Vodka is ditching its party animal image to reclaim a sense of place, writes Mike Bennie.
“Insipid stuff”, says one bartender. “Bland, boring, flavourless, odourless junk,” opines a high-end mixologist. “It’s a few degrees off anaesthetic, really,” says another bar dude. Vodka plainly has a bad rep.
The 1980s and ’90s saw vodka hit a high note. The fashion conscious, cocktail hungry hipsters of the era brought the neutral spirit to life with technicolour cocktails and a thirst for classy drinks with vodka baselines. Flavoured vodkas ‘infused’ with the spirit of various fruits and spices soon became part of this currency.
With vodka near unstoppable in bars and clubs, the early noughties saw a further rise of the once humble spirit. Sexy Stolichnaya ceded ground to the phenomenon of ‘super premium’ prestige labels like Grey Goose and Belvedere. These top tier brands found they’d gained ground by doing their best to sidle up to the bling-bling avarice of hip hop and exclusive night club culture, simultaneously embedding themselves in high-end fashion circles.
Luxury vodka brands themselves became fashion items of sorts, with vodka distilleries all vying for a place at the top with increasingly aspirational variations of their staple brands. Then, after hitting the apex, something shifted. While customers were name-checking their favourite brands, bartenders were feeling the fatigue and seeking out more interesting, complex spirits to fill their wells.
“People rag on vodka because there’s a bit of a stigma around it these days,” explains Bobby Carey, leading bartender and proprietor of Sydney bar Big Poppa’s. “Lots of bartenders hate having to serve it up as they kind of dislike those drinking it – the binge drinking culture around it – but I’m ok with it all. I don’t drink the stuff, but I support those that do.”
The rise of artisan vodka has been notable in recent years. Small batch distilleries using pure water sources and organic and locally farmed grains are creating products that show the character of their base ingredients and a sense of the place they emanate from.
Spirits distributor and importer Angus Burton was one of the early explorers of this new wave of vodkas. “Originally I was fascinated by the fact that artisanal vodka existed and it was made by people who fit into this global movement of going back to the source, using better quality ingredients and traditional production methods,” says Burton. “I kept finding that people were interested in products that were more authentic and had a definite identity.”
Burton’s collection of vodkas couldn’t be more diverse. “I think the heady days of the ’80s and ’90s where people aligned with a brand, particularly associated with celebrity culture, has done its dash. There can be a deeper story behind these vodkas that isn’t about brand building but capturing and utilising what is at hand to make delicious things from organic, sustainable sources.”
Amongst this culture shift are Australian artisan distilleries producing exceptional vodka worthy of any ‘premium’ title. William McHenry of McHenry Distillery is relatively new to the distilling community but has an exquisite site in southern Tasmania where he uses crystal clear water springs to produce one of Australia’s best vodkas.
“There is an art to making vodka,” says McHenry. “A good vodka is essentially clean and flavourless so it really gives us the opportunity to test our skills to create something so pure that it is almost characterless. Of course, that’s never going to be the case, and with fine vodkas you do see the personality of the produce and place they come from.”
Flavour and texture are paramount in great vodka, McHenry explains. “I get these vanilla notes – very subtle – with a little prickle of pepper alcohol. The feel of the vodka is important and in ours, I see silky layers on the palate. It’s a full experience. That’s where the class is.”
This artisan vodka is produced from red-skinned Asterix potatoes, resulting in earthy notes as well as suggestions of anise and citrus fruit. Sublime.
Hartshorn Distillery Sheep Whey Vodka
Grandvewe Cheeses are fine products in themselves and the remaining whey is used to create this wildly unique vodka. It’s a touch creamy in texture, with hints of vanilla and cream as a result. Complex and fascinating.
At first sip it’s as pure as driven snow, but as you settle into a neat nip it reveals subtle mineral characters and a lick of vanilla. It’s beautiful in its delicacy and effortless glide on the palate. It should make a superb dry martini.