Flavorless No More

Small batch by small batch, the makers of a new artisanal vodka have tapped into the market for America's best-selling spirits

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.

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Corby Kummer, a senior editor of The Atlantic, is the author of The Pleasures of Slow Food and The Joy of Coffee. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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