van Eyck or Hieronymus Bosch. Both received rapturous reviews and numerous awards. And both had more and more trouble getting their products into liquor stores.
The network of family-run liquor distributors that prevailed in the United States into the 1980s has largely disappeared. As in many other businesses, consolidation and corporate ownership are in the ascendant; as a result, ties to local communities and the ability to gamble on a small brand have been lost. Salespeople work on commission, and it is rarely worth their time to talk up an eau de vie likely to sell a few bottles at best. However exalted their quality, Germain-Robin and Aqua Perfecta are niche products, relegated to the bottom of a distributor's list. With the increasing consolidation of liquor distributors (some states have just two or three), Coale and Rupf were seeing their products fall off lists altogether.
Vodka, of course, is at the top of any list. And artisan, or at least artisan-style, vodkas were commanding high prices. In the mid-1990s the success of Belvedere and the French Grey Goose, with its brandylike toffee flavor and plum aftertaste, showed that people would pay $30 a bottle for vodka. The Dutch Ketel One—sweet, with an indistinct but pleasant flavor, a syrupy texture, and a challah aftertaste—claims to be produced in "pot," or single-batch, stills like the ones Coale and Rupf use. (Industrial producers use continuous "column" stills, which require far less supervision and produce a far less focused reflection of the fruit, grain, herbal infusion, or wine being distilled.) Cîroc, a French vodka made from grapes (and thus really an eau de vie), and Citadelle, a French vodka made from wheat, come with similar claims and sell for similarly high prices. The claims are somewhat mysterious, given the prohibitive cost of single-batch distilling in large quantity.