Haters Gonna Hate, but Craft Vodka Is on the Rise
As the most popular style of spirit in the U.S., vodka doesn’t need to prove itself to anyone. But a growing number of distillers are showing skeptics that there's so much more to the spirit than meets the eye. Here are the distillers to know and the bottles to try.
In discussing craft spirits, connoisseurs don’t often mention vodka. Why would they? The liquor is loosely defined as flavorless, odorless and colorless. Although the category far outsells all forms of whiskey, tequila, Cognac and rum, it has long struggled to be taken seriously. Enter the handful of modern producers that are dedicating themselves to shedding that stigma, once and for all. Here’s who they are and what they’re doing to carry craft vodka into the conversation.
In order to strip out all its off-flavors, vodka is distilled to a very high proof. The process usually involves massive, costly equipment — column stills several stories in height, rectifiers, condensers. As a result, the overwhelming majority of vodkas on the market today are birthed industrially. In the U.S., the liquid often comes from the same agricultural facilities producing ethanol fuel out of corn. Individual brands source this alcohol — known as neutral grain spirit — and run it through smaller equipment, filtering it and proofing it down with local water before it’s bottled. It isn’t elegant. It’s just efficient.
One obvious — and time-consuming — way to stand out is to make your spirit from scratch. That’s the approach taken by Nikka with its Coffee Grain Vodka, released in 2017. “We distill several different kinds of distillates — some from corn, others from barley — and then blend them together,” explains Naoki Tomoyoshi, in charge of business development for the prominent Japanese brand. “The combination creates a smooth, creamy texture. It has a malty, soft sweetness and a citrus zest from the corn. It carries flavors, rather than diluting flavors in a cocktail.”
Mouthfeel is a vital point of distinction in vodka. And because it can be made from virtually any raw ingredient, there’s a wide range of textures to play with. The craftier entrants into the category are taking full advantage of this freedom. Perhaps none more so than Black Cow. It’s the only vodka in the world made solely from milk, on a dairy farm in West Dorset, England.
“It’s an incredibly smooth vodka with a unique creamy character,” says co-founder Paul Archard. “These qualities are a direct result of the vodka’s sole ingredient being just grass grazed cow’s milk. The soft and rounded mouthfeel of Black Cow comes from the fact that our vodka has a very low mineral content.”
But don’t expect the liquid — produced from whey — to impart any sort of cheesiness. All the lactose (and color) is removed during distillation. What’s left in a gold-capped bottle is a satin-like liquid surprisingly well-suited to sipping. Adds Archard: “We drink Black Cow chilled over ice and with slightly more effort we often make a Twisted Cow or Dirty Cow, our take on the classic martini.”
Reyka lands a similar drinking experience not by what they put into the liquid, but by what they take out. The Icelandic vodka is heated into vapor before passing through porous volcanic rock. When it returns to liquid, it’s filtered through basalt a second time. It’s then joined by some of the purest spring water on the planet, to form a remarkably clean, easy-drinking spirit with a clear sense of place.
Our/Vodka is hoisting its craft banner entirely upon a sense of places. Plural. It’s a growing network of micro-distilleries currently operating six separate outposts across the globe. The newest location in New York just became the first commercial distillery in Manhattan since Prohibition.
“Each distillery sources their ingredients as locally as possible without ever compromising on the quality,” says Vincent Horeau, Chief Technical Officer. “At all the Our/Vodka distilleries the vodka is partly distilled, blended in small batches and hand-bottled onsite.”
In Austin, Texas, Deep Eddy also prides itself on small batch production. “Our batches are 2,000 gallons, which is extremely small for spirits brands of our size,” says Matt Pechman, a spokesman for the eight-year-old company. “We like it that way, as it gives us control over the entire process to make sure each batch is of the highest quality.”
They’ve developed a strong following with a wide stable of naturally flavored releases. While that particular style of liquor doesn’t typically inspire gravitas, Deep Eddy has changed the game by incorporating real ingredients (clover honey, cranberries, citrus fruit) into their liquids as opposed to artificial sweeteners. “Bartenders want brands that have provenance and authenticity,” adds Pechman. “Vodka also provides more of an open palette for bartenders to paint with. So you are seeing more and more vodka cocktails on menus in craft cocktail bars.”
As the most popular style of spirit in the United States, vodka doesn’t need to prove itself to anyone. Nonetheless, a growing number of distillers want to do just that. And for those intent on dismissing the entire category as unserious, an exceeding number of examples are exposing the folly of such stereotypes. In the conversation of craft, vodka’s giving them something to talk about.
Bottles to Try:
Absolut Elyx ($40)
High-end Swedish vodka distilled in copper stills and made from estate-grown winter wheat.
Black Cow ($30)
‘Pure Milk Vodka’ distilled on a dairy farm in the west English countryside. Creamy and smooth, ideal for sipping on the rocks.
Nikka Coffey Grain Vodka ($33)
This clean blend of malted barley and corn distillate is filtered through white birch charcoal for an incredibly delicate, slightly sweet drinking experience.
Cut with pure Icelandic spring water and filtered through volcanic rock sourced from the island, this is one of the easiest drinking, most sustainably produced spirits on the market.
Prairie Organic ($20)
A gentle sipper, showcasing summer fruit on the palate it’s distilled entirely from organic corn grown on Minnesota farms.